A few weeks ago, Christian König received an email. It had been sent by a former security guard for the German soccer club FC Schalke 04. While working, he had collected match-worn jerseys from players and now wanted to get rid of them. He remembered Mr. König, who was agog at such a stroke of luck and paid €600 for 19 jerseys. The plunder brought his collection up to 1,202 shirts with a total value he estimates at €35,000 to €45,000.
Soccer jerseys is a market that has flourished, and is only continuing to do so. When Mr. König began collecting in the 1980s, he contacted clubs that were changing sponsors or suppliers at the end of the season. They had no use for the old shirts and were happy to have them taken off their hands.
Today the niche has become a lucrative business. “There is a global market for soccer jerseys. Not only in Europe, but also North America and Asia,” said Wolfgang Fuhr, auctioneer and managing director at the sports auction house Agon Sportsworld.
Some collectors have just a few jerseys, but each with high material value. Others such as Mr. König collect everything, even jerseys from local leagues where items are worth squat. Not all collectors decorate their living rooms with their spoils.
“For some, a jersey is like a bar of gold,” said Mr. Fuhr. “They store it in a safe.”
Meanwhile clubs and companies have recognized the great potential. “Soccer is far more than what occurs on the field. You can’t get closer to a player than his jersey,” said Philipp Bohner, head of auctioning at the portal sport-auktion.de, which is run by the Munich firm Sportnex.
Serious cash is to be made. In 2002, Christie’s auctioned the Pele’s jersey from the legendary 1970 World Cup Final for €260,000 – still the record today. The most expensive sale with regard to German soccer was a jersey worn in 1930 by former national team player Richard Hofmann. It changed hands for €21,000.
This summer, auction house Sotheby’s sought to break the record of its rival and offered the 1966 World Cup final jersey of England player Geoff Hurst starting at £300,000 ($373,300). Mr. Hurst scored three goals in that game – including the legendary “Wembley goal.” Surprisingly, bidding didn’t reach the starting offer. But the auction was still a testament a hardcore hobby with sky-high prices.
Sportnex receives items directly from soccer clubs with certificates of authenticity. This is important considering the attraction for counterfeiters. Cheap fakes from Asia have long been around, but these days swindlers are more professional. They buy old material and add traces of use to simulate match-worn jerseys.
“Today it’s hard to tell what is or isn’t an original jersey,” said Mr. König. “If someone offers me an original, my first response is not to believe him.”
Mr. Fuhr added that it is impossible to identify all fakes. Even experts sometimes struggle. During last summer’s European Championship, the auctioneer was visited by an Argentinian businessman who showed him a match-worn jersey from Diego Maradona that had been purchased from an Israeli national team player.
Mr. Fuhr was convinced of its authenticity, but the customer didn’t believe him. As proof, he had a photograph from the game showing Mr. Maradona in a short-sleeved jersey. Mr. Fuhr’s jersey, however, was long-sleeved. He remained uncertain until he found a picture of Mr. Maradona from the same game in a long-sleeved jersey. The player had changed during halftime.
Potential buyers should still be cautious. Examining a jersey’s basic characteristics can go a long way. “I was once offered a jersey from Mesut Özil, sized XL. That cannot be right,” Mr. König said. Mr. Özil is 5’9″. Another time, a seller sang the praises of a blue-and-black jersey from Inter Milan that was supposedly worn during a Champions League game against FC Schalke 04. But Inter Milan played in white jerseys on that day.
Photographs are of the utmost importance when it comes to consultation. If the jersey is dirty, it helps to compare the traces of wear on the jersey with those on the picture from a particular game.
“The price is two to three times higher for (a jersey with) a complete chain of proof.”
“The price is two to three times higher for (a jersey with) a complete chain of proof,” said Mr. Fuhr.
This is factored into the value and prices of online sales portals like sport-auktion.de. “Customers can be sure of getting only originals from us,” said Mr. Bohner.
An authentic jersey doesn’t necessarily have to be valuable. Buyers should distinguish between fan jerseys, match-prepared and match-worn jerseys. Fan jerseys sold by clubs are produced in the millions. Someone who purchases a jersey in a fan shop today won’t be able to sell it in a few years for profit.
The same is true for match-prepared jerseys. Before a match, two jerseys are prepared for each player. They mostly have additional features and are made of expensive fabric. In contrast to match-worn jerseys, however, they aren’t worn by players.
“That is a dubious investment,” Mr. Bohner said.
Special jerseys are much more valuable. However, the jersey has to have been worn in a game.
“That’s the basic prerequisite,” Mr. Fuhr said. “And it must come from a good game and a good player. In that case, the jersey is a valuable investment.”
But according to the expert, this could all change. “As long as soccer is followed with the same enthusiasm as today, jerseys are a secure investment,” Mr. Fuhr said. “But if soccer someday sinks into a swamp of money, it would be time to sell.”
Soccer jerseys is a market not just defined by dollar signs, but perhaps more importantly, also sentimental value. Hanging in Mr. Bohner’s office is a jersey once worn by Gladbach player Martin Stranzl in a Champions League game. “I wouldn’t sell it for all the money in the world,” he said.
Mr. König is sometimes asked by his wife what he would do if a sheik were to offer him a million euros for a jersey. The question perplexes him.
“I really don’t know,” he said. On the one hand, he knows how much money that is. On the other hand, he recalls the stories behind every single one of his prized possessions. Up to now, he hasn’t received such an offer – and he is quite alright with that.
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