This is Part 2 of a two-part series with sports memorabilia appraiser and authenticator Les Wolff. In Part 1, Wolff discussed his lecture series on the hobby and how to protect a collection. In Part 2, Wolff talks about his more memorable collecting moments.
Les Wolff is known for his skills as an authenticator and appraiser of sports memorabilia. His work over more than three decades has allowed him to forge friendships with some of sports’ greatest heroes, including Mickey Mantle and Muhammad Ali.
It also allowed him to buy and sell a lot of history.
“I’ve sold some of the most bizarre and most memorable (items),” Wolff said.
In 2009, Wolff sold a contract signed by baseball Hall of Famer Josh Gibson to play in the Puerto Rican League in 1941. The price? Over $95,000.
“It was one of the best ones (I sold),” Wolff said.
Wolff said he also sold the 1934 and 1935 contracts signed by New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig, but his favorite piece of Iron Horse memorabilia was a settlement document the Hall of Famer reached with the Daily News on Dec. 19, 1939, seven months after he retired.
Jimmy Powers mistakenly suggested in an August 1939 column that Gehrig’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, was polio and a communicable disease. That was the reason for the Yankees’ midsummer slump, Powers wrote.
Powers had botched the story and Gehrig sued despite the Daily News publishing two stories in an attempt to set the record straight. The Daily News paid Gehrig $17,500 to settle out of court. Jonathan Eig, in his 2005 book Luckiest Man, wrote that Gehrig signed the document “in a hand so shaky it would appear to be written by the passenger of a car rumbling down an unpaved road.”
“An attorney contacted me,” Wolff said. “I had the actual document Gehrig signed.
“It sold for $35,000. It’s probably worth six figures now.”
One of the strangest items Wolff ever sold came from the March 8, 1971, “Fight of the Century” between Joe Frazier and Ali — a jockstrap belonging to “Smokin’ Joe.” This very personal piece of memorabilia was part of a Goldin Auctions sale in 2016, listed as a “fight-worn jockstrap.”
“One of my clients loved boxing,” Wolff said. “He invites me into his bedroom, goes under the bed and pulls out a Ziploc bag.
“In it was the jock that Joe Frazier wore to win the Fight of the Century.”
The jockstrap sold for $10,500, including the buyer’s premium.
“It’s unique, it’s a memorable piece,” Wolff said.
Wolff, who forged a friendship with Ali, has sold several items belonging to the former heavyweight champion, including water bottles and mouthpieces. Wolff said actor Liam Neeson bought a poster touting the first Frazier-Ali fight.
Wolff said he always tried to find an autograph of Sugar Ray Robinson or a piece of memorabilia of the middleweight to bring when he’d meet Ali.
“(Ali) was down to earth,” Wolff said. “You could be so at home with him.”
Another piece of interesting memorabilia was something Wolff did not win.
“It was an item with Frank Sinatra’s fingerprints with his autograph on it,” he said.
Wolff’s introduction to collecting began modestly. In 1959, at the age of 6, he stashed copies of the New York Daily News under the radiator in his Queens home to prevent his mother from trashing them.
“My mom was like Felix Unger,” Wolff, now 65, remembered.
Wolff went on to collect baseball cards, stamps and coins. Collecting autographs never crossed his mind.
“I thought it was stupid to collect autographs,” Wolff said.
That changed in 1969 when he began hanging around the New York Jets training camp at nearby Hofstra University. He got Joe Namath’s autograph and was hooked.
Wolff counts Namath, Mantle, Ali and Dave DeBusschere as his idols.
His young obsession soared when he was a senior at Jamaica High School and skipped school as a senior — “the only day I ever skipped” — to get Ali’s autograph. A photo of Ali signing for Wolff appeared in the Daily News, and he somehow managed to keep the photo away from his parents until he graduated.
Wolff went on to assemble a nice collection of memorabilia, selling his duplicates to “afford my addiction” and put him through college.
“Mantle, Ali and Hank Aaron put me through high school and college,” Wolff said. “My addiction paid for my school.”
After attending LaGuardia College in Long Island City, Wolff went on to Queens College.
“Even my college yearbook is worth money,” Wolff said.
That’s because the 1976 yearbook at Queens College contains a photo of Jerry Seinfeld, Wolff said. And Wolff got the comedian to sign his book.
“He said ‘Did I ever know you?’” Wolff said. “And I said, ‘Not unless you were a gym rat.’”
Seinfeld signed but remained skeptical. “He asked me, ‘Am I gonna see this on eBay?’” Wolff said.
Not a chance. The book remains in Wolff’s collection.
While Wolff has bought and sold his share of memorabilia, he has not lost his enthusiasm.
“As long as we’re collecting, we stay young,” Wolff said. “The best part about memorabilia is the hunt to find it.
“That’s the challenge.”