Museums not amused

The Hockey Hall of Fame, which features items such as a Bobby Orr jersey and Rocket Richard...

The Hockey Hall of Fame, which features items such as a Bobby Orr jersey and Rocket Richard sweater, has had to re-evaluate its strategy in the event that more players like Jean Beliveau ask for items to be returned. (Toronto Sun/Michael Peake)

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:53 AM ET

The hockey memorabilia market has never been hotter, but that could mean museums are in for a chill.

The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, its American counterpart in Eveleth, Minn., and the International Hockey Hall of Fame in Kingston are finding themselves in competition for many artifacts with donors, private collectors, eBay and auction houses for many cherished artifacts. The Hall in Toronto, largest of the three and home of the Stanley Cup, has begun fostering relationships with the once adversarial private collectors in order not to lose track of sticks, sweaters, pucks, masks and the like.

One source familiar with the Toronto memorabilia market and the Hall's recovery efforts, fears the recent packaging of the lucrative Jean Beliveau collection for auction on Feb. 22 will be the green light for other players to look at pulling select items from the Hall. Among the 195 items of Beliveau's -- worth up to $400,000 US on-line by Quebec-based Classic Collectibles -- are 17 that the Montreal Canadiens great withdrew from the Hall.

Beliveau, 73, is hardly destitute, but wanted the fate of his collection settled for peace of mind and to help younger members of his family. One of his Cup rings is valued at $10,000.

"It's a real concern," the source said. "If everyone looked at what Beliveau did and came into the Hall for their stuff, the walls would be bare."

But Jeff Denomme, president of the Hall, says the solution lies in co-operating with the players and working with the collectors.

"(The boom) is a fact of life today," Denomme said. "Obviously, years ago, players didn't have the choices they do now. I've talked to (Hall curator) Phil Pritchard about getting closer to the auction people so we can track things better. Maybe some things will find their way back to us. We can help these people authenticate items and hopefully they can donate some and get a tax receipt for it."

Denomme says Beliveau had the proper documents to retrieve his mementoes and has spoken of giving a unspecified small number of pieces back to the Hall to augment the modest collection that remains. In Kingston, the International museum actually played host to the Beliveau collection for appraisal on behalf of Classic Collectibles, believing it's more important for fans to see the valuables in one place one last time before they're presumably sold off piece meal.

"This is just business," said Claude Juteau, vice-president of Classic. "I understand the concerns of a museum, but each player or owner of these items has the right (to sell)."

The late Rocket Richard's estate had 275 items for bid last year before the Canadian Museum of Civilization paid $600,000 Cdn for a portion. It has begun negotiating with the Hall in Toronto for a special Richard exhibit later this year.

But Tom Sersha, executive director of the U.S. Hall, says there's nothing to stop someone with deep pockets from out-bidding a museum.

"If you have the money, everything's for sale," Sersha said. "You find a lot of things heading right to the auction block or a sports bar. We used to have fans offer us items for free. Now they want to know right away if we want to buy."

Only 5% to 10% of the Hall's collection is on display at one time, a space limitation which negates needing the entire Beliveau or Richard collection in house at once. But Denomme says it's important the Hall keep soliciting for donations.

Since 1984, when the Hall received its charitable status and began issuing tax receipts, contributors have been given the proper paperwork whether they request it or not. But because of more loose rules prior to that, some of what the Hall might now consider its property could become bones of contention.

Former Maple Leafs captain Rick Vaive plans to approach the Hall next year to retrieve the first of his three 50-goal sticks, intending it for a fundraiser auction in March 2007, the 25th anniversary of the club's first 50-goal season.

"Every time I scored 50 (former Hall curator) Lefty Reid appeared and took the stick," Vaive said. "That was fine by me, but it's still my stick. I was never given any paper (surrendering ownership)."

In Eveleth, Sersha requires all those making donations to fill out a form recognizing the item now belongs to the U.S. Hall. Rules are even more strict at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

"Since 1939, once an artifact is donated to us, it's ours," said Brad Horn, communications director at Cooperstown. "It's in good faith that it's permanent."


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