On May 30, 2012, what many considered to be the finest collection of early golf artifacts ever assembled was sold at a Christie's auction in London, England. The collection was assembled by Jamie Ortiz-Patino, the owner of the Valderamma Golf Club, in Valderrama, Spain, and this historic ballot box was part of that amazing sale.
Ballot boxes were used by the members of a golf club to determine—anonymously—who would become a new member. When somebody applied for membership and their name made it to a final vote, each person voting would pick up a single voting ball (usually the size of a marble or slightly larger and made from clay) and then place their hand into the center opening of the ballot box. Then they would release the ball to the left or right (there is a divider between the two drawers inside the box just below the opening) in order to register their yes or no vote. After everybody had voted the drawers would be opened, the balls in each one counted, and the verdict announced.
When Valderrama hosted the Ryder Cup in 1997, this ballot box was already in Patino's collection and on display. Patino, the driving force that brought the Ryder Cup to continental Europe for the first time in history, sought only the finest golf antiques. He purchased this solid mahogany ballot box as lot 374 in Sotheby's 13 July 1992 auction, in Musselburgh, Scotland. The catalog for that sale shows this very box and gives an estimate of £4000 to £6000 (a copy of the catalog description is included in the images here).
The auctioneer was at that sale and this box went for more than the estimate for a simple reason: Provenance. Sotheby's catalog documented the box as follows: "A Fine Mahogany Ballot Box circa 1840, with YES and NO drawers together with an envelope dated July 28, (18)68 addressed to the Secretary of Prestwick Golf Club, 7 Cromwell Place, Ayr, which was found in the NO drawer of the box." The catalog included the letter in the picture of the ballot box.
The chances are extremely high that this is the ballot box that resided in the Prestwick Golf Club's small clubhouse during its earliest days—when it held the first 11 Open Championships, when Tom Morris worked there as Prestiwck's keeper of the green and clubmaker. Now, it could be that the box does not date prior to 1868, which is only 17 years after the club was formed in 1851 and the small cottage that served as Preswick's first clubhouse was purchased. But if the box was new to Prestwick in 1868 and was taken
out of service years later, why would it still contain a letter dated
1868? If anything happened to the box at Prestwick in 1868, it is most likely that the box was taken OUT of service that year and the letter
went along with it. Plus the box which has four beautiful rectangular ivory inlays, (one on each drawer and two atop the cabinet, all hand-etched scrimshaw-like "Yes" and "No") appears to date prior to 1868. Hence Sotheby's original estimate of c. 1840 for its age.
When this box sold at the 2012 Patino sale, the Christie’s catalog said nothing about its early Prestwick connection. The 1868 letter originally purchased with the box was not included and there was no mention of it. Consequently, the bidders were in the dark and the box brought just under $2,000, as if it was just a nice old anonymous ballot box and not the box you would have seen had you walked into the Prestwick clubhouse during its earliest years. Even the current consignor of this box did not realize its connection to Preswick nor its place in history.
The box measures 12" high, 11" wide, and 9" deep. The small round depression on the top of the box was where a single ball could be placed. The slight damage (a chip and crack) to the circular opening on the front of the box is of little consequence as it adds more character than it removes. This minor damage was likely the reason the box was taken out of service.
This is a fabulous piece of golf history, the sort of thing you would find in an institutional museum.