RBC Heritage

Harbour Town Golf Links


"The Last Of The Big Sales"


The Charles Lees painting "The Golfers", which captured a high-stakes foursomes match at St. Andrews, was sold for $526,110 at the Patino auction

On May 30, in Christie's top-floor auction room in the heart of Mayfair, London, the hammer went down on the final lot, no. 347, at 3:06 p.m. In a little over four and a half hours, Jaime "Jimmy" Ortiz-Patiño's collection of historic golf clubs, balls, paintings, silverware, ceramics, bronzes, books, printed materials and other ephemera, lovingly assembled over a quarter of a century and billed as "the world's most important private collection of golf art and memorabilia," had been broken up and sold off. The sum of the parts felt like considerably less than the whole.

The highlight of the auction was the artwork. There was a frisson in the room when the second of two paintings by Sir John Lavery, a gorgeous 1919 landscape of golf at North Berwick -- to my eye the most beautiful thing in the collection -- went to a phone bidder in Asia for £241,250 ($376,350).

The R&A's director of museum and heritage, Angela Howe, on a shopping spree for the R&A clubhouse, bought two Michael Brown pencil and grey wash pictures of St. Andrews, one of the 1895 Amateur Championship (for £25,000-$39,000) and one of a collection of Open champions in front of the clubhouse in 1905 (for £67,250--$104,910).

But the biggest prize of the day was an iconic Charles Lees oil painting -- "The Golfers" -- of a dramatic moment, on the 15th green in St. Andrews, in a high-stakes foursomes match between celebrated golfers of the day in 1847. Howe bid up to £260,000 but was beaten by a mystery telephone bidder who went to £280,000 which, with the buyer's premium added on, put the final sale price at £337,250 ($526,110) -- the highest of the day. (And it's only a "finished sketch" -- Lees' final, 5-by-4-foot painting hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, which bought it 10 years ago -- with help from the R&A -- for more than £2 million.)


Also performing well were the "patent clubs," all those weird specialty clubs from the turn of the century -- water mashies, rake irons, mammoth-headed niblicks, roller-sole putters and adjustable-head irons. But overall the results were disappointing. Most items sold well below the estimate price. A third of the lots didn't meet the reserve price and so didn't sell at all. The sale -- "expected to realise in excess of £2 million" according to Christie's press release -- totaled only £1,838,731 (roughly $2,850,000). The next day, at an auction of Victorian and British Impressionist art in the same building, a single Rossetti painting went for a lot more than Patiño's entire collection.

"Well, overall it wasn't surprising," said James McCormick, a financial and commodities trader from Chicago who began his large private golf collection in 1980. "Some lots performed well. Some performed extremely poorly. The artwork did well -- those were really quality items. But a lot of the high-end old clubs have really come down dramatically in price. They're selling for maybe half or a quarter of what they went for 20 years ago." McCormick snapped up a number of Patiño's items including a famous 19th century painting of a golfer in a red jacket by Sir Francis Grant for £79,250 ($123,630), one of the earliest ever irons, the "spur-toe" from the late 17th/early 18th century, for £58,850 ($91,806), and a rare 1903 black rubber "rifle ball" for £18,750 ($29,250).

"The good stuff sold, the rest didn't," said British golf bookseller, collector and trader Rhod McEwan in the now deserted auction room. McEwan, who always has the most interesting stall in the tented village at the British Open each year, picked up a half dozen items at the auction including some ceramics, clubs, three antique balls and a book. "It's a buyers' market. I feel rather sad for the owner -- today was a case of people taking the cream off the top. All those long-nose woods --maybe only half of those sold. It's sad."

"Jimmy," now 82, is the grandson of mining magnate Simón Patiño, who was born a penniless Spanish peasant and was said to be one of the richest men in the world by the time of his death in 1947. The young Patiño was born in Paris, educated in England, Switzerland and the United States, but his passion has always been games. In his youth he was a talented tennis player who competed in the French and Italian Opens. He's an avid bridge player who spent 10 years as president of the World Bridge Federation, for which he is now "president emeritus." After liquidating his interests in the family business in 1982, the onetime 7-handicapper turned his attentions fully to golf. In 1985 he bought Las Aves Golf Club in southern Spain for $6 million and poured a fortune into its recreation as Valderrama, dubbed "the Augusta National of Europe." It was the venue for the 1997 Ryder Cup.

So why was Patiño selling off all the family silver now? Why buy high and sell low? "I'm surprised he sold it," said McCormick.

"I've heard a few rumors and theories," said one golf insider at the auction. "The most obvious one is, he needs the money."

"This was the last of the big golf sales," said McEwan. "No one else has anything like the breadth or antiquity of this collection. It was unique. We won't see its like again."

Stephan Juskewycz, chairman of the golf memorabilia store "Golf Links to the Past," which sits beside the first tee at Pebble Beach, bought a number of antique featherie balls. "But I wanted to be here anyway even if I didn't buy anything," he said. "This auction is part of golf collection history. We'll never again see a collection like this, owned by one person, come up for sale. It was really a privilege to see it."