Stuck in the basement of a rooming house in Massachusetts before being discovered about 30 years ago, the trophy that’s acknowledged to mark the debut of intercollegiate sports is about to go on the auction block. Sotheby’s announced Thursday that it would be offering the 1852 Trophy Oars from the rowing competition between Yale and Harvard—the first meeting of any sort between the two legendary rivals. Reaching the open market for the first time, they’re expected to sell for $3-$5 million.
The oars were presented to the winning Harvard crew by General Franklin Pierce – the future President of the United States – to commemorate the very first rowing match between Harvard and Yale in August 1852, which would become the longest running competition in American intercollegiate sports history.
The oars were previously lost to history before they were rediscovered in that basement of a house in Medford, Massachusetts in the 1990s. Recognizing the significance of the pair, the children of the present owner prevented the oars from heading to the trash, preserving an iconic piece of American and collegiate history. Since then, the pair has remained in the family’s private collection.
Pre-dating the first intercollegiate football game which took place in 1869 and first intercollegiate basketball game, which took place in 1895, the 1852 Harvard–Yale regatta oars not only represent the birth of intercollegiate sports in America, but are also among the oldest pieces of sports memorabilia in American history.
In 1852, Yale oarsman James Whiton suggested a race between Harvard and Yale, and secured an agreement between the crews. Whiton met James N. Elkins – superintendent of the Boston, Concord, and Montreal Railroad – who also encouraged the idea of a race. Whiton then struck a marketing deal with the railroad, then a new invention that would boost American expansion for the next several decades.
Held on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, the destination event would draw spectators to the race via the new railroad. A two-mile race drew enthusiastic crowds and after Harvard’s victory, the black walnut oars were presented to the team by the future president. An engraved silver plaque was placed on one of the oars, noting the victory and the date. The next race was held in July 1855, with Harvard winning by one minute and 38 seconds.
Following the inaugural race in 1852, the competition has been an annual event since 1859, with only a few exceptions, including World War Two, most notably. The race is currently held on the Thames River near New London, Connecticut, and the 155th regatta will take place on June 11, marking the first race since 2019.
The Trophy Oars are being solid in a dedicated auction that opens May 17 and concludes a week later. There will be an exhibition at Sotheby’s in New York May 19-23.
In December 2019, Sotheby’s sold the Olympic Manifesto – the foundational document outlining the birth of the modern Olympic Games –for $8.8 million, making it the current world auction record for any piece of sports memorabilia. The company also sold The Founding Rules of Basketball by James Naismith, which sold for $4.3 million in 2010.