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The Insane Grey Market For Augusta National’s Green Jackets

The iconic green jackets of the Masters Tournament aren't the only items selling for shocking amounts of money

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(Photo Illustration: Diana Quach)
Apr 08, 2016 at 6:28 PM ET

The Masters Tournament kicked off on Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club and, for the eventual champion, the prize not only includes a shiny trophy and $1.8 million prize, but a lovely green jacket embossed with Augusta National’s logo.

The green jacket has been awarded to the Masters’ champion every year since 1949, as well as retroactively distributed to the nine men that had won the prior 12 tournaments. According to Augusta.com, this treasured piece of haberdashery is solely “reserved for Augusta National members and golfers who win the Masters. Jackets are kept on club grounds, and taking them off the premises is forbidden. The exception is for the winner, who can take it home and return it to the club the following year.”

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That said, despite Augusta’s strictly enforced rules and regulations, members’ green jackets are often made available for purchase by the general public, and not tucked away in an untraceable corner of the dark net either.

They’re right there in plain sight, listed for sale on Green Jacket Auctions, an online market for “quality, rare golf memorabilia.” Vocativ spoke with the site’s co-founder, Bob Zafian, and he said that he expects this late 50s to early 60s member’s Green Jacket currently up for bid to go for as much as $18,000, if not more. If the price tag shocks you, it shouldn’t. For golf memorabilia collectors, a green jacket represents “the Holy Grail of Masters collectibles” according to Zafian.

Anything even vaguely connected to the Masters will fetch a serious price. Take for example this entrance sign, currently checking in at a whopping  $18,987 dollars as of Friday afternoon, up from an initial $5,000 bid. A 1934 Masters program signed by then-chairman Clifford Roberts has climbed all the way up to $9,847. It’s clearly a seller’s market and Green Jacket Auctions has it cornered.

But given that green jackets—in theory—should not be in the possession of anyone outside the hallowed grounds of Augusta National, collectors will really pay through the nose when they appear on this seeming grey market.

In January, a member’s jacket was anonymously discovered by a volunteer sifting through the donations pile at a Houston nonprofit store and sold for $20,000, a tidy sum that certainly “will go a long way with helping our mission,” the Guild Shop’s executive director Gaye Jackson told Golf.com.

Golf.com also reached out to Zafian, who said that the store might’ve been underbid, and the unnamed buyer had “indicated he might turn around and sell the jacket in the future.

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“The whole story behind this jacket, of it being found at a thrift shop, that plays on people,” Zafian said. “I think somebody could pay $50,000 for that jacket.”

When asked if the buyer had approached him, Zafian said that “he actually came to see me and bought the jacket and was interested in exploring the possibility of reselling it.”

The buyer didn’t go through with it, even though Zafian advised him that the publicity surrounding the jacket’s odd discovery could potentially boost its value. “I don’t know if the story and the whole aura about how it was found is as powerful down the road,” Zafian said.

Every once in a blue moon, however, an actual winner’s jacket will pop up, and then the madness really begins.

Bobby Jones’ 1937 jacket fetched a cool $310,700 at Heritage Auctions’ Vintage Sports Collectibles Platinum Auction from an anonymous buyer in 2011. Augusta National isn’t entirely sure the jacket is legit, though. Despite the presence of a notarized letter from the seller tracing chain of custody and “a second letter of authenticity from former club photographer Frank Christian,” the club believes that the garment in question “has a more modern patch with the Augusta National logo, which is different than the one for auction.”

Two years later, Green Jacket Auctions bested that mark when they auctioned off 1934 and 1936 Masters champion Horton Smith’s jacket for $682,229.45, setting the record for the “highest price paid for a piece of golf memorabilia.”

When asked if anyone at Augusta National had ever contacted tried to discourage him from selling an item up for bid, Zafian was crystal clear.

“Obviously they are aware that we sell jackets,” he continued. “They were aware when we sold Horton Smith’s jacket. But they haven’t contacted us saying they would like to buy the jacket or that we shouldn’t be selling the jacket. So that answer is no.”

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Has Zafian ever heard any stories about Augusta National furtively buying up the jackets anonymously, or through sock puppet accounts?

“You know, you always hear rumors,” he said. “My customers will say, ‘Oh did Augusta National buy that?’ when we sold Horton Smith’s Jacket or Doug Ford’s jacket. In this case, the answer was no. But you know, I really don’t know what they do, if they have someone bidding on their behalf or something. I really wouldn’t know. “

As to the issue of members seemingly skirting the rules about taking the jackets home with them and then selling them, Zafian shrugged.

I really don’t know what Augusta National’s policy is there,” he said.

Augusta National wasn’t any help in this regard, declining to respond to multiple requests from Vocativ for comment.

Which leaves us in a somewhat strange place vis-à-vis why Augusta would allow this to happen. Just to add fuel to the speculative fire, before the Horton Smith jacket was sold, its owner contacted Augusta to see if they were interested in displaying it.

“They expressed a real interest the first time we talked,” Michael Lackovic, a relative of Smith’s, told Golf Digest. “But when I called back to check again, they were cold as potatoes. We weren’t looking for money. We just thought it would be nice to showcase it; Horton would’ve liked that.”

And remember, we’re not just talking about any old club. Augusta’s combination of exclusivity, secrecy, and insular self-regard led a senior writer for a site that covers golf extensively, speaking on the condition of anonymity, to describe Augusta National as “a shroud of mystery and darkness.”

Augusta’s exclusivity raises an obvious question: How exactly do you gain membership in Augusta? “If you have to ask, you’re not welcome,” Golf.com explained. “That’s the basic membership policy at Augusta National Golf Club,” adding that, not only is their membership wildly wealthy “but a greater distinction would be that holders of the green jacket are accomplished.”

And since only the uber-weathy and/or top golfers in the world will ever get to truly luxuriate in the benefits of this brand of exclusivity, it’s understandable that collectors have and will continue to want to purchase a snippet of the Masters, even if it’s just a rinky-dink employee’s badge.

“It’s like anything else, you know?” Zafian said. “You want something that’s rare. You want things that other people generally don’t get their hands on.”