THE SMART COLLECTOR

“Ping Pong Diplomacy” paddles tell a smashing story

Think spring! The pair of French large terracotta garden urns sold for $17,080 recently at Bonhams and Butterfields in San Francisco.
Think spring! The pair of French large terracotta garden urns sold for $17,080 recently at Bonhams and Butterfields in San Francisco.
Posted April 28, 2011, at 5:01 p.m.

Q: I have a table tennis paddle signed by President Nixon. What is its value (if any)?

A: Our reader’s timing just could not be better. And, his signed paddle, one of a pair, has an amazing story.

Seen in a photocopy of snapshots taken in 1972, the paddle was signed for a visitor related to our reader. Shot in the White House Rose Garden, one photo shows Nixon signing. The recipient is shown ready to receive the paddle. All elements for authenticity are top-notch.

Under the presidential signature are those of team members, in Chinese.

The occasion was the 1972 visit of a table tennis team from the People’s Republic of China. That visit and others related to it have come to be known as Ping Pong Diplomacy.

Table tennis has gone way beyond ping pong as a basement pastime. Emerging in a big way when it became an Olympic sport with multiple events in 1988, table tennis today is followed by avid players worldwide.

The sport is governed by the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) in Lausanne, Switzerland, where it maintains a museum. The American arm is USA Table Tennis, www.usatt.org, in Colorado. And their CEO led us to people within the sport who had wonderful information.

To understand what makes the paddle special — beyond the presidential signature — remember that in 1971, China was a closed country.

Now, the owner of a company, www.paddlepalace.com, that sells table tennis equipment, Judy Hoarfrost was part of a celebrated U.S. Ping Pong Diplomacy Team that went to China in 1971. The next year, a Chinese team returned the visit.

According to Hoarfrost, “the visit of the Chinese team in 1972 was an important historical event” not just in ping pong, but “particularly in the history of diplomatic relations between the USA and China.” To this day, she receives inquiries related to that visit from Chinese students and press. As much as the sport has grown here, in China it is a mania. Because of 1971, Hoarfrost has returned as an honored guest multiple times, most recently to speak at the 150th anniversary of Chou-en-Lai’s birth.

Smart collectors are by now getting the drift that the paddles and the accompanying photo are special both for what they represent and because of what they are.

How special? Very — to the sport, to the Chinese, and in the United States. Chuck Hoey, curator of the ITTF museum in Lausanne, would love to see the items “preserved in our museum instead of scattered to the winds.” He offers to credit the donor by name. If donated, the paddle and accompanying items also would travel to world championships where the museum stages exhibitions. In an email, he added, “It would be an honor to preserve and promote [the paddle recipient's] legacy.”

The Richard Nixon Foundation, part of the Nixon presidential library in California, also expressed interest. Calling the paddles “historic,” foundation president Richard Quinn states that they are “valuable because there are not many artifacts available related to Ping Pong Diplomacy” and Nixon’s subsequent China visit in 1972.

Here’s where timing fits in: This year marks the 40th anniversary of Ping Pong Diplomacy. Special events are planned, including one at the Nixon Foundation in July.

“We would be honored and delighted to display the paddles and other memorabilia,” added Quinn. Display would “add exposure in an appropriate venue and could generate interest in a sale, if that is the reader’s interest.”

The smash is the reader’s to execute: Sell or donate? Either way, he’s a winner. If to sell is the decision, make sure that potential Chinese buyers are alerted. In that case, online auction such as eBay worldwide will open the sale to a world of bidders.

Q: How can I sell my eight war ration books?

A: Look on eBay: Most World War II ration books list for 99 cents to $3. Collections or unusual ration books bring slightly more.

MORE: What recession? This month, Sotheby’s New York realized a whopping $39.4 million for a sale of Magnificent Jewels. A single family collection brought almost $10 million. Best sellers were early 20th century Cartier and Tiffany with superb stones, diamonds and vintage colored stones. A circa 1920 Tiffany jabot pin featuring a 15.5 carat pear-shaped diamond fetched $1.2 million.

AUCTION ACTION: A pair of large terracotta garden urns that brought $17,080 in a recent auction of garden ornaments at Bonhams and Butterfields in San Francisco was copied from an antique vase. Made in the late 19th century, each signed urn stands 36 inches high and 41 inches across between the handles. Terracotta is an unglazed, baked ceramic clay.

COLLECTOR QUIZ

Q: In jewelry, what’s the difference between cameo and intaglio? For bonus points, name three ancient base materials for cameos.

A: Traditionally, a cameo is carved in relief so that design rises above the base material. Intaglio carving is the reverse, where the carver works below the surface. Both are popular with collectors. The earliest cameos were carved from lava, stone, glass and glass paste. Source: “Cameos: A Pocket Guide: 3rd Edition” by Monica Clements and Patricia Clements (Schiffer, $19.99).

Danielle Arnet will answer questions of general interest in her column. Send e-mails to smartcollector@comcast.net or write Danielle Arnet, c/o Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611. Include an address in your query. Photos cannot be returned.

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