It’s nine weeks before the start of the National Sports Collectors Convention and Mike Provenzale is compiling a master list.
One of the main jobs for the longtime production manager of sports and memorabilia at Heritage Auctions is to handle all the arrangements for the biggest trade show of the year for the largest auction house in the United States.
It’s quite a chore. And it’s gotten more rigorous every year for Provenzale. The first National that he worked was at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemount, Ill. in 2008, and he’s been at every one since. Last year’s convention was cancelled due to the pandemic.
This year’s show is back in the Chicago suburb for the seventh time in the last 13 conventions.
“When I started, we had like a 15-by-15-foot booth and we’d have three or four display cases,” Provenzale recalled. “We’d show up the day the show was going to start and set up. When it closed down, we’d take an hour to pack everything up and head out. Now we have a 50-by-50-foot [booth] and, I believe, 65 display cases, video screens, all of it — handouts, raffles, giveaways. We’re going to do a break as well, so a lot of stuff is going on.”
With the trading card industry on fire for the last year and a half, Heritage is playing into the craze. At the 2019 National, Heritage split a 50-by-50-foot booth — the auction house had 60 percent of the area — with the grading company SGC. Heritage had 45 display cases. This year, the Dallas-based company has its own 50-by-50-foot booth — the largest area a company is allotted — and it has added 20 more display cases.
“We always bring a lot of stuff, but this year, we are definitely expecting a huge turnout … because people are excited to go to a show again,” Provenzale said. “We were at the Dallas Card Show a couple months ago and it was packed. People were just so excited to be at a show. The other thing is a lot of new people have come into the industry over the last 18 months or come back into it. I’ve seen a lot of that, too.”
The National is the biggest consignment draw and promotional tool for Heritage, which will have 15 employees on site.
“You will never get your material in front of more eyes than at The National,” Provenzale said.
The guys at Heritage are thrilled to be back at The National. Director of Sports Auctions Chris Ivy will be working his 21st National in the show’s 41-year history.
“It’s always fun to go to The National, see all the old friends and familiar faces and meet clients as well,” Ivy said. “I’m excited for it because there’s been so many changes to our industry just in the last 18 months since we had our last National. I think collectors from around the world are clamoring for a convention like this.”
The National: Schedule for 2021 show
Heritage Vice President of Sports Auctions Derek Grady, who has been with the company for a decade, concurs.
“I think the traffic due to COVID and us missing last year’s National, I think the hobby has been dying to go to a National again or a big show,” said Grady, who noted Heritage works about 20 trade shows per year. “Chicago’s a great location and people love to go to Chicago for The National. It’s nice to see that we’re back and with the hobby growing and what we’ve seen over the last two years of the hobby, I think The National’s going to have a really strong attendance.”
Heritage always runs its Summer Platinum Night Sports Auction in conjunction with The National. View dates for the auction will be July 28-Aug. 1 with the auction dates Aug. 21-22.
According to Provenzale, the auction will feature about 800-1,000 items. About 95 percent of those mouth-dropping pieces will be in display cases at The National for all five days.
“It’s going to be a killer auction,” Ivy said. “We’ve got some amazing both cards and memorabilia.”
Among the highlights are the Willie McCovey Collection and the Walter Payton Collection, which Ivy calls “an amazing collection of material from Walter Payton’s career.” There’s also a photo-matched rookie jersey that Magic Johnson wore in the title-clinching Game 6 of the 1980 Finals, which Ivy calls “an amazing basketball piece,” and the jersey Peyton Manning wore when he threw his first NFL touchdown pass.
It also has the only known player contract for Ty Cobb from 1914-15 and a rare autographed baseball duel-signed by Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe.
“This one is just an amazing ball,” Provenzale said. “It looks like they signed it yesterday.
“We have a Babe Ruth game-used bat. Everybody’s going to want to see that. The key there is to make it something that really draws people in and people are going to want to take pictures of and share on their social media.
“We have NFTs (non-fungible tokens) this year, so we’re going to have video screens playing NFTs on a loop. We will figure out how to make everything look nice, so the consignors feel like their items are well represented and the attendees are entertained, which are the two main points of what I do.”
Being able to display the items brings a whole different dimension to the auction.
“Auctions are about eyeballs and about clients, so it’s one thing to look at a piece in a catalog or online, but it’s another thing to be there in person, be able to review it, hold it in your hands sometimes if it’s someone who’s a valued client,” Ivy said. “We love exhibiting it. It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of security to have that material there, but we wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t worth it. It’s one of the things that our clients love, our consigners love, the fact that we display the material at The National.”
Grady’s main jobs at the show are to take in consignments for future auctions as well as answer questions and talk to convention-goers who are interested in the Summer Platinum Night Sports Auction.
“I’m there just to pretty much talk to clients and meet new clients and get business, get cards graded,” Grady said.
With the industry the way it is, Ivy and Grady are anticipating big things.
“We’re expecting a lot of action,” Ivy said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of action on the floor for dealers. I think there’s going to be a lot of inventory moving. There’s going to be a lot of fresh collections coming into the show, I hope.
“Our goal for every National is to generate over $1 million in consignments, and given where the market is currently, I think that’s a low threshold for us. I would be disappointed if we came back with anything less than a couple million in consignments for upcoming auctions.”
On the final day of the show, Heritage generally secures a large number of consignments. The company always receives a few highlight pieces each year.
“We’ve gotten some significant six- or seven-figure items at each of the last five or six Nationals that I can recall,” Ivy said.
One consignment that really stands out to Ivy is an ungraded 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle that came to the Heritage booth a few Nationals ago. The card was sent in to get graded and came back a PSA 8.5. It ended up selling at auction for more than $1 million.
“It was pretty crazy,” Ivy said. “To see a Mantle in that condition, it’s always exciting. The corners on that were just amazing. It was a very strong example and hence the ultimate price it got at over a million, which at the time was a record. It’s great to see pieces like that come in.”
TRANSPORTING SPORTS TREASURES
In late May, Provenzale was getting all the items and display cases ready for the convention. He is also in charge of putting together the official program of The National, which is a time-consuming piece.
Heritage transports all its items via a big-rig truck and trailer, which the company fills to capacity.
“We do have an advantage that up until the day that we leave, we can still be adding things to the shipment and just throw it on the truck,” Provenzale said.
The highest valued items will make the nearly 1,000-mile road trip from northeastern Texas to northeastern Illinois in an armored vehicle.
Provenzale will arrive in Rosemont, Ill. on Sunday, July 25, three days before the actual convention starts. He will head over to the convention center to make sure everything is in order — the internet is set up, electrical outlets are in the right spots, and so on.
The next morning, the trucks filled with Heritage’s multi-million-dollar consignments will show up. Everything will be unpacked and Provenzale will spend 15-20 hours that day setting up. He’ll log the same amount of time the next day finishing up, just in time for the opening of the show on Wednesday, July 28.
Determining where display cases will sit and arranging items in the cases is always like putting together a large puzzle for Provenzale, who uses a program to help design the space.
“I’m not figuring out how to display $500 and $600 items. It’s, how do I display a Babe Ruth game-used bat?” Provenzale said “This time we’re going to have Walter Payton’s collection, a lot of stuff from his high school and college days. There’s some unique stuff.”
Provenzale will place the bigger-name pieces in display cases on their own and group like items together, such as baseballs and bats.
“We always try to make our area look like a museum,” he said. “When people have two display cases, there’s not much you can do with it. But when you have the kind of space and material we have, your imagination is the only limit on what you can do. We always try to top what we did the previous year.”
When the show wraps up on Sunday, Aug. 1 at 5 p.m., Provenzale and his co-workers will immediately start packing up. The crew won’t leave that night until every item is placed onto the truck around 3 or 4 a.m.
The long hours make it a busy week. But the folks at Heritage all love getting a chance to meet their clients’ needs.
If anyone has any items they would like to consign at The National, Ivy suggests they stop by the company’s booth. He is confident anyone who picks Heritage is making a wise decision.
“I think that we’ve got a lot to offer,” he said. “Heritage has the best experts in the industry, bar none. … If you want your piece to be represented to the widest base of qualified bidders and be represented in the best manner, then I think Heritage is the way to go.”