After liquidating 800-plus-piece collection of golf antiquities 12 years ago, Ellis re-enters market and embraces digital trading
As a budding golf collector, I found that being around golf antiquities is exciting.
Reading about golfers playing with hickory-shafted clubs or hitting balls made out of feathers is one thing, but picking up a club that has been around for more than 100 years and made in Old Tom Morris’ shop is a whole different experience.
I remember going to the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., one January in the late 1990s and finding the most fascinating collection of golf memorabilia I had ever seen. Though most of the collectibles were golf clubs, the Jeff Ellis Collection included balls and some other unique items.
Ellis started collecting in 1974, when he bought his first hickory-shafted club from a thrift store in Milwaukee. Twenty-five years later, Ellis was one of the game’s foremost collectors, with 800-plus pieces. Seeing his exhibit at the PGA Show was like walking through a golf museum.
At the same time Ellis was exhibiting, he also published “The Clubmaker’s Art,” a 576-page treatise on golf clubs, grips, shafts and balls. It was the most comprehensive researched dissertation on antique clubs ever written.
Ellis was on top of the golf antiquity world, but then one day he seemed to vanish. His collection was auctioned in 2007 at Sotheby’s in New York, and Ellis was gone.
“I sold my collection because my wife, Susan, was terminally ill,” Ellis said from his home in Arizona. “She was diagnosed
[with a neurological disorder] back in 2001, and she passed in 2014.”
I had met Ellis numerous times and expected to see him when I attended the auction. The rumor was that Ellis could not watch his collection being parceled off, so he didn’t stay for the auction but walked around Central Park.
“That's not correct,” Ellis said. “I was actually in New York; I was there for the preview, and I would be in the preview room answering questions and showing people this and that, because people would have questions.”
During the preview, Sports Illustrated brought a blind golfer to the auction, and Ellis showed him clubs, letting him feel and sense the creativity through a totally different perspective.
“When the auction started, my kids watched from a room up above and I went jogging in Central Park and stayed with my wife, who was in a wheelchair. I was with her and I didn't go to the auctions until the last session. My kids said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to come and watch this.’ ”
Ellis joined his family behind tinted glass in a hidden room above the floor.
“I watched it, and it really wasn't hard at all because I knew I had a greater good that was going on. I was trying to help my wife and care for her and unlock a better future for her, which it did,” Ellis said. “Once I sold the collection, I was able to focus on her and not worry about money or what I was going to do with all these clubs and stuff like that.”
Ellis said that an extensive collection of antiquities can be burdensome for its owner.
“When you have a collection of 800 clubs, it's wonderful, but it's also a little bit of a millstone around your neck – at least it was for me – because I don't want anything bad to happen to it or have my house burn down or have the bank robbed or the vault broken into, or when you travel with them and put them on display,” he said. “And then, of course, when I'm building this collection, if there's something good, I have to buy it. It's like, if I'm going to have the best collection in the world, I have to have one of everything, kind of. And that was my goal.
“There's never been – and I doubt that there ever will be – a more comprehensive collection assembled than what I had assembled, in terms of all the different types of clubs.”
Three years later, Ellis remarried, and his new wife became the catalyst that propelled him back into the business. He started an auction site called https://jeffellisgolfauctions.com/.
“Instead of doing the catalog like I had done for many years, I decided I'll do it online and I'll do it in golf auction format. It’s a lot easier to do it online,” he said, comparing the digital era with having to print 2,000-3,000 catalogs as in the past. “My life kind of shifted gears after I got remarried and got back in the saddle.”
Ellis learned quickly that the golf antiquity business has changed considerably from just 15 years ago, and the values of prized possessions have changed dramatically.
“I say this without being disrespectful to eBay, but it's kind of dumbed down the hobby. There's been a lot of items that weren't what they were purported to be or not in the condition or had been somehow compromised and then sold as something that they really weren't. When people discover that they have bought things that aren't good – especially things for a lot of money – then they don't want to collect anymore. It takes all the fun out of it. So, as I've come in the collecting world today, people haven't collected, haven't been quite as active in the club and ball market because there's not really been a venue, a good venue for clubs and balls, and we'll call it the hardware of the game, tees and all that sort of stuff.”
Though other online auction sites have done a good job with golf memorabilia, the club and ball areas of collecting have been neglected, mainly because of a lack of knowledge in those segments.
Ellis sees a niche for his auction site. On Nov. 6, he will be opening his third auction of 2019. The 138 entries for sale will include a John Gourlay feather ball, a circa 1850 McEwan Long Spoon and a Ping Redwood City 1A putter. The auction is scheduled to run through Nov. 23.
It’s a good time to get into golf collecting, with the prices down considerably from the past.
“It's kind of like the Great Recession of 2009 just took the wind out of every financial sale,” Ellis said. “Everything dropped – collectibles, real estate, stocks. Here we are 10 years later and art is way back up, [stock] market's way back up, but the golf collectibles are still down. It's still very accessible, so if somebody's wanting to collect, the time is still really good to get this stuff. It's a great time to collect.”