For Love of the Game: The 6 Most Expensive Sports Memorabilia Pieces
One-of-a-kind sports memorabilia is the ultimate score for wealthy investors like billionaire Jim Irsay. Here are six sports collectibles that scored millions.
Updated Mar 18, 2023
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Long Term Growth
The sports collectibles market has grown since the pandemic caused interest in the hobby to skyrocket. Billionaires like Jim Irsay have redefined collectible investing with multi-million dollar purchases that would've been unheard of a few years ago. It's estimated that the global sports memorabilia market will be worth $227.2 billion by 2032, up from $26.1 billion in 2021.
The value of sports collectibles is increasing, and the categories of collectibles are expanding—from NFTs to figurines like Funko Pops to vintage uniforms, we're well beyond just baseball cards.
That's not to say that the right baseball card won't pay off. Even with the Honus Wagner baseball card fetching millions of dollars in 2022, the highest-priced sports cards may be yet to come. Data shows that six-figure sales of sports cards increased 10% year-over-year in Q3 of 2022.
There are many amazing pieces available for you to invest in right now, whether you want to add them to your personal collection or just buy a few shares.
It's evident that sports cards are an excellent store of value because prices remained stable throughout the three most recent market crashes, but collecting is more than an inflation hedge for many hobbyists. Collectors are also drawn to items and artifacts from historical moments and beloved players.
While collectors who purchase these items are likely motivated by the joy and prestige of owning a piece of sports history, investors can buy fractional shares in those assets as a way of betting on either their value increasing or fielding a million-dollar buyout.
Those huge sales can pay off for investors and raise collectors' spirits, and there have been plenty of record-smashing prices on sports memorabilia. We put together a list of the most expensive sports collectibles—not including cards—ever to sell.
The Top 6 Most Expensive Sports Memorabilia Pieces
The Top 6 Most Expensive Sports Memorabilia Pieces
From jerseys worn by legends like Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan to rare documents that provide records of sports history, here are the six most expensive sports keepsakes.
6. James Naismith's 1891 Rules of Basketball ($4.3 million)
Some great things have come out of Canada: maple syrup, peanut butter, Trivial Pursuit. We even owe the advent of basketball to a man from the Great North.
In 1890, Dr. James Naismith left his job at McGill University in Montreal to teach physical education at the YMCA School in Springfield, Massachusetts. Naismith's students were restless when stuck indoors during New England winters with no football or lacrosse. The school's head of physical education gave Naismith two weeks to create an indoor game that would entertain and calm his rowdy students.
To minimize physical contact between players, Naismith imagined a sport with elevated goals, passing instead of tackling, and a large, bouncy ball to prevent damage and injuries. The players broke into a fight during the first game, resulting in many black eyes, a dislocated shoulder, and one KO. Naismith revised his rules to forbid running while holding the ball and call foul on physical contact, and the rest is history.
James Naismith's 1891 rules for basketball.
The Naismith International Basketball Foundation put the original rules document up for auction at Sotheby's in New York to raise money for the Naismith charity. The buyers, David and Suzanne Booth, gifted the historical document to the University of Kansas, where Naismith coached for 40 years. David Booth, a KU graduate and avid donor to the athletics department, purchased the rules to honor Naismith's KU legacy.
The $4.3 million sale beat the 1999 title-holder for most expensive sports memorabilia: the $3 million baseball that set Mark McGwire's single-season home run record.
Historic documents like Naismith's rules make for interesting investment assets because of their scarcity and backstories. The Rally investment app offers fractionalized shares in valuable assets like this one, including a 1776 broadside of the Declaration of Independence valued at $2.9 million. Investors can purchase shares for as little as $2 and sell them any time on the Rally marketplace.
5. Babe Ruth 1928-30 jersey ($5.64 million)
There's no one more recognized and celebrated in major league baseball than Babe Ruth. The Sultan of Swat held the record for career home runs for nearly 40 years and catapulted the New York Yankees into a century of ruling the game. It's no wonder Babe Ruth rookie cards are worth up to $2.5 million.
The Great Bambino's other memorabilia is highly valued, too. In 2019, the Ruth family and Hunt Auctions organized a live auction of the baseball legend's never-before-traded artifacts. Among the 400 items was Babe Ruth's jersey worn from 1928 to 1930 which sold for $5.64 million (over $1 million more than his previous record-setting jersey price).
The auction was held at Yankee Stadium, famously known as "the house that Babe Ruth built." The collection of the Babe's personal artifacts brought in around $8.1 million in total.
Rare one-of-a-kind items like worn jerseys and record-breaking balls are often found at Goldin Auctions—like the $360,000 jersey Derek Jeter wore in his debut major league game in 1995.
4. Muhammad Ali's Rumble in the Jungle championship belt ($6.18 million)
Muhammad Ali wasn't known as "the Greatest" for nothing—he was an Olympic gold medalist in 1960, Heavyweight World Boxing Champion in 1964, and ended his career with 56 wins, 37 knockouts, and only five losses. He's widely regarded as one of the 20th century's greatest athletes, so the seven-figure sale of his 1974 World Boxing Championship belt befits his legacy.
The belt sold for $6.18 million in July 2022, a record price for sports memorabilia on Heritage Auctions and a 3,983% increase (adjusted for inflation) from the belt's $120,000 sale in 2017.
Ali won the belt and title after beating George Foreman in the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" match held in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo).
Muhammad Ali delivering the winning punch that defeated George Foreman in 1974.
George Foreman was a 25-year-old powerhouse when he faced off with Ali, then 32. No one expected Ali to win. He'd been stripped of his 1964 Heavyweight Champion title for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, and banned from boxing for three years. His rocky return included his first professional loss to Joe Frazier in 1971. He then prepared to battle the new Heavyweight Champ, who had recently faced—and wiped the floor with—Frazier.
Foreman had also won 24 consecutive fights by knocking out his opponents—eight in a row were KO'ed by the second round. The odds were three to one against Ali, with sports commentators declaring that he would only win if the fight was fixed.
But Ali stunned the spectators, Foreman, and his own team by trading in his signature footwork for the "rope-a-dope" technique that enabled him to rest while Foreman pummeled away and wore himself out. Two seconds into the 8th round, Ali felled an exhausted Foreman with a one-two punch that secured him the WBC belt.
In July 2022, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay purchased the Ali belt after hours of sparring with other bidders. Irsay added the belt to his other Muhammad Ali memorabilia, including a 1965 walkout robe valued at $500,000 and the shoes Ali wore during his 1975 "Thrilla in Manila" bout with Joe Frazier, which sold for nearly $120,000 in 2015.
The Ali collection is part of Irsay's impressive array of valuable alts, featuring vintage guitars played by Kurt Cobain and Janis Joplin, a piano played by Elton John, Paul McCartney, and Freddie Mercury, one of Jackie Robinson's baseball bats, letters from George Washington, and a wanted poster for John Wilkes Booth. The Irsay collection is valued at $100 million, though the owner himself has said he won't part with it for less than $1 billion.
If you're not ready to part with your billions for a chance at the belt, you're in luck. The only other Muhammad Ali WBC belt in existence is on the Collectable investment platform.
A chart tracking the value of Ali's 1974 World Boxing Championship belt from Feb. 2021 to Oct. 2022.
The belt came to Collectable by way of Ali's father, Cassius Clay, Sr., along with letters from him, Muhammad Ali, and boxing historian Craig Hamilton. As of October 2022, the belt is valued at $594,000 and investors can purchase shares in it for less than $20 each to own equity in this historic, two-of-a-kind asset.
3. Original Olympic Games manifesto ($8.8 million)
While the Olympic Games date back to Ancient Greece, the seasonal competitions that athletes around the world dream of participating in began in 1896. Four years before the first modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin delivered an address to the French Athletics Association calling for a revival of the ancient games as a global celebration of athletic prowess.
Two years later, de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee, and in 1896, the first modern Olympic Games opened in Athens.
The 14-page Olympic manifesto written in 1892.
The handwritten copy of de Coubertin's 1892 presentation served as a manifesto. Prior to its auction at Sotheby's in 2019, the original Olympic Games manifesto had never been publicly shown. Only a high-quality copy was displayed in the past. The 14-page manifesto was estimated to sell for $1 million, but this historic piece of sports memorabilia went for over 8x that value after 12 minutes of heated bidding.
De Coubertin's passion for the Olympic Games never wavered—he literally gave his heart to them. When he died in 1937, his body was buried in Lucerne, Switzerland, but his heart was interred in a monument in Olympia. Talk about loving the game.
2. Diego Maradona Hand of God jersey ($9.28 million)
Many athletes have prayed for a miracle during a game, and in 1986, Argentinian soccer player Diego Maradona swore the divine had intervened.
Facing England in the World Cup quarterfinals, Maradona stunned everyone by leaping to intercept a pass in the second half and to score the first goal of the deadlocked match. While the cameras and the nearest players caught Maradona's fist punching the ball into the goal, the referees didn't, and they awarded the point to Argentina. Later, Maradona said that the goal came “a little from the head of Maradona, and a little from the hand of God.”
Maradona swapped jerseys with the midfielder from the English team, Steve Hodge, as a friendly gesture. Hodge kept the shirt worn by Maradona for 36 years before putting it up for auction at Sotheby's, where it sold for $9.28 million.
Maradona leaping to make the infamous goal of the 1986 England vs. Argentina match.
Terry Butcher, captain of the England national team, called the controversial goal "probably the best piece of fraud you will ever see." But it wasn't the peak of Maradona's performance in the match. Four minutes later, Maradona ran the ball 60 yards in 10 seconds, evading four opponents, feinting to clear the goalie box, and scoring once again.
That winning goal is often held up as the greatest individual soccer goal of all time and earned the title of "Goal of the Century." With so much sensational history around it, it's no wonder that Maradona's jersey is worth close to eight figures.
1. Michael Jordan 1998 game-worn jersey ($10.09 million)
Maradona's hops may have shocked everyone on the pitch, but no one soars higher than Michael Jordan on the court. The jersey MJ wore in Game 1 of the 1998 finals sold for $10.09 million in 2022—over twice its estimated value.
Prior to the record-breaking sale, the highest price for a basketball jersey was the $3.7 million one Kobe Bryant wore during his 1996-97 season, and the most expensive piece of Jordan memorabilia was an autographed card from his 1997-98 season that sold for $2.7 million in 2021.
The jersey worn by Jordan as he pursued his final NBA title is one of two pieces of sports history that has sold for over $10 million—the other being a $12.6 million Mickey Mantle baseball card.
Even before ESPN's documentary series The Last Dance reached a whole new crop of viewers, the 1998 Finals were the most watched in NBA history. The dream team of Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Jordan, and manager Phil Jackson made their last season together a memorable one, right down to Jordan's winning jump shot in the last seconds of the final game.
The record-setting jersey was worn during Game 1 of the finals, which the Bulls lost to the Utah Jazz. But Jordan scored 33 points in this iconic red uniform while on track to his sixth Finals MVP award and the Bulls' sixth Finals victory.
With a career as legendary as Jordan's, there's plenty of memorabilia to invest in, from his 1991 baseball card to the shoes he wore when he shattered the backboard in a 1985 exhibition game. Those shoes are available to invest in on Public, where they're valued at $630,000.
Is investing in sports memorabilia worth it?
Is investing in sports memorabilia worth it?
Every expensive sports collectible has a unique story. Just a split second in time can turn an inanimate object into a piece of history. And if someone wants to own that history, they'd better meet the asking price. There are many amazing pieces available for you to invest in right now, whether you want to add them to your personal collection or just buy a few shares. The question is, which ones will end up on our next list?
With more one-of-a-kind pieces finding their way onto fractional investment platforms every day, the chance of scoring big is only getting greater.