How do you estimate the value of old hickory shaft golf clubs?

I've had a number of people ask me this since I set up the page on restoring old clubs. So far as I can tell, there is still a dearth of information on the Web about values and valuation.

So where can one go? Well, the only real arbiter is the market place. What are people prepared to pay, and what are people prepared to accept? I know that's not a very satisfactory answer, so I'll endeavour to set down some ideas that may be of help.

I'm basing this on my knowledge of collecting old golf clubs for several years, and my qualifications as a valuer of old gramophones and recordings.

The most useful source of information of which I am aware is the Encyclopedia of Golf Collectibles by Olman and Olman. It was published ten years ago, so its prices are probably out of date now, but it will give you some idea of the relativities and what to look for in collectible clubs. That's certainly where I would recommend you start. (Indeed, it's where I did start).

But first, let me dispel some myths.

1. Rarity. Hickory shaft clubs are not especially rare. Golf was taken up with a passion in the early years of this century, and there were millions of hickory shaft clubs made to satisfy this passion. So, while the vast majority of them have disappeared into the dust of history, there are many, many hickory shaft clubs around the place. An average club in average condition might be worth $25. You might have to pay twice that in an antique shop, or only $5 in a garage sale. it depends on who's selling.

2. Rarity. What was common in the 1920s is still going to be common now. It's a bit like cars. A 1920 Bugatti commands a vastly higher price than a 1920s T-model Ford, because there were so few Bugattis made. In the case of golf clubs, the simple rule is the older the rarer. For every 1900 club you find there are probably 30 clubs from 1920 and 100 from 1930.

3. Collectibility. Some clubs are less common that others, because they were expensive, or they were not made for the mass market. Not all such clubs are in demand, but many are. Others with famous names - Tom Morris for example - are in demand. But the routine, mass-market clubs that are quite common do not command high prices. So don't get your hopes up about making a fortune just because you find a set of old hickories at a garage sale.

Remember, the fun is in the finding and collecting and learning, more than the dealing. The more you learn, the shrewder you will be a spotting the really valuable items. And occasionally you find a real gem. I bought four old irons at a garage sale some years ago. Two were common 1930s clubs in poor condition, worth $10 if that, The other two were smooth face clubs - suggesting they were pre-1910. One of these looked like a JH Taylor mashie (which is what it turned out to be, when I'd cleaned it up a bit). The other excited my attention. It had a long hosel and a strangely shaped head. I could make out only the letters "URGH" stamped on the back under the corrosion. Edinburgh? No. Musselburgh? Yes, possibly... and interesting.

When I got home and worked away at some of the corrosion, I realised I had a Willie Park Sr. iron - probably a mashie - dating from around 1872, with the original shaft (also marked Wm. Park). I'd paid $40 for the lot, and one alone was worth five or more times that figure. Of course, I haven't sold it, it's mounted on my study wall. You don't often come across clubs that old in Australia. Perhaps in the UK they're not so rare, but I was very pleased.

And that's where the fun lies, at least for me, distinguishing the gems from the dross. You have to be prepared to sift through a lot of ordinary stuff to find the good stuff.

But again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I also collect hickory clubs from the golf club to which I belong, from when it began in 1927. Nothing at all special in world terms, and not even especially rare, but I get quite a thrill when I find another "Canberra Golf Club" hickory to add to my collection. To other people, such clubs would just be dross. It all depends what you're looking for.

How you approach valuing clubs can vary quite a bit. It really depends on your ability to identify what it is you've found, how rare it is, and if it's collectible. Here's how I approached a recent request for help. It may give you some ideas.

Jeff C. wrote:

> I have a old set of hickory shaft irons and a putter. Are these worth
> anything? The irons are made by George Nicoll, Leven Fife, Scotland.
> They are hand forged. The putter is a St. Andrews Special. please help
> if you can. I've heard anywhere from $100 to $20 a club. What is a
> reasonable price?

I replied:

The value depends on a number of things:

Are the clubs all one set (eg mid iron, mashie, mashie niblick, niblick with the same markings) or are they loose clubs acquired over a period? If a set, they are much more collectable.

2. George Nicoll made huge numbers of clubs, even through to the 1970s, but especially in the hickory era. I think they started in the late 1800s. You can date the clubs by looking at the design of the "hand" cleek mark (which most Nicoll clubs carry). The design varied several times and can be used to date the clubs. The only place I can point you to for guidance on the particular variations in the "hand" is the Olmans' book, Encyclopedia of Golf Collectibles.

3. Do the clubs have their original shafts and grips? The more original their condition, the better. If all the grips are the same, it's likely they are original. Look at the top of the club hosels (the part where the shaft meets the club head). If there are any dents you can see or feel (not the little notches at the top, but dents in the side of the hosel), or if the "pin" that holds the shaft in place is visible or not smoothly aligned with the hosel, it's likely the shaft has been replaced at some point. Also look for markings on the top of the shaft near the grip. Some makers marked their shafts as well. Original shafts are better.

4. The club faces: machine imprinted lines are usually later than "dots", and hand imprinted dots older than smooth machine pressed dots. Nicoll used dots a lot, so it's not too good a way to date their clubs. If the faces are completely smooth, you have pre-1910 clubs, and they are definitely more valuable.

Prices? Depends entirely on the buyer. A full set of otherwise conventional hickory shaft clubs might be worth up to $400, individual clubs in poor condition could be worth as little as $5 each. Smooth face clubs could be worth at least $60 a club or maybe much more. (Please note I'm going on recent local prices. The US market may be different.)

As a median, for a mixed set in an old bag, I'd suggest asking about $30 each club, if they're in good condition and nothing unusual.

Well, that's it for now. Please feel free to if you wish, but please also recognise that I too am still on the learning curve. And it's very hard to give an exact valuation without seeing the club close up. And thanks to Jeff C. for asking the question, as it provoked me into writing this. I hope you find it useful.

Please note: I usually get at least two queries a day asking about club origins or values. I try to answer these as quickly as I can, but sometimes other things intervene (ie work!) so there can be some delay in getting a reply. Also, some replies I have sent have been returned to me as undeliverable. Please make sure your email address is correct! There are also occasions when I don't get around to answering because the request is complex or I just don't have the time. I do my best to reply but as this is a free service, I can't promise to answer. Try again if you don't get a reply within a few weeks.

26 August 1997