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Art auction houses turn to true grit

This summer a Lou Gehrig baseball shirt _ a drab, gray road jersey _ sold at a San Francisco auction for $363,000.

It was the highest price ever paid for an athletic uniform and illustrates the financial might now commanded by the sports memorabilia market.

But the stage is set to break that record in New York. Another Gehrig jersey will go on the block this Saturday at Christie's East. This one, with its splashier Yankees' home pinstripes, original buttons and game-worn discoloration, carries a pre-sale estimate of $425,000.

While prices for items like baseball cards and autographed bats have been leveling off, collectors seem to have a new and ecstatic attraction to the clothes once worn by their sports heros.

Indeed, when Sotheby's Holdings auctioned Roger Maris 1961 New York Yankees uniform in February, it went for $132,000 _ more than four times its pre-sale estimate.

Collectors have focused on jerseys because they carry the team name or logo and the player's number. Pants, considered to be of little value, often ended up in the trash heap long ago.

When estimating a price, the bloodier, the sweatier, the more authentic that game-worn look, the better. Then there's the importance of the player. "A Gehrig is always more valuable than a DiMaggio," said Joshua Arfer of Christie's.

In March 1991 Sotheby's became the first old-line auction house to hold a sports auction in New York. That auction, coupled with a second sports auction last February, brought in $6.8-million. A third sports auction is scheduled for early 1993.

For Christie's, Saturday marks its first sale devoted exclusively to sports memorabilia, though the company, like Sotheby's, has long sold collectibles ranging from Hollywood costumes to rare toys.

Both auction houses deny their foray into the sports market is a calculated way to boost revenue when sales of traditional art are floundering.

Auctions of mainstay Impressionist, modern and contemporary paintings begin later this fall, but the outlook is cloudy. "We've tried to be conservative in our estimates," said David Nash of Sotheby's. "I'm only cautiously optimistic."

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