Isn't That Whistler's Duffer?

Even more golf nuts than usual converged on Scotland this month, and not just because the British Open was being held at Muirfield. The occasion was a threesome of golf-collectibles sales at the Sotheby's, Christie's, and Phillips auction houses.

As in years past, old golf clubs and balls generated excitement. But lately, many collectors have also taken a keen interest in antique golf artwork, such as watercolors, oil paintings, and prints. "In the last two years, it's really taken off," says Mort Olman, a Cincinnati art dealer and golf historian. "Now, everybody wants golf art."

The supply of good antique golf art happens to be very limited. You know what that means: Prices are going up. Two years ago, a turn-of-the-century watercolor by J. Michael Brown went for $130,000. Sir John Lavery's impressionistic depiction of Scotland's North Berwick course, circa 1918, recently sold for over $110,000.

The largest price tag for a piece of golf art is believed to be nearly $300,000 for a sketch by Sir Francis Grant. He made the piece, which sold last year, as a study for a full-sized portrait of St. Andrews golfer John Whyte-Melville in 1874.

BEYOND KNICKERS. The earliest "proper" golf art--depicting the Scottish game, not a similar Dutch sport--can be traced to the mid-1700s, says Edward Monagle, Christie's golf specialist. But there wasn't much of it until the early 19th century, when a few wealthy golfers commissioned portraits of themselves in golfing attire or posing with their clubs. Most of the originals from this era are either in museums or private collections and rarely change hands.

Budding collectors who don't want to bust the bank should focus on the late 19th century through the 1930s. "A rule of thumb for collectors," says Kevin McGrath, a dealer from Melrose, Mass., "is that the era of antiquity ended about when the golfers stopped wearing knickers."

Brown is easily one of the most popular golf artists of this period. A Scot, he is best-known for illustrations that were used in the calendars of a Scottish life insurer. His watercolor of a golfer and caddy at Hoylake was expected to fetch $5,000 to $9,000 at Christie's on July 16.Lots of collectors get a kick out of Francis P. Hopkins, a British golf journalist and illustrator who liked to portray himself in his paintings as a character named Major Shortspoon. And Harry Rountree, a transplanted New Zealander who died in 1950, is best-loved for his dramatic landscapes in The Golf Courses of the British Isles by Bernard Darwin.

LONG SHOT. George Straton Ferrier, a little-known landscape artist from Edinburgh, apparently did only one golf painting. But that didn't dampen collectors' enthusiasm. Sotheby's just sold the century-old watercolor for around $30,000. In golf, that's what's known as beginner's luck.

Two of the few Americans to dabble in golf scenes--in the knickers-wearing days, that is--were Howard Chandler Christy and A.B. Frost. Both did much of their work as illustrators for magazines such as Harper's.

Sensing a hot market, some auction houses are trying to sell paintings of the Dutch game colf, or kolf, to golf collectors. On July 16, Christie's hoped to bring around $15,000 for a portrait of a young colfer by an unknown follower of Wybrand De Geest. Yet some collectors won't have anything to do with the Dutch. Colf, played on ice, "is not really golf," sniffs McGrath, "It would be like a baseball person collecting cricket items."

For the time being, it's not easy for Americans to jump into golf art collecting. Although McGrath holds occasional auctions at his firm, Sporting Antiquities, you'll most likely have to travel to England and Scotland for the big sales. But the way prices have been going lately, paying for a trip across the Atlantic will be the least of your expenses.

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