Out-of-work Christchurch sports fan James Sanders hit pay dirt after discovering a bat owned by Sir Donald Bradman in an auction.

Cricket's greatest ever player, and one of the most famous sportsmen anywhere, never played in New Zealand.

But in what will probably remain an enduring mystery, one of his bats with links to the most infamous sports series in history has turned into a goldmine for Sanders.

The bat was advertised as Bradman-signed, but turned out to be much more than that, and could even have been used in the extraordinary Bodyline contest.

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Sanders won't confirm what he paid for it at an antique auction "somewhere in the South Island".

The Herald understands he parted with just a few hundred dollars for an item that might fetch up to $40,000 at an Australian sport memorabilia auction this month.

Sanders was the only bidder for the bat, which came from a deceased estate.

It has Bradman's signature in the so-called ownership position, near the top at the back, and is signed by 16 English players including captain Douglas Jardine, architect of the controversial bodyline bowling tactic.

Sanders told the Herald: "Before the auction I was excited – all I knew is that it was a Bradman signed bat and I thought I'll go and have a crack at it. It was a William Sykes (brand) bat, his bat of choice.

"I knew it was something special but I got really excited when I got it home and realised he had owned it.

"That elevated it from being pretty cool. The greatest cricketer of the 20th century, the biggest event in the history of cricket, that's the Holy Grail right there.

"I certainly didn't have a hit with it. I just put it in the corner of my bedroom for safekeeping."

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The $40,000 signature.
The $40,000 signature.

Bradman included scoring highlights on bats he gave away, something that is missing on this particular bat. But the bat shows signs of wear, and he was not generally known to collect other players' signatures on bats he hadn't used.

One guess is that he gave it to the England side to sign after the infamous 1932/33 series in Australia, where controversial bowling tactics negated Bradman's batting genius.

The bat probably stayed with the English side, which travelled on to New Zealand for two matches.

From there, the bat's journey and home remains a mystery for now. Sanders did enquire, but found little and is keeping some location details confidential.

Bradman came to New Zealand with Australia in 1932 but due to an apparent communication mix-up missed taking part in an exhibition game at the Basin Reserve.

Bradman gear raises major excitement in the sports memorabilia market, and the location of about 20 of his bats is known.

Melbourne auctioneer Charles Leski - a Bradman specialist – auctioned the Australian legend's first test bat for $145,000. He said the latest bat was a stunning find, because it was such a surprise.

Leski will put the bat under the hammer on August 11 along with many other sports items including one of Sir Richard Hadlee's caps and gloves used by former Kiwi captain Geoff Howarth.

Leski estimates the bat will fetch between $26,000 and $36,000. The reserve is $21,000.

Business mentor Sanders said: "Maybe the English passed it around on the ship to sign. There is a story to be told but I don't know if it ever will be.

"If there had been any die hard cricket fans there I would have had a battle to get hold of it. Somehow it slipped through the net and I ended up with it.

"I wasn't tempted to keep it - I only had it for 10 days. There is the financial aspect of course, but I had no emotional attachment and I think the bat really belongs in Australia.

"I'm between jobs and had a bit of cash to spend from my redundancy and thought this would be a good investment.

"I'm amazed at the price it might go for. It makes up for not having worked for a couple of months. I'll pop the money in the bank and take it from there."