By Joe Dynlacht
An auction was held on in early March in a suburb of Indianapolis, with approximately 100 lots of sports memorabilia up for bids. Of course, there are usually several such auctions that are held in Indiana each year, with many of the items lacking certificates of authenticity or provenance. But this one, the Nancy C. Irsay Estate Auction, was unique, and the provenance of the items impeccable.
Nancy Irsay was the second wife of Robert (Bob) Irsay, who owned the Colts from 1972-97. Irsay is probably best remembered for orchestrating the relocation of the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis under the cover of darkness and in the wee hours of the morning of March 29, 1984. Several Mayflower Transit Co. moving trucks were dispatched to pack up all of the team’s belongings and bring them to Indiana. Irsay relocated as well, to Carmel, Ind. He married Nancy in 1989, and died in Indianapolis in 1997. His son, Jim, became the owner of the Colts shortly after his father’s death, but not until after a well-publicized legal battle with his stepmother. Nancy remained at the Carmel estate until her death in late 2015.
Earl’s Auctions (located in Indianapolis) was called in to handle the estate sale, which included several pieces of unique sports memorabilia, artwork and clothing. Earl Cornwell, Jr., the owner of the auction house, revealed that some of the items remained untouched from the time they had been transported to Indiana, still packed in the original Mayflower boxes!
The auction was live, with no Internet bidding, and as with most live local auctions, there was the potential to win an item without breaking the bank. Surprisingly though, given the source and uniqueness of the lots that were auctioned off, there were no five or six-figure sports items auctioned off, like Super Bowl or AFC Championship trophies (while several lots of Super Bowl mementos were auctioned off, this makes sense, because the Colts did not win a Super Bowl or win an AFC title game during the time that Bob Irsay owned the team).
The lack of high-dollar items in the auction may have been due, in part, to the kindness and conscience of the auction house owner. When I had come to the estate in the days prior to the auction to photograph some of the items for this article, Earl escorted me to a private area that held several items that he was giving back to Jim Irsay. Several of these items were of historical significance. Also, it is possible that many of the items collected over the years by the elder Irsay were passed on to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Finally, it is well-known that a settlement was reached with the City of Baltimore in 1985 that involved the return of Johnny Unitas memorabilia. It is possible that more material dating back to the birth of the franchise may have been returned to Baltimore as well. Nevertheless, there were items at the auction to satisfy the appetites and budgets of every NFL football fan, especially Colts fans.
The items that attracted the most spirited bidding were a NFL 75th Anniversary helmet autographed by at least 25 members of the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team (including Bob Lilly, Merlin Olsen, Raymond Berry, Gale Sayers and Otto Grahm), and a Wilson NFL Pro Set binder containing the Owner’s Edition of 1990 Pro Set cards. Each of these lots sold for $750 (not including the 10 percent buyer’s premium).
Several game balls that the team had given to Irsay were also auctioned off, along with Irsay’s collection of Waterford glass footballs commemorating Super Bowls or various events.
The ball that attracted the most spirited bidding was a game ball given to Irsay after the October 8, 1995, game against the Miami Dolphins at Joe Robbie Stadium. The ball held historical significance to any Dolphins or Dan Marino fans; during that game, Marino broke the record for completions, the first of many of the hallowed passing records that Marino would break in his storied career. The winning bid for that game ball was $500.
Among the more unique items were what appeared to be a custom-made Colts chess set and a painting commemorating the 1977 silver anniversary of the Colts, which featured portraits of several famous Colts players that had been named to the silver anniversary team. Some of the more affordable lots included commemorative Super Bowl tickets that were given out to owners and other NFL VIPs. The tickets were generally sold in groups of four or five per lot, bringing approximately $130-$200 per lot. A list of other significant items from the Irsay estate are listed in the sidebar below.
One question remains: What happened to all of those Mayflower boxes? With the exception of three boxes (two of which contained items that will be given to Jim Irsay, and one that was given to the author by one of the auctioneers to carry the lots that had been won), no other boxes were observed at the auction site. Earl explained that many of the boxes had been broken down and left in the dumpster during the unpacking process days before. Thus, sadly, the majority of these have presumably been lost to history.
The follow is a partial list of items from the Irsay Estate Auction. Prices do not include a buyer’s premium.
• 75th Anniversary NFL helmet (with autographs of members from the 75th Anniversary team: $750
• Owner’s Edition 1990 Pro Set cards (with NFL letter) $750
• Baltimore Colts 1977 Silver Anniversary painting of Colts stars: $600
• Colts chess set: $550
• Game ball presented to Irsay (Colts vs. Dolphins, 10/8/95): $500
• Premiere edition of ProLine cards: $475
• Waterford Crystal Football (Super Bowl XXVIII – Georgia Dome): $425
• 1995 AFC finalists team-signed football: $400
• Game ball presented to Irsay (Colts vs. 49ers, 10/15/95): $375
• 1989 Pro Set Errors and Variations binder with cards: $325
• 1991 Chicago Bears team-signed ball: $325
• Waterford Crystal Football (NFL-St. Louis Football Partnership): $300
• Game ball presented to Bob Irsay (Colts vs. Jaguars, 12/10/95): $300
• Glass football (1995 Division Championship Game): $250
• Rick Mirer game-used and autographed Seattle Seahawks helmet: $125
• 1995 NFL Playoffs glass football: $120
• Wilson NFL briefcase: $85.
By day, Joe Dynlacht is an Associate Professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine, but he enjoys being an occasional freelance contributor to SCD. Dr. Dynlacht may be contacted at email@example.com.