Say It Ain’t So…Show!

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One of premier events for sports collectors is the National Convention held annually in the US. It’s an event most of us collectors get most excited about because it draws all the major dealers and collectors from across North America to one gathering to buy, sell, trade and talk about the hobby.

I’m writing this blog after returning from the third day of the show and can’t help but feel a sense of loss and disappointment from what I’ve seen so far.

This year’s convention is being held at the Rosemont Center in Chicago and as usual is held to a higher level, to showcase the event.

While the massive hall at first glance looks full of dealers, upon further inspection touring the room I found a lot of gaps, huge areas taken up by corporate sponsors, auction houses and card companies. Don’t misunderstand me because I’m guessing there are still at least a thousand dealers set up, but it just doesn’t have the same old feel it used too. The emergence of the Internet for online buying and selling has definitely taken a lot of the need to travel to shows out of the equation. The auction houses have drawn a lot of traffic with the higher end items and seem to be gaining further traction. The real eye-opener for me at this years convention is the number of auction houses set up to pry family heirlooms, collectables or generally make contact with possible consigners in the future. I lost count at fifty or more because it was only frustrating me further. I participate in the auctions, although reluctantly, because I prefer eye-to-eye contact with the end seller so that I can gather as much history and facts about the item. My immediate thought about the number of auction houses present is the competitive landscape changing in a big way and not necessarily for the better. Think of all these auction houses bidding for the right to display or offer a consignor’s items in their sale and at what cost. I see some places offering up front money, others will purchase the item outright or guarantee a certain value. All of these promises send nothing but red flags up for someone like me. How much due-diligence is actually done on a specific item or is the word of the consignor all that’s required with some limited research?

In a recent Canadian auction, a Bill Barilko sweater was offered as the one worn when he scored the famous goal in 1951 to win the Stanley Cup for the Leafs. A number of my knowledgeable friends have done some work on other jerseys passed off as such and had some real doubts about the authenticity of this one, but it was sold anyway. I informed an auction house, as did another experienced collector I know, that a Toronto Marlboro jersey advertised as a 1964 Wayne Carlton wasn’t his. In fact the number and the style of the jersey were clearly wrong. The auction house never bothered to follow up with us to see if we were on to something and sold the jersey under false pretenses anyway. This problem will only get worse.

I was listening in on conversations surrounding a few of the tables of these auction houses and in most cases left shaking my head. The current leader in the auction industry is Heritage out of Dallas and they are set up with a huge display occupying an enormous amount of floor space in the center of the convention hall. I smile as I look at the large staff in suits, wearing earpieces and a lot with an arrogance of entitlement that again had me shaking my head watching these guys act like they are the most important people in the room.   It scares me!

They maybe straight up and I have dealt with them, never encountering a problem of any kind, but I still worry. With all these mom and pop looking operations in business, most I’ve never heard, have, cautioned me to be aware. Competition is good and despite what Gordon Gekko says, greed isn’t.

My other observation is, as usual the characters walking the floor. They come in all shapes and sizes with varying degrees of interest wearing favourite team jerseys, shirts and hats, lugging suitcases on wheels, shoulder bags or knapsacks. Most have their thoughts trained to spot that hunted treasure or new find. Myself I must admit its more a fact finding mission because most of the show is baseball with a sprinkling of hockey but I did manage to find a 1970’s porcelain Maple Leaf skate fastened to a puck as a stand and on the bottom a bottle opener.

The dealers are a sight to be hold and they too come in all shapes, sizes and ages, all transfixed to the bodies approaching their tables with the hope of a trade, sale or purchase. It’s more nervous energy rather than anxiety and that feeling is prominent in all of us no matter what side of the table you happen to be. That’s the part of then show I love the most, the contact with a fellow collector and its irrelevant what we collect, the method to the madness is the same.

The concern that I have after my third day is how watered down this once very significant show has become. One vendor had three booths with one long table stacked with Riddell football helmets. Another had a double booth selling clothes that consisted of jackets, t-shirts, hoodies and sweatshirts. There was a table loaded with boxes and cases of cards all 25 cents each. For the record, a table at the show is roughly $2,000 not including hotels, travel, food, extra staff etc. All the new junky cards seem to occupy a number of the tables and admittedly were drawing interest. The pure collector while still present is becoming less visible because most work can be done from the comfort of home on line and that is what upsets me the most. The fear is, as that core part of the business becomes less needed it leaves the door open for the business side to be all that matters. I’m not naive to realize the hobby has gone that way but there is something to be said for the shaggy looking guy with a table full of relics and an encyclopedia brain as well.

Give me that over the stiff in a suit any day.