Yesterday I attended for the first time an auction which was at Christies for the sale of the shoes in which Roger Bannister ran the first sub 4 minute mile at Iffley Road on May 6th 1954 . I am not that familiar with the sports memorabilia world either so I prepped with Alice Mansfield on auction sales and Ivan Conway on the memorabilia market.
Alice said that the main thing to note about an auction sale at a well known house like Christies or Sotheby’s is there is a premium to both buyer and seller of 25% up to £50000 and 20% above that. Of course they have marketing and catalogue costs but this seems a hell of a lot to me. Ivan advised that athetics’ sports memorabilia is not so sought as in football or cricket but if there is one record every one knows its Roger Bannister’s breaking of the four minute mile. He thought that the reserve price of £30-50000 was if anything an underestimate.
So I pitched up at Christies, South Kensington. I had to register which I did with an employee with a clipped German accent. I had checked the requirements of identity but I was told I would have to produce bank statement to acquire a paddle to bid. I showed her balance on the mobile app and she approved me officiously. I had detected an air of superciliousness on arrival, posh young girls busying themselves with a self-important air to which I took intuitive dislike. Along one side were seated such girls who kept in touch by phone, and another by internet, with bidders. The auction was held in an open space which surprised me as I would have thought there would be more atmosphere in a closed room. The auctioneer was a slim woman with a Thames Estuary rather than Eton Bridge accent. I rather took to her as she went through the lots briskly. The auction was entitled “Out of the Ordinary” and gosh they was some extraordinary stuff: skeletons, pin ball machines, a silver bat. Three items, which carried a warning, of erotica caught my eye: a graphic oil of a menage a trois, a chastity belt and a sculptor of a phallus and testicles presented to Stanley Kubrick by the head of Warners. I thought the latter would make a fantastic Xmas present for Daphne Colthard but it went for £26,000. I wondered how the auctioneer would react to all of this but she treated these items as just another lot. The auctioneer had rather an appealing way of looking directly at bidder, dropping her arms over the dais to entice a higher bid. Just before lot 100, the big one, she handed over the gavel to a posher bouffant haired auctioneer to preside over the shoes. Substantial bids had already been deposited but these were soon exceeded by bids in the room and on the phone. I had the impression that the phone bidder would acquire the shoes at whatever cost. The hammer fell at £220,000 without the premium. This seems exorbitant for an item that yields no income in an uncertain type of market.
I have read SIr Roger BannIster’s book on breaking the record The First Four Minutes and I was struck that as he was a genuine amateur pursuing a medical career that he did not train like modern athlete. Indeed he was working in St Mary’s Hospital on the morning of the day he broke the record. In his relatively short career which did not contain Olympic golds, he only competed in the Helsinki Games of 1952 he was criticised for his lack of competition and preference for training on his own. He had the last laugh but I bet he never thought that these small cracked black leather shoes would fetch such a price 61 years later.