The sports memorabilia business like any business is not without its warts; if money is involved, watch what squirms out from underneath the rocks.
Back in the 1970’s I started attending card shows. That was before the Internet, Social Media and specialized price guides. It was collecting at its purest form, collectors gathering in a dingy lit hotel room to trade, buy, sell and just talk about the art of collecting. The dealers themselves had collections and used the shows to supplement their own “wants” and “needs.”
Often I will refer to the “flea market” dealer as the backbone of the hobby. These guys are collectors first; they will set up anywhere they can, antique, card shows, flea markets, church bazar or even walking yard sales. Ask them about a piece they have and the description will relive the moment in time. That quite simply is what collecting is all about.
As the hobby grew and the need for access to other collectors expanded, a publication by the name “Sports Collectors Digest” was born. SCD became the bible of the hobby. It allowed access to fellow collectors and dealers who set up pages in the publication with items for sale. Most of the transactions in those days were completed by phone, mail or in person. I would wait anxiously for the latest edition to hit the newsstand and spend hours poring over the articles, items for sale, the few small auctions starting to sprout up and the want ads in the back of SCD. The pure exhilaration I’d feel upon finding a Toronto Maple Leaf item is a feeling all collectors experience.
One dealer who stood out in SCD was Allan Rosen, who referred to himself as “Mr. Mint.” He ran auctions, sold items and wrote a book on collecting which I had read. “Mr. Mint” was also responsible for one of the biggest “finds” in the hobby that contained Mickey Mantle rookies.
Attending my first “National” my objective was to expand my collection to include some baseball. The Leafs would always be the main focus but with the emergence of the Blue Jays I thought it would a good addition since I was following them anyway. I wanted a couple signature pieces so what says baseball better than Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle? My plan was to add some historic pieces to compliment the newer “Jays” pieces I’d be accumulating. It was a big investment for me but I wanted a Ruth single signed ball and a Mantle card, but wasn’t sure which one. “Mr. Mint” would help me I figured and he was a wealth of knowledge, so he was my logical man to deal with. Entering the floor of the Rosemont Convention Center in Chicago, I was overwhelmed at enormity of the room. I later found out that over a thousand dealers were set up at the show and in excess of 50,000 people would attend the show over the four days.
“Mr. Mint’s” booth was located just inside the entrance to the showroom floor and you couldn’t miss it with the huge sign. Approaching the booth I noticed three attractive women in cheerleader outfits tossing Styrofoam baseballs to the collectors passing by the booth. And there he was, in his entire splendor, silk sports jacket, turtleneck, sharp slacks and expensive loafers, autographing the baseballs the ladies were throwing to the crowds.
“I read your book,” I said leaning on the table in front of him.
“Thanks, appreciate it,” he replied, looking the other way.
“Listen, I’m interested in a Ruth signed ball and a Mantle card so I thought maybe you could help me?”
“Ok,” he said, still looking in another direction.
Thinking maybe he didn’t hear me I persisted,
“My strength is the Leafs, so I figured you could guide me the right way and we can do a deal.”
“Sure call me,” again with little or no interest in talking to me. I guess he thought I looked like a tire kicker and had no money.
It was at that moment I stepped back and took notice of what was really happening. The girls, the big sign, the pose, the tossing of the balls, this was a circus act and this guy was the clown, the only thing missing was the monkey and accordion player. It’s all about the flair. This isn’t collecting. The sports collecting world was turning corporate. Yes he provided a service but it was all about dollars and cents. Sports memorabilia was becoming fashionable and any stiff with a wallet could be in the game. Guys like “Mr. Mint” provided a service and couldn’t be faulted, but it was still not right, in my eyes.
From that day forward I tried not to deal with guys like “Mr. Mint” but it has been difficult because auctions have become the main source of finding items. Auction houses need capital to compete, thus the cooperate world with deep pockets.
The explosion in the mid 1980’s-1990’s of collecting cards has fizzled. The greed of the card companies to fulfill demand by creating more product, not only discouraged a generation of collectors with the worthless junk they sold, it also created more demand for the real collectables. The historic pieces available today are becoming more difficult to find and inflating prices thus creating a more “buyer be very aware” world around collecting.
So for someone like me, I have to play the game and deal with the corporate world of collecting. With advancement in technology, millions in dollar value change hands routinely in auctions. Unfortunately as a collector, I have to pay attention. Having said this, however, the industry is still vulnerable to the criminal element. I recently informed an auction house about misinformation they had on a 1960’s Toronto Marlboro game used sweater. Not only didn’t they listen, it sold and showed up in another auction for sale.
A few years ago I wanted to sell non Blue Jay baseball items. At the National in Atlanta I was canvassing different auction houses to see who could help. I approached the Legendary Auctions booth to speak to one of the staff. The big booth they had was very quiet so thought this would be a good time. Along with a catalogue of the items for sale, I also had a slide show of my basement on my computer. I was showing this as an enticement for possible business down the road if the selected dealer did a good job. Well not only did the guy at Legendary basically blow me off he barely acknowledged the slide show, save for a polite nod.
This little regard for me as a collector and client (I had purchased numerous items before in previous auctions with Legendary and this also fell on deaf ears) was enough of a warning to avoid these guys and I have since.
Walking around the recent Hockey show in Toronto at the International Center, I rounded the corner and there was the Legendary booth. They had an upcoming auction featuring a Gretzky, Oiler rookie jersey. I’m still on their mailing list and received numerous notifications the last month promoting the sale.
The resplendent Gretzky jersey was hanging on a mannequin for all to see in the Legendary booth. Seated next to the jersey was a uniformed policeman. When I stopped laughing at this cheap form of promotion I flashed back and knew I made the right decision to avoid these guys. That jersey was worn by the greatest team athlete in all of sports and should stand on its own. The bells and whistles once again just make it a sideshow.
PS. the sale of the jersey has been extended a few weeks. That is a first in my years of collecting. They are doing more due diligence. Stay tuned.