The remembrances of Muhammad Ali continued to flood in Friday as the boxing great was laid to rest in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. But for a legendary figure like Ali, his life is remembered in more than just stories and fleeting memories — everything he touched, everywhere he went, Ali created a physical universe of items that people across the globe have sought out as tangible reminders of his legacy.
The largest pricetag for an Ali collectible came in 2012, when a pair of fight-worn gloves from a 1965 bout against Floyd Patterson sold for $1.1 million. In a recent piece for the Ringer, TV personality Keith Olbermann recalled a frenzy at a 1983 press conference as attendees elbowed each other to secure tiny swatches of a tablecloth on which Ali had doodled. Those swatches, and other remnants of the sports star, are likely to be even more valuable now, following Ali's death last week from septic shock at age 74.
"Obviously, he’s an iconic figure that transcends sports," said Bob Dorfman, sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco. "When big-name celebrities pass away, when artists pass away, the value of their merchandise goes way up."
A 2003 study titled "The 'Death-Effect' on Collectible Prices" found "evidence indicates that the price of celebrity memorabilia rises substantially immediately after the person’s death" due to a "nostalgia spike." The study looked at the prices of baseball cards for great players like Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, and found that in the first six months after the man's death, card prices rose 13.85 percent on average.
That phenomenon played out again after Prince died in April. During his life, the mercurial artist was notoriously protective of his brand, ensuring that his memorabilia market was scarce. A local expert told the Minneapolis Star Tribune the singer's death brought with it an inevitable flood of collectibles, including a host of counterfeit items.
But while Prince memorabilia may have been relatively rare, Ali was a different story.
"The interesting thing with Ali was he never kept any of his stuff. It was just stuff to him," said Chris Ivy, director of sports auctions at Heritage Auctions in Dallas. "There has always been a strong secondary market for Ali material."
Heritage has sold a number of notable Ali items, including a pair of boxing gloves he wore against Sonny Liston in 1965, which sold for an eye-popping $956,000. They also sold, for more than $300,000, his 1966 letter to the draft board asking for religious exemption from the Vietnam War.
It remains to be seen what happens to the pricing of such rare items because they're typically sold at big events. "Its hard to gauge what the change is going to mean for the higher-end stuff," Ivy said. "On lower price-point items, autographs, things like that, eBay may be the best way to see an uptick — and I'm sure there is one."
EBay, in fact, currently has a featured section up advertising Ali "sports memorabilia, T-shirts, and more." There are some supposedly Ali-signed items — again, it's unclear if the pieces are authenticated — for as little as a few bucks. At the other end of the spectrum, there's an autographed piece of original art by the boxer with a list price of $150,000 and a signed oil painting/watch combo listed at $60,000. In total, there are more than 2,000 autographed items listed and a bevy of options, from gloves to trunks to championship belts.
"There typically is a flurry of market activity both on the seller side and the buyer side, and we’ve certainly seen that in the last few days," Dan Imler, vice president at SCP Auctions in Laguna Niguel, California, said in reference to high-profile deaths.
Imler added that later in life Ali did a lot of commercial signings and that the basement price for an authenticated autograph is likely a few hundred bucks. From that floor, prices shift based on the rarity of the item, the size of the collectible and a host of other variables — SCP, for instance, once sold an autographed Ali item for as high as $20,000.
While a buyer might be able to get an authentic signed piece for as little as a couple of hundred dollars, it will typically cost significantly more. A 2013 study found that a collectible Ali autograph was worth about $1,900 on average and was, in fact, undervalued.
That average figure is almost assuredly higher now. With Ali's death, fans likely want a piece of that legacy, a physical way to show the generations to come they connected with the "Sportsman of the 20th Century."
From a memorabilia standpoint, Ali stands alone in the sport of boxing, Heritage's Ivy said, just like Babe Ruth in baseball and Michael Jordan in basketball.
"There's Muhammad Ali and then there's everyone else," Ivy said.