The last time I wrote about rugby memorabilia collecting it was just after the last World Cup, when England were the victors. All the experts were predicting a sudden rise in prices – and it seems they were right. "After the World Cup you couldn't get enough to sell," says Dan Davies of Bonhams. "We had Twickenham items which sold spectacularly well. But the problem was that the rise lasted only until they started losing." For the England squad that was immediately. Hit by injury and retirements, the euphoria quickly left the field and the auction rooms.
So with another World Cup under way, and fortunes still not returned to the national game, where does that leave rugby memorabilia? "There's no doubt that we have seen a steady increase over the last 10 years, but there are peaks and troughs and after the World Cup rises, prices are now back to what they were before," says Davies. "I do think rugby memorabilia is undervalued." William Andrews at sporting auctioneers Mullock Madeley agrees: "Prices have gone up considerably. I look at 15-year-old catalogues and the prices have gone up tenfold. The market did rise after England won the World Cup but then the game went flat. The modern ephemera market is driven partly by how well the team is doing, but the historical side stays fairly steady."
The areas that sell particularly well are the shirts, caps, blazers and medals – items that are from the actual games, not replica autographed shirts. The rugby market equals around 20 per cent of the football market; according to Andrews, it's definitely more niche, which is a reflection of the sport's popularity and fans as much as anything else. The best items sell well, but run-of-the-mill items, particularly later ones, struggle. But then one of the top rules of investment collecting is: always buy the best.
Although it's more affordable than golf or football, prices are certainly not pocket money. Last year Mullock Madeley sold a 1906 blazer from the first Springboks tour to the UK for £8,000. "The people who follow rugby can be from a moneyed background, a bit like golf," says Graham Budd, associate auctioneer for Sotheby's. "So if things of great quality come up then they're more attractive. It would be nice to see more decorative items on the market – there's not a lot to collect in paintings, ceramics and bronzes so if good-quality items like these were to emerge there would be strong interest."
Programmes are also strong: early internationals from the 1900s sell for more than £1,000 each. "That same programme in the football market would be £7,000-£8,000," says Andrews. "And I think there is still room to pick up some good bargains. They tell you a lot about the social history of an area and club at the time and I can see them doing nothing but going up in value."
There are two kinds of collectors. Those buying 1980s and 1990s memorabilia tend to be the spectator or player of today who is active in the sport. The collectors want to go into the game's history and look at the great former players. There are also those who buy purely for investment. "I'd say the top 5 per cent of the market is driven by investors. We have clients who come to the sales who come just to buy for investors," Andrews says.
League is very much a northern game, but there are some serious collectors when rare material comes up. Challenge Cup medals sell well, as do items linked to particular players, but the union audience is bigger, which tends to be translated into the auction rooms.
The joy of buying sports memorabilia is that, unlike with stocks and shares, you have something physical to enjoy. "It's not just a bit of paper to make money, it's something that you can look at and see not just how rugby has changed, but our culture and history of the country," says Andrews. "You can't go wrong with something in the sporting market if you're interested in that sport. I can't see it going down in value – there may be the odd dip, but in the long run it's better than money in the bank." Graham Budd is also of the opinion that now is a good time to buy: "For somebody interested in collecting rugby it's not going to be as expensive as other sports, so it's a good time to buy, and there's still room for growth in the market."
Rugby union has a good museum at Twickenham, and whenever there is a museum behind any collecting field it gives it extra gravitas. Rugby may not experience massive price rises in the short term, but if you take a medium- to long-term view and take into account what the market has done in the past 10 years, the rises have outstripped any savings account interest available. The fortunes of the England team might have taken a turn for the worse since we won the World Cup, but the memory of that final will live on, and experts agree that if ever something from the 2003 World Cup comes on to the market then it's likely to make some serious money.
* Mullock Madeley: 01694 771 771 www.mullockmadeley.co.uk. Next sale: 4 December
* Bonhams tel: 01244 313 936 Next sale: 31 October www.bonhams.co.uk
* Graham Budd, associate auctioneer for Sotheby's, will provide valuations; e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Next sale: 21 NovemberReuse content