The night before he was robbed, on the north shore of Lake Erie in Southwestern Ontario, Archie Snively, 67, a retired factory worker, believes his hunting dogs were onto something. “I live out in the country here, and I’ve got dogs in the back, hunting dogs, and they were just going nuts,” he says.
The next day two men—Snively describes them as in their 40s with dark hair and earrings—visited his house to inquire about his Wayne Gretzky card collection, worth an estimated $200,000. The cards, some of which feature Gretzky as young as 10 years old, were, as far as Snively knows, one of a kind. “Nobody else had these,” he says, “that’s why they wanted them so bad. I’ve got another book full of cards, but they got the full binder.”
Snively had laid out about five binders of various cards on his kitchen table, with the Gretzky collection off to the side, when one of the men asked if he had any others. When he went into his basement to retrieve them he heard the garage door open; by the time he got back upstairs only one of the men remained. The binder filled with the Gretzky cards was missing, but he didn’t notice at the time.
"Surrounded by our things, we are constantly instructed in who we are and what we aspire to. Surrounded by our things, we are rooted in and visually continuous with our pasts."
“The other guy says, ‘Well, I guess we gotta get going,’” Snively says. “I should have dropped that guy right there. I should have knocked him out. Cripes. I don’t know. They just sped out of the driveway, they took right off, those rotten suckers. I haven’t been right since to tell you the truth. It really upset me.”
Snively has been collecting cards for about 40 years and he also has other memorabilia—yellowed newspapers featuring a young Gretzky on the front, a two-foot tall Gretzky model that’s never come out of the box. Hockey, Snively says, has been part of his life for as long he can remember. He once played, now he collects; in between, he watched future NHL stars blossom in his own hometown, Rob Blake and Dwayne Roloson among them.
“Dwayne Roloson lived two doors from my place when he was just a little kid and he used to play on the pond behind the house,” Snively says. “You want to see their houses? I can show you their houses. They are worth millions and millions, out there by the lake. Holy man, ya gotta see ’em.”
As for his dogs, Snively trusts their instincts, and believes things could have gone differently. “There was something going on out there behind the pond that night,” he says. “This is just my own gut feeling, but I really feel like these two guys were going to come into the house with masks on and take these cards, one way or another.”
Russell Belk, a professor of marketing at York University’s Schulich School of Business, has been studying the meanings of possessions, collecting, gift-giving, sharing, and materialism for nearly 40 years. His findings, he says, indicate that, in a consumer society, “our ideas about ourselves are often bound up or represented in what we desire, what we own, and how we use these things.” With four decades of studying and teaching experience behind him, Belk’s CV is 108 pages long.
Collections, Belk says, can start out without a lot of purpose behind them. “You just notice you’ve got two or three of something and you identify it as a collection and it just takes off from there.” When someone commits to a collection, the items shift from everyday stuff to symbols of who we are, Belk says.
For some collectors, there is a sense of closure that accompanies things like hockey cards, or stamps or coins—items that have a finite number. This is different than collecting a style of art, which has no potential end. Once you’ve completed a collection, Belk says, it can be both motivating and worrisome. “If you’ve defined yourself as a collector,” he says, “you have to find some other way of defining yourself.”
In most cases, this means a shift of collecting to another area, where more items can be obtained and continually added. The new items can serve the same purpose as the old—fostering a sense of self and identity, a connection to both our past and present.
Grant McCracken captures this in his book Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities, writing:
Surrounded by our things, we are constantly instructed in who we are and what we aspire to. Surrounded by our things, we are rooted in and visually continuous with our pasts. Surrounded by our things, we are sheltered from the many forces that would deflect us into new concepts, practices, and experiences. These forces include our own acts of imagination, the constructions of others, the shock of personal tragedy, and simple forgetfulness. As Arendt has suggested, things are our ballast. They stabilize us by reminding us of our past, by making this past a virtual, substantial part of our present.
When a collection is lost, be it through theft or damage or some other cause, the sense of security it provides can also disappear. “Anytime anyone has a possession they treasure stolen, it’s like taking a piece of us,” Belk says. “It’s more than just economic value, especially in this case, they may be irreplaceable collections, or at least irreplaceable in the sense that all the experiences the person had in getting them, or trading for them, or buying them, had stories that are part of their life as well. It’s like losing your wedding ring; it’s not just a matter of buying another one that looks the same. It was attached to us and the memories are in it.”
The Gretzky heist happened at the end of April. The next day, about 10 police officers were at Snively’s home. He hasn’t heard anything since.
“I’m hopeful, but...” Snively trails off and doesn’t finish the thought. His wife, he says, is learning to use eBay to keep a watchful eye. He’s also offering a $500 reward for “anyone that can help get a finger on these guys.” He believes they might have been brothers, maybe even twins, and adds that he’d never seen them around town before. His collection of sports memorabilia, though now missing a cherished part, it still a point of pride, but, for the first time, Snively, now shaken, is thinking it might be time to move on.
The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.