Forget Chicago, Randy Cook gives the nod to Houston as the best collectibles market in the country.
"Consistently, Houston is the best," said Cook, a veteran dealer from Kansas City, Mo.
Cook was all smiles after the annual Tristar Collectors Show, held June 1-3 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston.
"This was a good, solid show," he said. "What we saw this weekend was, you don't need that mega-superstar appearing just for a show to be a success."
After all, the hottest signer was Houston Astros' outfielder Hunter Pence, who is two months into his major league career. Pence ($25-$40 per autograph) sold more autograph tickets than teammates Craig Biggio, Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman; more than Hall of Famers Len Dawson, Charlie Sanders and Roger Wehrli; and more than Heisman Trophy winners Andre Ware (1989), Mike Rozier (1983), Billy Sims (1978) or Charlie Ward (1993).
Pence sold about 700 autograph tickets to the public, about 200 more than he initially agreed to sign. Due to public demand, Tristar officials asked Pence if he'd agree to sign more than first negotiated.
He agreed, marking the first Tristar show in a year - since Vince Young in Houston last summer - that the Houston-based company sold out of an athlete's autograph tickets and added more for sale on the day of the signing due to the public's demand.
"Hunter Pence is the leading candidate for National League Rookie of the Year and his draw was massive," said Tristar president Jeff Rosenberg. "We sold out of every Pence ticket that was available. Hunter brought to the show just what he brings to the field: enthusiasm. And there was the same kind of frenzy for autographs from Pence as we witnessed last summer for Vince Young ... and Pence is even more incredible considering he, unlike Young, had not just won a National Championship."
Pence, ironically, appeared at Tristar's January show in Houston - and his autograph then was free.
The June show also featured appearances by Chris Sampson, Ricky Sanders, Lem Barney, Mike Thomas, Cecil Cooper, Archie Griffin, Lee Roy Jordan, Larry Wilson, Kasey Studdard, Eddie George, Walt Garrison, Jacoby Jones, Luke Scott, Steve Owens, Jason White, Matt Schaub, DeMeco Ryans and Larry Brown.
In addition, former University of Oklahoma football standout and former professional wrestler Steve "Dr. Death" Williams appeared, as did former NFL star Everson Walls, along with members of the Houston Comets.
About 3,500 collectors attended the three-day show.
"The show went very well," said Tristar vice-president Bobby Mintz.
Added Rosenberg: "It was a very good show, especially Saturday night when all of the Astros appeared."
The six Astros appeared at 6:30 p.m., after the team's game that afternoon against the St. Louis Cardinals. Pence and Biggio were the last to finish, signing their last autographs at 9:25 p.m.
"This might have been the latest a Tristar show has ever gone," Rosenberg said.
Biggio and Pence each signed for more than three hours. "I was very impressed with the Saturday night crowd, especially given the fact that the team has lost 11 of 12 and the weather was raining outside," Rosenberg said.
The Houston-St. Louis game was originally scheduled for a 7 p.m. start, but switched to accommodate television, thus the Astros were forced to appear in the evening.
Tristar likely will not keep future shows open as late, "unless there was a special reason to do it around athlete appearances," Rosenberg said.
Ward, the former Florida State quarterback who went on to an NBA career, was the most sought-after signature among the Heisman Trophy winners who appeared.
Schaub participated in a free question-and-answer session with the fans Sunday before signing, and Tristar officials confirmed that the company tentatively is planning a similar Q&A session with the stars at this summer's National Sports Collectors Convention in Cleveland. Tristar is in its second of a five-year contract to run the autograph pavilion at the annual National.
Meanwhile, Tristar's Jim Stefano moderated a Baseball Prospects Seminar at the show.
"I'd compare this show to last summer's Houston show more than to the January show, mostly because the January show is always bigger than the summer show," Rosenberg said. "The thing I found very interesting about this show was, the attendance will be just slightly off the attendance of a year ago - and we had Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, Emmitt Smith, Nolan Ryan and many, many other high-profile athletes in 2006.
"What that says is, collectors come to this show regardless of the autograph guests," he continued. "We didn't have the big, headline draws at this show, but the number of attendees who come into the building is pretty consistent. That surprised me."
So why wasn't there a headline guest?
"What we've found is, a lot of the athletes have priced themselves out of a lot of budgets," Rosenberg said. "And remember, we started these shows for dealers and collectors to get together and buy, sell and trade. The autograph business has really gotten so big.
"We'll ask people who they want to appear at a show, and they'll give us names," he continued. "Then we'll ask what they are willing to pay for those guests - and that's when the rubber meets the road, so to speak. We always hear collectors say that they'd like to see people like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali and Cal Ripken Jr. appear. Well, most of those guys you couldn't even get to appear at a show and, if you could, their autograph fees would start at $200 or more. And if you ask all of the collectors who want those guests at a show if they'd pay that fee, well, the number of hands goes down quite rapidly.
"So we're going on a different track, with the $20 and $30 autograph guests for the most part. And we've done well in that range."
This summer's National does not yet have that one "marquee name" among its list of autograph signers. Sure, there are some great players, loads of Hall of Famers, but none that truly draw that "wow factor" from collectors who cannot believe someone is appearing.
But Tristar is still negotiating with several high-profile stars to appear at the National, Rosenberg confirmed. "We've got feelers out there for main names, but I don't know if any will materialize," he said. "The deals have to be right for everybody."
Regardless, Rosenberg said any additional high-profile guests likely will not drastically affect the National's attendance.
"I think the majority of people going to the National go because it is the National; they understand what it is, what it's all about, etc," he said.
Meanwhile, Cook sold numerous tobacco cards at the June show, including five to a 16-year-old collector.
Dealer Roger Neufeldt of Oklahoma also noted strong tobacco card sales. He said pre-World War I cards sold "very, very well," including some Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth relics. Neufeldt also sold pre-World War I cards of Amos Russie and Addie Joss. Plus, Neufeldt sold a 1972 Topps Basketball set ($350), a 1965 Topps Baseball set ($1,800) and a 1957 Topps Basketball set ($3,500).
Neufeldt said vintage football cards did not sell well.
"Overall, it was a very successful show," said Neufeldt, of Norman, Okla.-based Sports Memories.
Shane Wells of Baton Rouge, La.-based SKW Sports said all releases showcasing LeBron James sold well in Houston, especially 2003-04 Upper Deck Black Diamond.
Wells also noted interest for Ripken's 1982 Topps Traded rookie card ($150), Nolan Ryan's 1968 Topps rookie ($500) and Hakeem Olajuwon's 1986-87 Fleer rookie ($50).
Texas-based dealer Carl Gerjes said Pence drove sales of 2004 Donruss Elite Extra Edition and 2004 Upper Deck SP Prospects. He added strong sales of 2006 Topps Sterling ($300 per box) and Barry Bonds-signed baseballs ($425). In addition, Gerjes said sales of Tristar's Prospects Plus continue to be hot.
"I talked with several dealers and they said that Prospects Plus continues to be on fire. Obviously we're thrilled to hear that," Rosenberg said. "There was not a hobby box available on the floor. The retail box, which carries a $20 SRP, was selling for $50. If available, the hobby version would be selling $300, dealers were telling me. It's exciting to see that collectors really love that product."
After the National, Tristar only has one more confirmed show for 2007 - early September in San Francisco.
"From the show perspective, it's strange," to not have more confirmed shows for the remainder of the year, Rosenberg said. "But from the business perspective, we're just as busy, with Hidden Treasures and the minor league cards."
Rosenberg downplayed additional shows being added after the San Francisco show.