This is a genuinely moving story…….. (Grant – Outlook Editor).
Russell Crowe puts down his cigarette and thumbs the 144-page glossy catalogue for next month’s Sotheby’s auction of what he likes to simply call his “stuff”.
By Andrew Webster
As the man himself says: “It’s stuff I have worn, stuff I have bought, stuff I have admired, stuff I have loved, stuff that has made me laugh, stuff I have sweated through, and stuff that has made me bleed for my art.”
Among the chariots and swords from the movie Gladiator, and the boots worn in Romper Stomper, and the boxing gloves and robes from Cinderella Man, the stuff that should stand out for the cricket enthusiast is lot No.129.
It is the baggy green worn by Australian wicketkeeper Bert Oldfield during the third Test of the infamous Bodyline series against England in 1932-33 when he was struck in the right temple while trying to fend off a vicious Harold Larwood delivery.
“Even though I really wanted it,” he says. “I thought it would be too much. Then the bids started slowing up and I just went, ‘Yep!’ and got it.”
He didn’t know what he really had, though, until the cap was removed from the frame.
“The great thing about that baggy green is that you can see where the peak has separated from the cap,” Crowe explains enthusiastically. “That’s the point of impact where the ball from Harold Larwood has hit Bert Oldfield in the head. It broke the peak of the cap. Something must’ve hit him with some force. I mean, that’s the Bodyline series and people just let it go. I thought, ‘I’m going to get that’. I spent about $28,000 for it and it’s the most expensive baggy green that I ever bought. I get a lot of pleasure having these things around.”
Crowe doesn’t sound like a person ready to let go of them as we sit on the balcony of his Woolloomooloo apartment and he talks about his vast and eclectic collection of sporting memorabilia that also includes one of Lindsay Hassett’s baggy green caps, a plaster cast of Muhammad Ali’s face and cricket bats, sweaters and gloves once belonging to all manner of superstars.
But he is. He’s letting go of all of it as part of a cleansing prompted by his amicable divorce from wife Danielle Spencer. The “Art of Divorce” auction will be held in Sydney on April 7.
And Crowe is doing so because of his late cousin, the legendary New Zealand captain Martin Crowe, who died of cancer in 2016.
In 2006, when he was going through a similar change in his life, Martin decided to sell all of his memorabilia, from Gunn and Moore bats used to craft elegant centuries against England to Wisden almanacs bookending Sir Donald Bradman’s career and a series of World Cup shirts that includes one signed by the late South African captain Hansie Cronje.
“Martin wanted to refinance his house because he was in a new relationship, he just wanted to clarify his life and make things simpler,” Crowe explains. “He wanted a bunch of cash. I had been buying at high-end sports auctions for a decade by then and he showed me his list. The auction house wanted to buy it from him and sell it together.
“We were traveling to Coffs Harbour [to Crowe’s farm at Nana Glen] at the time and I said, ‘You are doing the wrong thing. I’ll pay you double what they will pay you and you send it all to me’. I had a deal with him if, over time, its value passed what I paid him then I will share with him everything above that. That will now go to his daughter.
“He had been a cricketer for a long time. The evolution he was going through was being hindered by his history. He didn’t want to keep bumping into stuff of his history. He wanted to take certain things off the wall. And I am now doing the same.”
When Crowe says this it shuts down the perception from some in New Zealand that he’s merely profiteering off the death of his cousin.
“It’s just silly,” he says. “This is a joyful thing that people want to make into something negative.”
Because it’s quite clear that Martin was someone with whom Crowe shared a special relationship. One day, in 1995, Crowe received a phone call while living and working in Los Angeles.
“Hey mate, can I come stay with you for a while?” Martin asked.
“Of course!” Crowe replied. “Absolutely.”
“Good, because I’m at Los Angeles Airport.”
Martin was about to retire from cricket and wanted someone to confide in.
“He stayed for two weeks,” Crowe recalls. “And we talked through that transition. This auction stems from him. Because that ‘stuff’ is not important. There are actually some important things you have to focus on. He was a great mentor and educator for me, which I told him many times. The connection we had was about understanding that we both had the disease of … I won’t say perfection. Of being aware that we are willing to give as people. It was great having someone in my own family who understood me. And I understood him.”
Which brings us to South Sydney.
When Crowe took co-ownership of the club in 2006, he asked Martin to become a director. “Because I wanted the people of Souths to know there was blood on the board so great care would be taken with every decision,” he says.
Cruelly, cancer had taken hold of Martin in 2014 when Souths reached the grand final and he couldn’t make it to the match.
“It wasn’t his first bout,” Crowe says. “That was his third bout. He decided after his first bout of chemo he didn’t want to do that again. A year before he died, he just got on the phone personally to 40 to 50 people and said, ‘I’m feeling great right now but I know that in a cycle of time I won’t be feeling great. So while I am feeling great, and I can spend most of the day awake, I’d like everyone to come together one more time. Because I don’t want to do that when I am feeling sick’.
“We all went to New Zealand. I talked to the NRL and they gave me the actual trophy. I put it in a flight case and I took it to New Zealand so he could be photographed with the actual trophy. He had a great time.”
“I don’t think I told the NRL I was taking it with me,” he says. “That was the mission: to take the trophy because he hadn’t enjoyed that moment on the night. He was always believed. He’d been through the ups and downs, the illogic of the sport. He told me if that’s the thing you are passionate about, that’s the thing that you should do.”
Still on Souths, there are — and noticeably so — just two Rabbitohs-related pieces in the collection up for auction.
One is a 2008 custom “Rabbitohs” chopper motorcycle, which is estimated to fetch between $35,000 to $45,000. The other is a signed jersey presented to Crowe in 2002 when the club was readmitted to the NRL.
But that’s it.
“Because I’m not selling any of the rest,” Crowe smiles, before adding: “Funnily enough, I don’t have that much Souths memorabilia. What I do have, though, is the f—ing trophy and a line in the history books.”
And that, as they say in rugby league, is f—king priceless.
Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald. Friday 23 March 2018.