|Monday, July 14
Too much of a good thing ...
By Darren Rovell
As a fan of Jaromir Jagr, Patrick Englert sought to collect as many gold refractor cards with his favorite player's image on it. Dr. Joseph Sentef, a passionate fan of Greg Maddux, had a similar idea.
They expected to be challenged by scarcity, but thanks to the sudden growth of the Internet, which opened the entire world of memorabilia collecting to them, they were soon challenging the card maker.
Although the Internet has been fraught with unscrupulous memorabilia dealers who peddle items from baseballs and trading cards supposedly enhanced by player autographs, it is also the place that has helped to make the card industry more honest with claims of limited production runs, thanks to the tales of Englert and Sentef. Today, limited edition cards often feature serial numbers, to better assure collectors that their card is authentically rare.
Seven years ago, Englert and Sentef used the Internet to obtain their Jagr and Maddux cards. Englert had spent $52,000 to purchase 159 cards of Jagr in a Pittsburgh Penguins uniform. Sentef paid an average of $900 for 220 cards of the Atlanta Braves pitcher.
But the two collectors weren't happy with how large their collection had grown.
According to an eight-page newsletter released by Topps and distributed to hobby dealers, there were supposed to be no more than 150 gold refractor cards of each player in its 1995-96 Hockey's Finest and 1996 Baseball's Finest sets. The fact that the two had collected more than were supposedly made threatened to devalue their investment since prices were based on the company's claim of scarcity.
Englert walked away with $177,000 on Friday, four months after his court victory against Topps. Sentef settled his suit against the card producer for an undisclosed amount in December before the case made it to trial.
Sentef placed an advertisement on America Online saying he would pay top dollar -- usually more than $1,000 per card -- for the Maddux cards. Those with cards came to Sentef's buyer, Steve Kopp, who was deluged with offers from collectors who said they had the card.
"I purchased 50 in one week and I called Joe and told him that I thought we had a problem," Kopp said.
Kopp called Topps officials for an explanation.
He said he was first told that the company stood by its numbers. When Kopp said there were more than 100 were available for him to buy, Topps told him there was a theft at the printing plant. A month later, when he pressed them again, Kopp said company officials told him they had automatically produced a 10 percent overrun of their cards and the extra cards were missing from their vault. Kopp told them his client had 220 cards in his possession, nearly 50 percent more than the advertised limited edition of 150. The exchange continued to go back and forth before Sentef eventually filed suit.
"They came up with every kind of story," Kopp said. "They got caught by the Internet and maybe they learned their lesson because now everyone in the industry has stamped numbers on the cards." Bound by confidentiality terms of the settlement, Sentef said he could not comment on his dispute over the cards.
A Topps spokesman did not return calls seeking comment.
Like Sentef, Englert found the overwhelming response to his interest in the Jagr cards a bit troubling.
"Topps is the Enron of baseball cards, because they obviously can't count," Englert said. "They lied about their numbers, they were probably doing it for years and they finally got caught. Because of the Internet, the guy in Spokane was buying from the guy in Dallas, and a little guy like me in Missouri all of a sudden had access to everyone."
Although he feels that Topps learned its lesson, Englert said he wants everyone to know about his story. Last week, Englert placed a card from his Jagr collection in an online auction and included information about his case. He said he plans to post one of his 159 cards every 10 days so that he can "get 1,590 days of free publicity."
"Topps might have changed their ways now, but the damage has been done," Englert said. "You can't back the car out of the tree and expect the fender to go back the way it was. The card industry will never be the same."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org