Presiding over his company’s first ever Collectors Night in the heart of New York City, John Brigandi compared the feeling of opening a fresh, previously unseen box of vintage sports cards or memorabilia in his store to unboxing a special package during the holidays. Well, the Rockefeller Center’s famous Christmas Spectacular came early last Thursday night, with hobbyists and hobby experts substituting for the Rockettes. For four joyful hours a bar basement came alive with a shared energy for collecting and new discoveries.
About four dozen collectors and two groups of panelists shared stories, insights and commentary while enjoying some historic memorabilia and downing some snacks and cocktails, all for the price of a $50 ticket.
Since its establishment in 1959, Brigandi Coins and Collectibles has become one of the nation’s preeminent dealers of rare coins, paper currency, gold and silver bullion, vintage sports memorabilia, rare autographs and Americana. While catering to collectors, the family owned business around the corner from Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan has been a mecca for collectors nationwide.
In the mid-1980s coin stores sold valuable sports cards and collectibles before card shows and shops popped up everywhere. Back then, I visited Brigandi’s store a few blocks from my office almost every day at lunch time, marveling at eye popping NM/Mint Topps 1952 Mickey Mantles ($6,750) and NM 1951 Bowman Mantles ($3,950) that I wish I could have afforded. I did buy my fair share of cards. My biggest deal was trading a 1920s $20 dollar gold piece I saved up for while working as a teenager. My return was a near mint 1957 Ted Williams.
Collectors Night was hosted by the affable Brigandi and his equally cordial son, Chris. It was certainly among the more notable hobby events in New York City in more than 25 years. Back in the boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s gigantic shows occurred every weekend all over town, some in huge venues like Madison Square Garden and the cavernous piers on the Hudson River. New York was the hobby’s epicenter. Collectors Night was more of an educational social gathering.
Brian Dwyer, president of Robert Edward Auctions, arrived early, accompanied by a famous guest: the T206 Honus Wagner card that’s starring in his current auction. Over the years, REA has sold 12 of them, the most of any auction house.
This one, an Authentic trimmed, is expected to sell for $1.5 million to $2 million by the time the auction ends on April 24. “No one has ever, ever lost money on a Wagner,” he said. “Everyone who has bought one has made money.”
Dwyer pulled his Wagner out of jeans pocket as it was a common everyday object like a hair comb. I jokingly asked him if he’d carried it with him on the subway but both the guardian and his important guest had arrived by car. “I have flown to the National holding a Wagner,” he told me. “Right now I am just a guy going home from work.”
Chris Brigandi moderated the first panel. Greg Caserta, a local sportscaster, marveled at the sky high prices for minor league prospect cards. In February, Golden Auctions sold a top 1/1 trading card for 19-year-old Jasson Dominguez sold for $474,000. Right now Dominguez is hitting .222 for the Yankees’ single A affiliate. “Speculating on guys who have not made it is a huge risk,” said Caserta who has done some minor league radio play-by-play.
John Brigandi concurred: “Maybe he’s a gamble. He is the new Gary Sanchez!” A prospect is a suspect is an old adage.
Chris Brigandi summed up the room’s sentiment about collecting versus investing: “A lot of people do not even know what they are collecting. ROI (Return on Investment) is everything to them. I have never heard ROI so much as over the last two years.”
That was the last time ROI was uttered all night. “I never regretted collecting one day in my life because of the love of getting my sweaty little sweaty hands on cards,” said Jeffrey Litchman, a criminal defense lawyer who has been involved in the John Gotti and El Chapo cases and represented 100 people in the hobby. “I look at a Cobb and still get dreamy. Cards that that cost $50 mean just as much to me as those that go for a small fortune. If you love it for the right reason, it will always be fine.”
In 1986 or 1987 John Brigandi bought a 1954 Mickey Mantle at a coin show. He kept it in his office for a year. Soon his store’s display cases included both collectible coins and cards. “When I was selling $100 bills for $90, cards were my best selling cases,” he said. “We are all collectors. We are all here because of the hobby.”
Autograph authenticator Jimmy Spence reflected on how much the hobby has matured. “The biggest thing is that auction houses are now getting all their items authenticated and graded,” he said. “At first it was the wild, wild west. People were buying things recklessly. I remember people jumping over the table and waiting to take a swing at me. Today there are at least three reputable companies. It’s very, very important that people have accepted it.”
Lichtman and John Brigandi agreed that there still needed to be more safeguards. “It’s a completely unregulated industry,” Litchtman said. “There’s still shill bidding and trimmed cards. There are a handful of FBI agents. The government views it as a piddly, hillbilly thing. It’s a multibillion dollar industry.
Lichtman broke the news that he represented the buyer in the voided $519,000 sale of Tom Brady’s “last” touchdown football, adding that auction houses would be better off inserting qualifications in their LOAs in case a player comes out of a retirement— even if that means a lower auction price. Rovell, who was on the second panel, immediately tweeted the news on his phone. “Lelands (the auction company) did the right thing,” Lichtman said. “All’s well that ends well.”
The first panel’s show and tell time proved fascinating. Lichtman passed around the ancient skate key from his friend Jimmy Page, the legendary guitarist from Led Zeppelin. John Brigandi showed off an ancient mailing box a venerable collector had used to mail off to old timers for signed baseballs. A strand of twine, once wrapped around a pen, was attached to the box which contained vintage stamps for return postage.
Spence became very emotional recalling the death of his grandfather, an avid autograph collector dating back to the 1940s. Forty-two years ago, his father died when Jimmy was 18. Without his knowledge, his mother sold the entire collection for peanuts to a local antiques dealer. Lo and behold, Spence was at Robert Edward Auctions authenticating items one day when a colleague discovered a complete collection of historical autographs, including Harry Truman and a Babe Ruth signed self-addressed envelope with another Ruth autograph hidden inside. It turned out to be his grandfather’s entire collection. Rather than break it up into lots, Dwyer graciously arranged a reasonable private sale to Spence. “I am glad that it’s back in my family,” Spence said.
The second panel was first rate, too. Dave Marino at Collectable, the fractional shares platform, disclosed that his startup is here to stay, with $60 million in assets already offered in bite-sized pieces. Collectors (he didn’t say investors) range in age from 26 to 80. Others on the panel touted the concept as a way for collectors to own pieces of valuable items, like Cal Ripken’s $142,000 rookie jersey—the one he’s wearing on his Topps Traded rookie card –they otherwise could not buy.
Marino sweetly held up a baseball card of his high school coach from Horace Mann, an elite prep school in the Bronx. “This is my favorite piece in my collection,” he said, a reminder that the most valuable item you own isn’t necessarily the closest to your heart.
Not all of the discussion centered around ancient sports artifacts.
“NFTs are the future,” Chris Brigandi declared. He compared today’s market to NASDAQ in 2000. “There was so much BS, but a lot of good stuff, too,” he said. Everyone agreed that NFTs are extremely volatile.
Buster Scher, a 21-year-old entrepreneur and NFT maven, expounded on the subject, but most of it was Greek to this old school hobbyist.
Rovell caught my attention when he revealed that he spent $93,000 on digital horses through NFTs, much to his generally supportive wife’s dismay. He sold them for $200,000. Today they are worth $3.5 million. I felt better about the Mickey Mantle debut ticket I sold for a few thousand dollars 20 years ago that would be worth $144,000 today because I learned at the event that I certainly wasn’t the only one with seller’s remorse.
Scher held up his phone and scrolled down to show his NFTs. Rovell asked him if his phone had his priciest ones. “No, they are in my hot wallet,” he replied. “Those are in my cold wallet.” Cold is a cool way of saying secure.
Rovell, the sports industry reporter at Action Network and previously ESPN, is a fanatical collector whose buying sprees have allowed him to build a varied and valuable collection of rarities in a short period of time. “Checks, tickets— anything that is one of one,” he said.
He was lugging around a backpack crammed with slabbed tickets and press passes that must have weighed 40 pounds. “I am Johnny Ticketseed,” he joked. “I have to spread my love.”
He began pulling his prized possessions out of his bag like a magician pulling rabbits out of his hat, one after another. There was the highest graded 1954 World Series game one highlighted by Willie May’s “Catch.” Out came Sadaharu Oh’s gorgeous 700th home run ticket stub in Japanese, of course. A stub from the infamous 1986 World Series Game Six signed by both Mookie Wilson and Bill Buckner is probably his favorite. He owns a ticket from the game when Randy Johnson killed a bird that got in the way of his fastball. Bo Jackson running over Brian Bosworth, destroying his career? He has a ticket from that game, too.
A full ticket to the first 1955 World Series game when Jackie Robinson stole home at Yankee Stadium holds special meaning. “Imagine the balls it took stealing home in enemy territory,” he said.
Due to the Robinson association, it’s a premium ticket. But as I have written twice for Collectable, World Series tickets tend to command much less value than debut or milestone tickets because fans frequently kept them. “There’s a million of Don Larsen 1956 World Series perfect game tickets,” Rovell said. “The fathers said ‘Don’t throw that away or I will kill you’.”
Knowledge and a willingness to dig around can pay off.
“You do the research of a common ticket and you know something that someone else doesn’t know,” Rovell explained. “It’s like arbitrage. And there’s drama in the chase. If you want a card, you can get it.” Rovell devotes hours to researching a ticket’s historical significance. I had the good fortune of buying a common Brooklyn Dodgers ticket at a show for $30. I looked up the box score and it ended up being from a game in which Duke Snider hit three homers, later tripling my money on eBay.
“I am a big fan of real scarcity,” Rovell said. There hasn’t been a Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs “Battle of the Sexes” ticket stub to surface in nine years. There are only six Doug Flutie Hail Mary Pass tickets (five of them full). Rovell has one.
Rovell has 100 tickets on his want list, but expects to nab 70-90 of them. His Holy Grail is a 1947 Jackie Robinson debut ticket, but not for $480,000 (the latest sale). He recently made a very generous offer, to my mind, for a ticket from Buddy Holly’s and Richie Valens’ last concert in 1959 in Clear Lake, IA before their fatal plane crash.
After the panel ended, almost all of the 47 guests remained to chat about their latest acquisitions and avail themselves of the open bar. In the corner, Rovell was putting on a show, thrilling the crowd which was shooting videos on their phones. He brandished two full tickets to John F. Kennedy’s party at Madison Square Garden when Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” Then there was the first ticket to Disney World’s opening in 1955 with a beautiful map on the back.
John Brigandi advised Rovell to take an Uber home rather than the subway.
Collectors Night was really as fun as Christmas morning. John and Chris Brigandi promised to repeat the event every other month. Next time, guests will bring their own beloved pieces to show and tell.
Before heading back home to Brooklyn, I couldn’t resist asking Dwyer what the next big thing would be like the ticket boom over the past year. “If I knew what was going to be hot, I would not be standing here,” he replied. ”I would be standing on a beach.”