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Inside Jim Irsay's Traveling Museum

Liam McKeone
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Jim Irsay, like many fellow sports fans, grew up loving to collect sports cards. Specifically, Irsay enjoyed collecting baseball cards, biking around the Chicago suburbs to drugstores and buying whole boxes. Fifty-some odd years later, Irsay does not have the collection, but he looks back at that childhood hobby as an omen for things to come, a sign of what he'd be passionate about later in life.

Irsay may not collect baseball cards anymore, but collects just about everything else. For decades, the Indianapolis Colts owner has built up a wide-ranging, eclectic, and expansive memorabilia purchased at auctions all over the globe. And he's finally ready to show it off to the world.

Welcome to the Jim Irsay Collection, or as the 62-year-old called it to The Big Lead, his "traveling museum."

On Friday, June 3, Irsay will put his collection on display at the Hammerstein Ball Room in New York City. It is open to the public for the first time. The collection has grown so large that not even its owner can name everything in it, and claims only five percent will fit into the New York exhibition. But it has everything one could imagine and more.

Among other things, the collection contains a 200-year-old copy of the Declaration of Independence (that Irsay unsuccessfully tried to convince Barack Obama to sign), Muhammad Ali's shoes from the Thrilla in Manilla, Richard Nixon's resignation letter, a rocking chair that belonged to JFK, and the original document declaring Thanksgiving as a national holiday signed by Congress.

As you can tell, it is not simply a collection of awesome sports memorabilia put together by an NFL team owner (although he has plenty of those items). Nor is it just a hodgepodge of the rarest things Irsay could get his hands on. The Colts owner may not be able to name each individual item but he has painstakingly crafted his collection over the last two decades, and sees it as art.

"It's like an artist painting on the canvas and it's become this beautiful fabric, this beautiful portrait," Irsay told The Big Lead. He explained he has put together the collection over the years instinctively, organically, and spiritually. He wants to use his resources to do things nobody else can to honor history, like putting together an original drum set of The Beatles using pieces purchased at various times.

That's what it's all about for Irsay. He isn't opening it up for everybody to see because he's after the price of admission or to be heralded for what he has. The resources he's gained over the course of his life have given him a unique opportunity to curate history in ways few other individuals can. The purpose of putting the Jim Irsay Collection on display is simply to let other people enjoy it the way he does.

"I'm not interested in anything except presenting this collection to the public," Irsay said. "I'm not going to collect museum fees. No money I want from it. It's a community effort to help the arts in the world, you know?

"When I was a kid, Ernie Banks was my man in Chicago as a Cubs fan. If you said, 'Wait in line for 10 hours so you could hold and put on Ernie Banks's glove,' I would do it. It's the same thing with this. It means so much to people."

Perhaps no one item illustrates that point more than an original printing of Alcoholics Anonymous by Bill Wilson, purchased by Irsay at a 2018 auction for $2.4 million. The item clearly means a lot to Irsay, who has his own documented struggles with addiction and lost his father and grandfather to alcoholism. The manuscript started a movement that has changed millions of lives, and Irsay wanted it in his collection so it would be available to as many people as possible.

"It saved millions and millions and millions and millions of lives through the center through the decades. And this original manuscript that has all the original writings of the 12 steps, which is used in almost any recovery besides just alcoholism. It's so powerful," Irsay explained. "There's meetings going on right now, all throughout the world, because of that book. There's nothing like it. Scholars and philosophers said the most important discovery of the 20th century was the Big Book of the 12 Steps. Bigger than the polio vaccine, bigger than landing on the moon, bigger than anything because it saved the most lives."

One point that Irsay wants to make abundantly clear is that he doesn't feel like he "owns" any of the items he paid for. It's history, after all. One cannot own history, Irsay believes. He wants to be seen more as the guy who organized the circus that everybody can enjoy.

"I don't own this stuff. It's a bit like I'm the curator, like, you know, I'm the Willy Wonka. I'm the guy behind the curtain, the Wizard of Oz. I think that's what this is turning into, something enjoyable and eclectic and magical."

Irsay has grand plans for his collection. Starting with the Hammerstein Ballroom on Friday, he plans to tour around the world with his memorabilia, filming a documentary throughout the journey. He thinks it could be used to put on a Broadway play someday. He sees it as a show more than anything, with plenty of live music featuring special guests. Irsay wants to have these items serve the people, to grant them a truly unique experience they otherwise would've never gotten.

"I've accomplished all the dreams I possibly could. Of course I want to win more Super Bowls and do more great things and have more Hall of Fame players, etcetera, That's obvious. But I feel like being of service is something that means the most to me. It's kind of like the Blues Brothers in a way, when they say jokingly, ‘We're on a mission from God,’ you know, I mean this is a mission from God. I see it all very spiritually, how we try and affect the world. We're not human beings having a spiritual experience, but we're spiritual beings having a human experience and there's a big difference.”

The Jim Irsay Collection will be on display in the Hammerstein Ballroom at the Manhattan Center on Friday, June 3 from 12 p.m. ET to 8 p.m. ET.

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