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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Leyland Cecco in Toronto

Ultra-rare Wayne Gretzky rookie cards expected to be part of $3.72m Canadian auction

A case of NHL trading cards.
The case of trading cards was originally thought to be from 1980, until they were discovered to be from 1979, the year of Gretzky’s debut with the Edmonton Oilers. Photograph: AP

Among avid collectors of sports trading cards, rumours of a “holy grail” – a trove of cards so rare that they shouldn’t exist – have long swirled, but never materialized.

“It thought if we were ever going to find it … it would be buried deep up in Canada and the owners wouldn’t even know they had it,” said the expert Steve Hart.

And that is exactly where it was found.

Early on Sunday morning, a dusty, unopened case of ice hockey cards in Canada sold at auction for US$3.72m amid speculation that more than two dozen ultra-rare rookie cards of the sport’s greatest player are hidden inside.

The object of intense interest was a long-forgotten case of O-Pee-Chee brand hockey cards that a family in the province of Saskatchewan discovered after sorting through old boxes.

Texas-based Heritage Auctions, which oversaw the sale, called the case of hockey cards “the greatest unopened find of the 21st century”.

The case, which enjoyed a “long and lonely existence of unmolested seclusion” in a Regina house, dates back to the 1979-1980 hockey season.

The case was originally purchased by a collector decades ago, but their family incorrectly believed the contents were of the 1980 hockey season because the year 1980 is written in bold blue font. When they recently peeled back a small portion of the case, however, they realized the cards were from the 1979 season – when Wayne Gretzky debuted with the Edmonton Oilers.

Gretzky – a Canadian ice hockey player venerated as “the Great One” – is considered by many to be the greatest to ever play the sport.

The value of a Gretzky rookie card – issued during the player’s first season – is highly variable based on the physical condition of the card. In 2021, Heritage Auctions sold a mint-condition 1979 O-Pee-Chee Gretzky card for USD$3.75m. The auction house says only two perfect-condition cards of Gretzky’s first NHL season are known to exist.

But based on the description of the Saskatchewan case – which contains 16 boxes with 48 packs per box and 14 cards per pack – Heritage Auctions estimates there could be as many as 27 physically pristine Gretzky rookie cards inside.

Before auction, all 16 wax boxes within the larger box were authenticated. Heritage Auctions notes that sealed boxes command a premium – but recently an opened wax box of cards was sold for US$250,000.

Both the Canadian buyer and seller of the case have opted to remain anonymous.

But Jason Simonds, the sports card specialist at Heritage Auctions who sold the cards, told the CBC the sellers’ family was “over the moon” about the sale.

“The family is ecstatic, this is life-changing money,” he said.

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