Judge halts auction of Augusta National green jackets

Green jacket. (File photo)

After listening to arguments from each side and asking each pointed questions, U.S. District Chief Judge J. Randal Hall granted a request Thursday that temporarily prevents the sale of three of Augusta National Golf Club’s iconic green jackets.

 

Augusta National filed suit Aug. 11 in federal court in Augusta seeking an immediate halt of an auction begun Aug. 2 by the Green Jacket Auction Inc. of Tampa, Fla. The auction, set to close Saturday, lists three green jackets, silverware and a belt buckle all advertised as authenticated Augusta National and Masters Tournament memorabilia.

On behalf of the Augusta National, Christopher Cosper argued in favor of a temporary restraining order to keep the auction company from selling what the club contends is stolen property or fakes which are prohibited by the club’s trademark. The club also contends that a document the auction company has that it says is a 2005 inventory of the club’s property also had to have been stolen from the club.

The club has never sold or given away a green jacket, Cosper said. The policy of the club founded in 1932 is that the green jackets are only worn by members and only worn at the club during the Masters.

“The history of the green jacket is Bobby Jones came up with this concept to identify members during (the) Augusta Masters Tournaments,” Cosper said. Through the decades the jackets became the symbol of the unique tradition of the club. The first green jacket awarded to a tournament winner was to Sam Snead in 1949. Not long afterward, the winners were allowed to take their green jackets home but only for the first year, Cosper said.

Although some green jackets are kept for historic reasons, the rest are destroyed when they become worn or torn. “They’re not for sale,” Cosper said. The green jacket is the embodiment of the tradition of the Augusta National and it is what sets it apart from other tournaments, he said.

But Gail Podolsky, who represents Green Jacket Auctions founders Bob Zafian and Ryan Carey, countered that the Augusta National has not produced any written policy governing the treatment of the green jackets and, even if there is a verbal policy agreement, it has been breached in the past. “Policy doesn’t equal possession,” she said.

One of the jackets, the George King jacket, was owned by King, a former member. According to his great-grandson, the jacket has been in the family’s possession for decades, a fact that the Augusta National was made aware of several years ago, Podolsky said.

The other two jackets belonged to John R. Butler Jr., a current member, and the 1966 green jacket of Byron Nelson, who won the Masters in 1937 and 1942. Cosper included affidavits from Butler and from Nelson’s widow indicating neither jacket left the club by Butler’s or Nelson’s action.

Those jackets came to the auction company through third parties who have possession of the jackets, Podolsky said. “My client does not deal in stolen goods. That’s not his business model. He lives and breathes on the success of the last auction and his reputation,” Podolsky said.

She also argued that the company has auctioned about 15 green jackets in the past without litigation. The fair use of trademark material is legal, she said. In 2013, the company auctioned off Horton Smith’s green jacket that was awarded years after he won the Augusta National Invitation Tournament in 1934.

When pressed to explain why the Augusta National hadn’t taken action in 2013, Cosper said he wasn’t sure what happened four years ago, but the Augusta National did pursue legal action against Heritage Auctions in 2013 in Dallas when it sought to sell the green jacket awarded to the 1959 Masters winner Art Wall Jr. Heritage Auctions agreed to return that stolen jacket.

In making his ruling Thursday, Hall said the policy of the Augusta National concerning the green jackets weighs in the club’s position the jackets belong to the Augusta National. And although the King jacket has been in the King family’s physical possession for some time, it too is subject to the rules and the policy of the Augusta National, Hall said. That there were sales of jackets in the past does not mean the Augusta National has issued a waiver of ownership, Hall said.

The balance test of the injunction tips in favor of the Augusta National, he continued, because if the jackets were sold at auction the recovery would be unlikely.

Reach Sandy Hodson at sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com or (706) 823-3226

 

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