Saskatoon

Gretzky rookie cards could be hiding in mystery collection put up for auction by Sask. family

A Saskatchewan family has discovered what some are calling the Holy Grail of sports collectibles. It's a large case filled with thousands of unopened O-Pee-Chee brand cards, all from 1979 — Wayne Gretzky's rookie year.

Unopened case of 1979 O-Pee-Chee hockey cards may contain around 25 Gretzky rookie cards, says auctioneer

A Saskatchewan family is selling a case full of unopened 1979 hockey card boxes, and bidding has topped $1-million. The boxes contain an unknown number of Wayne Gretzky rookie cards like this one.
A Saskatchewan family is selling a case full of unopened 1979 hockey card boxes, and bidding has topped $1 million. The boxes contain an unknown number of Wayne Gretzky rookie cards like this one. (Jason Warick/CBC)

A Saskatchewan family has discovered what some are calling the Holy Grail of sports collectibles.

It's a large case filled with thousands of unopened O-Pee-Chee brand cards, all from 1979 — Wayne Gretzky's rookie year. The family put the box up for auction this week, and bidding has already topped $1.125 million.

Jason Simonds of U.S.-based Heritage Auctions said his jaw dropped when the family — who want to remain anonymous — contacted him.

"Oh it was incredible. I think the exact words I said and texted back to him was, 'Oh my God,'" Simonds said.

"No one had ever seen one of these cases before. No one has even heard of one or pictured one before. I was floored."

The back side of the 1979 O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky rookie card. A Gretzky rookie card in poor shape is worth only a few hundred dollars, but one in mint condition recently sold for $3.75-million.
The back side of the 1979 O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky rookie card. A Gretzky rookie card in poor shape is worth only a few hundred dollars, but one in mint condition recently sold for $3.75 million. (Jason Warick/CBC)

The large, white case contains more than a dozen smaller boxes of cards. No one knows exactly how many Gretzky cards could be in there. The packs remain closed.

But Simonds says their calculations led to an estimate of around 25 to 27 Gretzky cards potentially held in the case.

Simonds said his company arranged for the box to be transported by private guard to the Regina airport, then to Toronto and on to Heritage's headquarters in Dallas. Simonds flew from his base in New York City just to inspect the item.

WATCH | Unboxing of a set collector's case of O-Pee-Chee hockey cards from year Wayne Gretzky's rookie card was issued:

Unboxing of a set collector's case of O-Pee-Chee hockey cards from year Wayne Gretzky’s rookie card was issued

3 months ago
Duration 1:08
Long forgotten 'holy grail' case of hockey cards found in Regina is expected to fetch millions in an auction.

The large box was opened and the authenticity verified. The smaller boxes were sealed in vacuum plastic and then repacked for auction.

The value of Gretzky rookie cards varies wildly. Some in poor condition may be worth a few hundred dollars, but those in mint condition have often sold for more than $200,000 each. In 2021, Heritage Auctions sold one Gretzky rookie card for a record $3.75 million.

Fake cards, particularly the Gretzky rookie, are proliferating. Just like fine art, authentication is key, Simonds said. The fact the box is unopened and never changed hands until now is part of the reason it's so valuable, he said.

Condition of card affects value

Many factors affect a card's value, said Ryan Haynee of Regina's Queen City Sports Cards.

Aside from the obvious wear and tear inflicted on cards put in bicycle spokes, trading with friends or chewing gum marks, they could be damaged by humidity over time.

"If it was sitting in some, you know, dingy basement for a lot of years, that could affect the the paper or the cardboard," Haynee said.

Appraisers look for imperfections and variability during the manufacturing process. In 1979, cards were cut with a wire, leading to more jagged edges on some. The images aren't always perfectly centred, he said.

But no matter what's inside that case, Haynee and Simonds agreed there's nothing like it in the world.

"It's absolutely incredible," Haynee said. "The Gretzky rookie cards are fairly common. I come across them fairly regularly but I have never come across a box of the 1979 O-Pee-Chee [cards] let alone a case of boxes."

They said it's possible the winning bidder might not open the case, and try to re-sell it at some point with the mystery intact. They could also open the case and sell the boxes individually. Or they could carefully open everything and extract the Gretzky cards individually to keep or sell.

The auction closes in late February.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Warick

Reporter

Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.

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