Sports Memorabilia: A New Safe Haven?

A buyer looks at a Brazilian international soccer jersey at Sotheby's in London
Peter Macdiarmid | Getty Images
A buyer looks at a Brazilian international soccer jersey at Sotheby's in London

On a recent visit to an English country auction, a buyer obtained a random collection of scrapbooks and diaries belonging to a Victorian lawyer named Sir Thomas Berry Cusack-Smith. Thumbing through one of the scrapbooks, the buyer found the program to the 1882 FA Cup final between Old Etonians and Blackburn Rovers.

The earliest known surviving FA Cup final program, it is expected to fetch around 25,000 pounds ($38,375) at Sotheby's this week.

Sports memorabilia, it seems, is a big business.

Writing in the May 6 edition of The New Yorker, journalist Reeves Wiedeman detailed how in an uncertain investment world – where gold has lost its safe haven footing – the realm of sports memorabilia has become a growing business in the United States, in particular.

Are investors in Britain and beyond also beginning to put their money into sporting items that aren't as vulnerable to market movements?

Graham Budd, who runs Graham Budd Auctions Ltd, is an auctioneer who specializes in sports memorabilia and holds regular sales at Sotheby's. This week's auction will see 993 sporting items up for sale over two days.

Budd says the sports memorabilia market has been growing since the 1990s and hasn't been damaged by the recession. "The market grew up over here in the U.K. during the 1990s," Budd says. "It grew at the same time that Sky Television were putting a lot of money into soccer, and suddenly the media really got a hold of sport and hyped it up and it became a dramatic and glamorous market."

Another reason for increasing investor interest from overseas is departing Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who is credited with broadening soccer's fan base, especially in Asia. Budd says he often gets people from Thailand and South Korea buying up United shirts.

(Read More: Manchester United Manager Ferguson Retires)

Budd says that there has been a slowdown at the lower end of the market since the financial crash, but the higher-end remains strong. "That's really because wealthy people have still got money, and in this day and age where they are getting nothing in their bank, they are looking for alternative ways to spend a bit of money and take a punt here and there," Budd says.

Chris Hayes, sports specialist with Bonhams auction house, concurs with Budd, with the lower end suffering "because the average man on the street has suffered during the recession."

Regarding the high-end of the market - those investors who may be tempted by the pricey 1882 FA Cup final program - the emerging markets, namely Russia and the Middle East, are becoming key growth areas, with investors passionate about sports and with money to spend. Formula One memorabilia is a particular favorite among these buyers.

(Read More: Europe's Richest Soccer Clubs)

Less Risk?

With such popularity from across the globe, especially with soccer (which Budd says is the bread and butter of his business), do sports memorabilia offer investors an area without risk and with constant growth potential?

Hayes says that with quality items, the value should never fall. He cites British boxing legend Henry Cooper and his belts. They sold for 42,000 pounds at Sotheby's in 1993, including commission. Recently, the same set of belts sold for 75,000 pounds, an increase of 33,000 pounds over twenty years.

However, investors have to be careful. According to Hayes, memorabilia relating to England's 1966 World Cup win have not fared so well over the last few years. Budd says that while sports memorabilia have attracted those looking for a solid investment rather than any emotional attachment, buyers still need to be sports savvy.

(Read More: Rangers FC—The Best Investment in Soccer?)

"You still have to make judgement calls about what you're buying and what would be a good investment," Budd explains. "There's a rail of soccer shirts over there and you have to pick the players that people will still be remembering and talking about in ten, twenty and fifty years' time, rather than the guys that are big today and forgotten tomorrow. You can only do that if you're passionate about the sport."

For example, two signed and framed Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie Manchester United shirts could lose value if Rooney leaves the club, as is rumored. "In the short term, it would be bad, because they are no longer a partnership," Budd says. "In the future, people may forgive him for leaving the club."

Best Buys

So for those seeking to ensure a solid sporting investment, how do you approach the market? "The things that sell the best and are worth the most are items that absolutely identify success on the sporting field," Budd says, "and that's usually a medal or a trophy.

"It's the sort of thing you can pick up and touch; that is what all that effort and achievement was about."

If you want to avoid the tribalism of soccer clubs in particular, national team items are much better: a van Persie Netherlands shirt would be more of a healthy investment than one of his from his Arsenal days.

While most shirts range from 400 to 800 pounds, it's clear that a "winning item" - one that denotes sporting success as well as history - is where the real money is. The shirt Eric Cantona wore in the 1996 FA Cup final against Liverpool, where he scored the winning goal, is expected to fetch between 8-12,000 pounds.

And what should U.K. investors in particular avoid?

"The one thing we can't sell over here is American sports. If I get an inquiry about that I would immediately advise them to find 'me' in America, whoever he or she may be," Budd admits.