How Bill Russell’s rare memorabilia took years to reach the collectibles market

As a champion, Bill Russell was known for his rare memorabilia. However, the market wasn’t quite ready to start buying up all of this stuff from him until recently. What does this say about how collectibles are treated in today’s marketplace?

The “why are bill russell’s rings up for auction” is a question that has been asked for years. It turns out that it took many years to reach the collectibles market.

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THE CALL ON THE PHONE Bill Russell, the Boston Celtics icon, placed a wealth of personal mementos up for sale five years ago. Russell’s teeming trophy case was examined by David Hunt, president of Hunt Auctions, who was asked how much some of the things in Russell’s teeming trophy case were worth and whether he could assess them.

Russell, 88, has one of the most illustrious professional sports résumé ever. He is a two-time NCAA champion, an Olympic gold medalist, an NBA champion with 11 championships in 13 seasons, and a player and coach in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. For decades, his autograph and memorabilia had been a rare in the collecting world. Hobbyists would be interested in owning anything — anything — from his collection.

The question had a little more weight to it. Russell is a civil rights figure as well as an athlete. He was the first African-American coach to lead a team in any major professional sport, as well as the first to win an NBA championship. He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Muhammad Ali.

Hunt, who oversaw posthumous auctions for Babe Ruth, Roberto Clemente, and Ted Williams, stated, “At initially, there was nothing remotely about selling the objects.”

Russell and his team, which included an archivist, combed through things spanning more than five decades of recollections in the years after that first phone conversation. Hunt, who counseled them on a regular basis, said they spoke about things that would be of interest to potential purchasers. Russell determined what he was willing to give up and what he would not give up under any circumstances. Russell hadn’t determined whether or not he wanted to sell anything during that appraisal time, according to Hunt.

The products were not at their full financial worth when Hunt got the original phone call. However, when the COVID-19 epidemic hit in the spring of 2020, the market for sports cards and memorabilia exploded. Even vintage basketball, which has always lagged behind baseball in terms of popularity, has exploded.

There has never been a better opportunity to sell in terms of the market. Anyone interested in sports and civil rights history would be interested in this book.

Hunt Auctions put 429 goods up for auction inside TD Garden’s Legends suite on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021. Russell’s goods raised a total of $7.4 million for two charities: MENTOR, a Boston-based non-profit that attempts to promote mentoring relationships, and Boston Celtics United for Social Justice, which works to combat racial injustice and social inequity in the Greater Boston region.

“To my knowledge, no other basketball collection has ever been sold, not publicly, that amounted to that value, relevance, player level, or media attention,” Hunt said.

A second, online-only auction is set for Friday, and although it won’t be as large as the first, it will have its fair share of jewels; for example, a game-worn Celtics jersey and warm-up jacket from the 1960s are projected to fetch six figures apiece. The auction on Friday will also include pieces from Russell’s coach and mentor, Red Auerbach’s personal collection.

Preservationists and those who obtain objects, curate collections, and manage museums, particularly museums that memorialize the careers and achievements of Black athletes, Boston athletes, and Hall of Famers, have been interested in the Russell memorabilia auctions — how they came about and what they have meant to collectors.

Former director of the museum, Celtics Hall of Fame center Dave Cowens, phoned Russell’s house after learning of the scheduled December sale and talked to his wife, Jeannine, on behalf of the museum, according to Richard Johnson, curator of The Sports Museum inside TD Garden in Boston.

Johnson, who has been in his position since 1982, claimed, “They had already committed everything to the auction house.” “It was already completed.”

Russell’s 50 Greatest NBA Players ring and signed leather jacket are among the auction items. Getty Images/Ron Hoskins/NBAE

FOR YEARS, IT WAS DIFFICULT TO FIND Russell memorabilia. He was a member of the NBA at a period when sneakers and jerseys were not flung into the crowd or sold at memorabilia conventions. Even when vintage basketball things were accessible, according to industry experts, the market devalued and underrated them.

Russell’s memorabilia was scarce until that of his contemporaries began to appear on the market. Even for his period, game-used Russell jerseys were “very unusual,” according to one appraiser. Russell’s autograph was also hard to come by. He was notorious for preferring talks over signing his name for decades.

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Hunt had been charged with assigning monetary valuations to priceless artifacts. Russell’s gold medal from the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne was so important to him that he skipped the first two months of his rookie Celtics season to participate in it. Russell’s 1957 Topps rookie card was signed, as was a trophy for playing in his first All-Star Game in 1958, his 50 Greatest NBA Players ring and autographed leather jacket, and his 1969 NBA Finals jersey, which was the last he wore. Those were the highlights of his basketball career.

Other things, according to Hunt, are vital bits of history that must be preserved “for future generations.” Russell and many of his colleagues declined to participate in a 1961 exhibition game between the Boston Celtics and the St. Louis Hawks in Lexington, Kentucky, when Black players were denied service at a restaurant. Jackie Robinson was so affected that he wrote Russell a letter, which he attached to a page in his personal scrapbook, along with newspaper cuttings from the day.

“It’s encouraging to hear that our players share your sense of pride,” Robinson replied to Russell. “Your activities make a significant contribution to our battle for equal opportunity.”

In the December auction, the scrapbook page was Lot No. 96. It was purchased for $94,000.

The ring from his first title was sold for $705,000. His gold medal from the 1956 Olympics sold for $587,500. Russell’s last Celtics outfit, his five MVP awards, and his first NBA championship ring were among the other important artifacts auctioned, for a total of $3.13 million. Unless given specific permission, auction houses usually do not reveal the identity of purchasers.

Russell had advertised his property on Washington’s Mercer Island, which he’d owned for over 50 years, for $2.6 million only a few months before the December auction. Russell wanted to remain in the region but downsize, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal, and he had left behind the trophy case and a signed ball for the future owner. Jeannine Russell, reached on Wednesday, claimed they were not conducting any interviews.

Neither Hunt nor MENTOR CEO David Shapiro would comment on the proportion going to MENTOR or the Boston Celtics United for Social Justice, but a former estate handler said it’s common to contribute anywhere from 5% to 15% of the overall transaction at charity auctions. If that’s the case, the $7.4 million December night might have brought in anywhere from $370,000 to $1,110,000 for charity.

Russell even came to say his goodbyes. He shared images of a cross-country road trip on social media a few days later.

Legends’ legacies are normally handled by Hunt after they’ve passed away. Russell, on the other hand, has been involved every step of the journey.

“I can tell you, people were in tears,” Hunt recalled of the December night. “They were thanking us, thanking Bill.” “I feel like we’ve done our job when it occurs.”

Russell’s collection still has the never-evers. In 2011, President Barack Obama bestowed the Medal of Freedom upon him.

“There’s nothing to argue about with the Medal of Freedom,” Hunt stated. “Thank you for keeping it; I’m delighted you don’t want to sell it because I’d return it.”

Russell is so revered by Obama that he gave a speech at the Basketball Hall of Fame that was imbedded on a touch screen. Russell’s unwillingness to take over the Celtics for Red Auerbach was highlighted. He mentioned the championships he won in San Francisco and Boston, as well as the Olympic gold. But the issue that Obama focused on had nothing to do with basketball. He concentrated on the city of Lexington.

In the film, Obama says, “[It was] an act of civic disobedience that still reverberate to this day.” “It gives me great pleasure to thank Bill Russell for the [how] he led and lives his life.”

Russell and Wilt Chamberlain had a tumultuous rivalry. On ESPN Classic’s SportsCentury, Celtics teammate John Havlicek remarked of Russell, “He would let Wilt score 50 if we won.” “Championships, rings, and winning were the most important things to him.” Getty Images/Russ Reed/Sporting News courtesy of Getty Images

The recently refurbished Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, is 90 miles southwest of Boston. Visitors are welcomed in the atrium by two of basketball’s most iconic figures. Michael Jordan is one, and Bill Russell is the other.

A cash commitment secures a Russell locker, which contains a personally provided All-Star Game jersey, shorts, and two autographed basketballs. The gifts were given to help fund the Hall’s refurbishment project, which was completed last year.

Entrants to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s basketball display in Washington, D.C. are welcomed with a picture of Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia 76ers getting a rebound against Russell. Russell appears in four different things. Any Russell objects, according to Damion Thomas, the museum’s sports curator, were either purchased or leased from collectors. The museum was particularly interested in the 1969 Finals jersey, which sold for more than $1.1 million but was out of its price range.

“Athletes often get a bad name for auctioning off their gear, but I don’t believe it’s a terrible thing,” Thomas remarked. “It’s a chance to make these objects accessible to the public.” I don’t believe all of Bill Russell’s pieces belong in an art museum.

“Hopefully, Russell will be represented in all of the key locations.”

Russell’s alma mater, the University of San Francisco, includes “plaques and commemorative artefacts” in its Sport and Social Change Museum. The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, does not contain particular objects, but it does have “digital/printed assets,” such as a biographical film, that were created for the Freedom Award events.

The Sports Museum, located within TD Garden, is a half-mile labyrinth devoted to the history of sports in New England. You eventually come to Bill Russell after passing Ted Williams’ locker and Roger Clemens’ 20-strikeout scorebook, Manute Bol’s University of Bridgeport warmup and Doug Flutie’s Boston College jersey, commemorations for college hockey’s The Beanpot tournament and Connecticut’s Trinity College squash (“The Alabama of squash,” Johnson says), and memorials for college hockey’s The Beanpot tournament and Trinity College squash (“The Alabama of squash,” Johnson says).

A photo of Russell dribbling is framed and off to the side, over one of Kevin McHale, in an exhibit devoted to the Celtics. Russell is featured on the cover of the 1968 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year issue. Russell’s autograph may also be seen on a section of the original Boston Garden parquet floor, with the signatures of other Celtics Hall of Famers. The non-profit museum’s whole collection is either donated or on loan.

There aren’t many Russell things on display here, but that isn’t because he isn’t respected. Johnson, the museum’s curator, claimed he only met Russell once, during John Havlicek’s burial, when they exchanged a few words.

He said, “I didn’t feel worthy of engaging him.” “He’d be Sir Bill Russell if this nation handed away regal titles.”

During his career, Russell wasn’t always regarded like king. The bigotry he encountered in Boston has been well documented. Vandals broke into his house and spray-painted racist slurs on the walls. In his 1979 book, “Second Wind,” he wrote on the city’s racism, stating it came in “all forms, old and new, and in their most virulent form.”

Johnson had a glimpse of Russell’s artifacts being brought into the Legends suite in December, about 100 feet from the Celtics’ locker room. Back in Boston, he subsequently said that the sheer weight of all that history had overwhelmed him.

“I never envy anyone’s desire to sell and commercialize their belongings,” Johnson stated. “‘God, I wish he’d donated some of these material to us,’ my curatorial half replies, ‘but I hold him in the utmost esteem.’ Seeing these crown jewels [at TD Garden] was incredible.”

A number of sculptures honoring Boston sports stars are part of The Sports Museum’s collection. Armand LaMontagne, a New England artisan, carved them out of approximately 2,000-pound pieces of wood, each requiring about half a year to finish. Carl Yastrzemski is pictured in the middle of his swing, his gaze fixed on Pesky’s Pole; Larry Bird is represented in the middle of his renowned shooting stroke; Bobby Orr is cocked for a slapshot; and Ted Williams is happy after catching a fish. Harry “The Golden Greek” Agganis, a mid-century Lynn, Massachusetts, celebrity who sadly died at the age of 26, is also present.

Bill Russell is conspicuous by his absence.

Johnson recalls the day in 1988 when Bird’s monument was unveiled. An enraged local lady called the museum’s number.

“You have a Larry Bird statue, but not a Bill Russell statue?” she said.

Johnson said, “Ma’am.” “You’re preaching to the choir,” someone says.

Russell graciously refused to be depicted, despite Cowens and Auerbach’s efforts to persuade him otherwise.

The paintings, images, trophies, jerseys, autographs, and other things on exhibit at The Sports Museum, the Hall of Fame, and the Smithsonian are meant to elicit emotional reactions in visitors, to make them recall, ponder, and reflect on the past. Objects help preserve the history of sports culture, strengthen the bond with fans, and teach the future generation, whether it’s a statue or a piece of memorabilia accessible on the collectors market.

“Everything we have is related to a narrative or two,” Johnson added.

Russell’s last game jersey, which he wore here in the 1969 NBA Finals clincher that gave him his 11th title, sold for more than $1.1 million in December at auction. Harold P. Matosian/Associated Press

When asked whether LJ’s Card Shop in New Albany, Ohio, had won any items at the December auction, Stephen Michaels, the general manager, exclaims, “BUDDY, YOU DON’T KNOW ME, DO YOU?”

Like a Showcase Showdown haul, Michaels showcases the stuff LJ’s spent $598,000 for — more than 12% of the total auction amount. Russell’s 11th and last championship ring dangles halfway up Michaels’ middle finger, a gigantic diamond.

On the surface, the year that separates “BOSTON CELTICS” and “WORLD CHAMPIONS” is 1969, Russell’s last season as a professional. As Michaels turns the ring, carved names appear on opposing sides: “WILLIAM” and “RUSSELL.”

Michaels responds, “I can’t even get it on my finger.” “That’s how little it is,” says the narrator.

LJ paid $558,125 for it.

There are, however, other objects that are even more avant-garde, such as the cap on Michaels’ head, which was fashioned to honor the late Kobe Bryant and was autographed by Russell.

Michaels adds of the fading, curved-brim hat, “He wore this thing.”

Spending $600,000 on a single night may seem extravagant. Russell, on the other hand.

In December, LJ’s owner, Leo Ruberto, issued Michaels a blank check.

“We have the biggest regard for him, first and foremost as a person and his profession,” Ruberto remarked as Michaels displayed a collection of Russell’s Olympic mementos, which LJ had also earned.

“This stuff belongs in a museum,” Ruberto says, chuckling.

The “when did bill russell retire” is a question that has been asked many times. Bill Russell retired in 1969 and his memorabilia has taken years to reach the collectibles market.

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