NEW YORK — The staff of world-famous Sotheby's is preparing for an auction today, and, as is the custom here on the Upper East Side, the sell is on.
Three items will be up for grabs. The expectation is that millions of dollars will change hands. With so much at stake, presentation is everything.
The first item you see when taking the escalator to the second floor, where the exhibition begins, is not Custer's battle flag found in the pocket of a dead soldier at the Battle of Little Bighorn, which raged across the plains of Montana in 1876. And it is not one of the 20 original copies of the Emancipation Proclamation that President Abraham Lincoln signed in 1863, a document that would later be owned by U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
No, for this auction, the main attractions are the two prominently displayed yellowed sheets of paper that spell out James Naismith's original rules of basketball, typewritten by Naismith's secretary in 1891 to be hung in the gym of the YMCA Training College in Springfield, Mass. Now they hang in protective glass frames with a price tag estimated at a low of $2 million.
"Usually when we sell something, we set a low and a high estimate," said Selby Kiffer, the senior vice president for special projects at Sotheby's. "Most of our estimates are based on previous experience with similar documents. One reason we left the upper limit undefined is we really haven't handled anything like this before."
Kiffer has been working at Sotheby's for 26 years. The last time he treated an item in this way?
"When we sold a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton," Kiffer said, "which was the biggest and most complete ever found."
T-Rex's massive bones helped explain the evolution of the entire planet, and Sotheby's low estimate was set at $1 million. The Field Museum in Chicago bought it for $7.4 million. Naismith's rules help to explain the simple origin of a game that has stolen countless hearts and imaginations across the globe, and there's no telling the sum such a joyous manuscript could garner.
"We've had responses from all over the world," said Ian Naismith, James Naismith's grandson. "It's amazing."
Ian Naismith will be in New York today to see the rules that have been with his family for 119 years find a new home. He has the most invested in the process, which will involve bids coming in person, by phone and from the Internet. The winning bid will benefit the Naismith International Basketball Foundation, which is run by Ian and serves underprivileged children.
The foundation has fallen on tough times in line with the economy, forcing Ian to approach Sotheby's. Ian says that in the past he was offered as much as $5 million to $10 million for his grandfather's 13 rules, which resided in Lawrence for 41 years following James Naismith's arrival in 1898, when he joined the KU faculty and became the Jayhawks' first basketball coach. Naismith retired in 1937 and died in 1939.
Naismith's rules were built around four fundamental principles: no running with the ball, no tackling or rough body contact, a horizontal goal above the heads of the players and freedom of any player to obtain the ball and score at any time.
"The genius," Kiffer said, "is the rules were elastic enough that the game could develop around them."
On Friday, it will be the job of David Redden, Sotheby's top auctioneer, to explain Naismith's genius and the significance of the rules to potential buyers. For a frame of reference, Redden was in London this week auctioning medieval manuscripts. Thing is, the Naismith auction should be more intriguing.
"Somebody who might find a Thomas Jefferson letter or an Einstein manuscript sort of boring can get sort of interested in this," Kiffer said. "I think the world of bidders for something like this could be enormous. Really, I don't know who it might be. Could be a player. Could be a team owner. Could be a frustrated player who wanted to be a star and never made it but made it in business. It will be fun."
As Kiffer is saying this, a frequent buyer walks up to the Naismith display, which stands tall around a small hardwood replica of a basketball court.
"By definition, it is unique," the buyer said.
But it is out of his price range.
"Shaq could buy it and not even think about it, right?" he joked.
A man like Shaquille O'Neal may have the funds, but there's no way that he could want the rules as badly as Josh Swade, a 36-year-old New York resident who grew up in Overland Park and attended KU for a few years.
Swade is in the TV industry, and being a Jayhawk, he came up with an idea when he heard about the auctioning of the rules. He went to his bosses and wanted to make a documentary about basketball's impact on the world with an eye on helping to bring the rules back to Lawrence for good in the Booth Family Hall of Athletics, which is adjacent to Allen Fieldhouse on Naismith Drive.
Swade started a website — bringtheruleshome.com — and has traveled the country for the past month interviewing former KU coaches and players, among others. After all of it, Swade believes that the group of interested parties he has assembled will be a player today.
"It's gonna come down to crunch time," Swade said. "Those rules belong in Lawrence, Kan. To me, it's a no-brainer. I think Dr. Naismith would want them to be in Lawrence. He's buried there."
And it was there that James Naismith sat down with his son, Jimmy, over breakfast at the family's Massachusetts Street home in 1931 and decided to authenticate the rules he'd carried with him for 40 years. Even then, they realized the rules would be worth a large chunk of cash someday.
It pains Swade to think of the rules ending up somewhere else but especially outside the country.
"You hear of these wealthy folks in places like Italy, Russia and Lithuania," Swade said. "I can't begin to talk about them. They belong in the United States, on display."
Ultimately, though, this is Ian Naismith's decision, and he can live with whatever happens. His hope is that the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., will win the bidding. If not, Ian accepts that the love for the game his grandfather created is strong enough to take the rules anywhere.
"Basketball is played in over 230 countries," Ian said. "It's a world game. That's how we've always looked at it as a family."