A Saskatchewan family has discovered what some call the holy grail of sports collectibles.
It’s a large briefcase 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 US-based Heritage Auctions, said he was left speechless when the family – who wish to remain anonymous – contacted him.
“Oh, it was amazing. I think the exact words I said to him and texted him were, ‘Oh my God,'” Simonds said.
“No one had ever seen one of these cases before. No one had heard of or imagined one before. I was amazed.”
The large white case holds over a dozen small boxes of cards. No one knows exactly how many Gretzky cards might be there. The packs remain closed.
But Simonds says their calculations led to an estimate of about 25 to 27 Gretzky cards potentially held in the case.
Simonds said his company arranged for the box to be transported by a private guard to the Regina airport, then to Toronto and on to Heritage’s headquarters in Dallas. Simonds left his New York base just to inspect the object.
WATCH | Unboxing a collector’s box of O-Pee-Chee hockey cards from the year Wayne Gretzky’s rookie card was issued:
The large box has been opened and verified for authenticity. The smaller boxes were vacuum-sealed in plastic and then repackaged to be sold at auction.
The value of Gretzky rookie cards varies wildly. Some in poor condition can 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 a Gretzky rookie card for a record $3.75 million.
Fake cards, notably that of rookie Gretzky, proliferate. Just like fine art, authentication is essential, Simonds said. The fact that the box was unopened and never changed hands until now is part of why it is so valuable, he said.
Card state affects value
Many factors affect a card’s value, said Ryan Haynee of Queen City Sports Cards in Regina.
Aside from the obvious wear and tear inflicted on cards placed on the spokes of a bicycle, exchanged between friends or marked by chewing gum, these could be damaged by humidity over time.
“If it sat in a filthy basement for many years, it could affect the paper or cardboard,” Haynee said.
Evaluators look for imperfections and variability during the manufacturing process. In 1979, cards were cut with a wire, which resulted in more jagged edges on some. The images aren’t always perfectly centered, he says.
But no matter what’s inside that briefcase, Haynee and Simonds agree there’s nothing like it in the world.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” Haynee said. “Gretzky rookie cards are pretty common. I come across them pretty regularly but I’ve never come across a box of 1979 O-Pee-Chee (cards), let alone a case of boxes.”
They said it’s possible the winning bidder won’t open the file and attempt to resell it at some point with the mystery intact. They could also open the crate and sell the boxes individually. Or they could open everything carefully and extract the Gretzky cards individually to keep or sell.
The auction ends at the end of February.