It’s All in the Eye of the Beholder

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I arrived at our booth at the EX after work one day that summer of 1992 and after a week; the routine was becoming pretty familiar. My brothers ran the booth during the day and kept in touch with me throughout, updating me on our inventory levels and how sales were progressing. If we needed additional inventory, I’d make a run to our supplier and pick up new product.

The guys said some old Russian guy came by with some stuff and was coming back to see me.  I questioned what he had and why they hadn’t locked some items down because we don’t want the other dealers to scoop fresh product. They informed me it was Russian cards, pins and some pennants and all the other guys had passed, so they didn’t want to make a tough decision without me present.

A while later I was observing the crowd when I noticed a particular older gentleman heading towards our booth. This guy was different then the odd sort of people I would see at the EX as he was very short, European, worn features, shuffled, slouched over while dragging a bag on wheels behind him. I think the long coat and hat with the weather 90 degrees outside might have been the clincher.

“That’s the guy, Mike”,said my brother as the old guy approached the booth, nodded at me, while not even saying a word and opened his bag of goods.

“My stuff right from Russia, you like Russian pins?”, he said and before I could answer, he showed me some large, ugly, gold metal pins about 6” long and 2” wide, in different shapes, with Russian inscriptions displayed in a cardboard folder. It reminded of a conversation I had with a Russian I played hockey who had told me that when he played tournaments in North America, he and his team mates would load up on hundreds of pins that cost pennies and then sell them at the rinks for $5-$10 a piece.  I asked him to show me more.

“Five, big Five,” he mumbles, as he produces a set hockey cards featuring Viacheslav Fetisov, Alexei Kasatonov, Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov (also known as the KLM line). These guys a few years earlier dominated the 1987 Canada Cup and were regarded as maybe the best five-man unit ever assembled in hockey history and where labeled the Green Unit.

Then he pulled out something that caught my eye. It was a banner about 12”x 6” made of white thin canvas. The figures of Gretzky and Tretiak standing side by side, wearing their Team Canada and Russian National uniforms, with their names written in Russian where stenciled on the pennant. The pennant was printed in red ink with a red border and tied at the top to hang freely. Now we were getting somewhere and I immediately inquired how much and how many did he have? He had 25, but unless I took some of the other pieces, he wouldn’t sell me the pennants.  I wanted to make sure no one else had bought any of these items and he assured me they hadn’t. He had just received this package of goods from Russia and I was his first buyer. I hear all kinds of stories when guys are trying to sell me things and this was a tougher situation because I have no recourse, after all, how will I ever find him once he’s gone today, especially if he’s lying? Of course I grilled him where the items came from in Russia, who made the souvenirs, did he have a warehouse full and so on. I still had my brother snoop amongst other booths to make sure, no one else had bought anything. I did notice two of the other dealers sniffing around, sensing a deal taking place, so I politely told them to move along. Dealers will do this sometimes in case the talks get heated and they can step in a scoop the deal if frustrations run high. In other words, I’ll do all the heavy lifting and one of these stiffs will try and steal the deal.     The old man did say I would get first look at anything new he received and he could get more banners.

The banners I could move for the right price; there wasn’t a lot of Russian collectors around, therefore I had to give myself some room in case I couldn’t move the other pieces as quickly as I’d like.

So the final package after some bartering back and forth (its funny how English improves when you put a dollar sign in front of everything) was settled at $5 for a set of pins, $5 for a set of cards and $3 per pennant. Thank goodness he had more pennants than the other pieces but I was still worried about getting stuffed with these things and no buyers. The Russian gentleman shook my hand and said he would be in touch. He wrote his contact information (only a phone number in those days folks) on a scrap of paper and was gone.

We quickly made room for the new pieces and priced the pins at $12 a set, the cards $15 a set and $10 for a pennant.   We sold a few sets of the pins and cards so our cost was effectively headed for zero at this rate. The pennants as I had suspected moved briskly at $10 a pop.

The night was coming to an end and things had slowed down as the vendors around us started to shutdown for the day. The four of us were sitting in the back of the booth trading stories of the day and the subject of supply, demand and what someone will pay was the topic. I had just explained to the guys why all these price guides and so called experts where nonsense. Any object whether a piece of memorabilia or a piece of chicken is only worth what someone will pay; at that moment, the memorabilia gods must have been listening. Two twenty-something year olds were walking by the booth, when one of them stops dead in his tracks and shouts,

“Holy shit man, look at that?” and at the same time moved towards the booth and was pointing over my head towards the back. I turned to see what caught his eye and saw one of the guys had hung one of the Gretzky Tretiak pennants on the back wall. I looked at my two brothers and the other guy we had working with us and said,

“Watch this boys, I’ll show you what I mean.”

“Hey buddy how much is that Gretzky pennant?” said the one guy and turning to his pal continued, “I love Gretzky and that thing is so cool I got to have it, how much man?”

“Yep we just got those today from a Russian guy and there right from Russia, the Gretzky is $50,”

“Sold.” He said and couldn’t get the words out fast enough.

I pointed out the other Russian pieces and he had no interest, just Gretzky.

Well to tell you my brothers and our friend were flabbergasted, would be an understatement.

Six months later my brother was at a card show and called to inform me a Gretzky collector- dealer was setup and he had some things I needed.

“Did you show him the Gretzky Tretiak pennant?”

“Yes and he’s going nuts, never seen before, wants to know where I got it and how many I had, I told him this one and my brother had one.”

We ended up trading that guy about 800 bucks worth of goods (all Gretzky) for the pennant. I knew this guy as a sole Gretzky dealer and collector probably owned all those items at zero cost base, so we squeezed him as hard as we could.

I went to the show the next day and found his booth. He had the pennant hanging at the back up high on the wall. We caught eyes and I said,

“You have some interesting things, everything for sale? And anything current?”

He said nothing new except the usual Gretzky pieces and he had as big a selection of Gretzky memorabilia I’d ever seen.   He claimed to be the biggest Gretzky dealer in the hobby. I pointed at the pennant and inquired about the history.

“Oh that, man that’s the Holy Grail. Got it yesterday, 2 in world, I’m hoping the guy I bought it from brother shows up today because I need the other one from him and he may sell it, what a piece.”

Meanwhile I have a half dozen in the bag that I’m carrying but I play along.

“What you asking on it?”

“Oh that’s not for sale man, that’s for my personal collection, to rare, it’s from Russia you know.”

“Everything’s for sale, c’mon buddy, why you have it on display then, put a price on it, can you pull that down and let me have a look?”

He reached up to carefully to take the pennant down, I smiled thinking how it’s all about the presentation and this guy was moving like he was handling 1000 year old vase. I again played along with the theatrics and handled the pennant very carefully.

Holding it, I gave him an admiring but inquisitive “how much” look.

“Well since it’s so rare and what I have into it, I’d need $3,000 and even then…” letting his voice trail for effect.

We spoke a few minutes longer and I moved along, taking his card to get in touch with him if I wanted to pursue the piece further.

A year or so later a book came out listing all things Gretzky, for collectors. In the book were a few articles on some of the great collections of Gretzky memorabilia. The number 1 Gretzky collector was a guy from New Jersey. He listed his top 10 favourite Gretzky items and item number 3 on the list was none other than the Gretzky-Tretiak pennant.