His customers' insatiable appetite for unopened material keeps Steve Hart busy. He's taking some new additions to his "wax museum" to the National but he also has a new job: PSA's new unopened authenticator.
Wax packs, cello packs, rack packs, vending boxes. You name the variety and the year and chances are sometime in the last twenty years, Steve Hart has sold it. Or bought it. Or at least seen it. In a hobby where looking at sports cards would seem to be the primary objective, he prefers his cardboard in it's original, undisturbed state.
"I've just always found unopened material so fascinating," said the Munster, Indiana-based dealer. "It boggles my mind how some of it still existed to this day in it's original form."
Hart has made a living specializing in unopened product. His business, Baseball Card Exchange, is a prominent player in the market. The company is also a major buyer of sets and single cards as well as memorabilia. But the vintage unopened products are what really drives Hart to continue searching high and low for anyone who wants to sell. Finding buyers is rarely a problem.
Rack packs are especially popular with collectors who've come to believe the cards inside are typically better preserved than those residing in wax, cello or vending. "It seems that pre-1973 racks, in any sport, will sell off my web site minutes after posting them," he said.
When he first began seeking out unopened material, the occasional find from an old drug store would emerge, but that dream find is becoming increasingly rare. "It's getting tougher and tougher to find nice vintage unopened stuff," he said. "We spend an insane amount of money on advertising, just in the hope we get a few phone calls." eBay has not proven to be a good substitute. "We used to hunt eBay for unopened but I estimate more than half the stuff on there is re-sealed garbage," Hart explained. "Every time we bought something unopened, I had to fight to get a refund."
Thanks to a recent buy from a baseball memorabilia collector, Hart will be bringing several old packs to the National Sports Collectors Convention in Anaheim, CA this week. "We got some killer cello and rack packs with stars showing from someone who collected them that way. We'll have those out for the first time at the National. A 1960 cello with Mantle on top and Hodges on the bottom, a 1962 cello pack with Clemente on top and a 1953 Bowman football 5-cent wax pack graded a mint 9."
Grading packs is something Hart won't do in his new position as a consultant for PSA's new pack-grading program. "I will inspect every single pack that goes through PSA," he told Sports Collectors Daily. "I have nothing to do with the grading. I just put a simple "Y" or "N" on each pack's temporary holder."
The new post means Hart may be selling packs he's also authenticated which has raised some questions about a possible conflict of interest but he believes he's simply doing for others what he's been doing for himself for 20 years.
"Every single pack that I have sold was purchased by me, authenticated by me and sold by me. Lots of my customers probably wouldn't have been able to authenticate the packs I sold them by themselves, but trusted us 100% due to our reputation and commitment to integrity. Now I am just doing the same thing for the public. Once it is placed is a PSA holder, you now have my opinion along with PSA's guarantee. PSA grading also has other authenticators who work for them, but also have a business. Some of the guys who do bats, autographs, photos and tickets also actively buy and sell them."
Packs have been a haven for unscrupulous people who pull the valuable cards out and then attempt to re-seal them as originals. "We've seen it all," he said. "As much as I hear that rack packs would be impossible to reproduce cleanly, we have had them offered to us. I had some 1968 racks offered to me recently that were very good re-seal jobs. They were able to reproduce the 'crimped' seal along the edges right over the original seal. I guess where there is money, there are crooks trying to get rich quick."
Hart closed his last retail location in 2002 and his sales are now primarily internet based via eBay or the company web site, www.bbcexchange.com. His warehouse includes 8,000 square feet of inventory. It's a better life, especially when you've become a father for the first time. Memories of those days in the shop live on, especially one of his better memorabilia finds.
"We once had a man in his mid-60s come in who had some autographed Ruth, Gehrig and Yankees team balls to sell. Once we finally came to a price on the collection, I paid in cash. My first comment then was 'not to blow all that money in the nearest bar.' To my surprise, his comment back to me was 'No sir, it will go toward more enjoyable trips' as he pointed to his Grateful Dead hat!