For Sale: Jim Craig's Olympic Memories

Josh Evans seeks to pull off a feat as improbable as the Miracle on Ice: selling Jim Craig's hockey memorabilia from the 1980 Olympics for $5.7 million. No one has ever sold a collection of sports memorabilia that large for that much.

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Dec 22 2015, 6:55pm

Josh Evans seeks to pull off a feat as improbable as the Miracle on Ice. The 54-year-old founder of Lelands.com, the biggest sports auction house in the world, is trying to sell former Team USA goaltender Jim Craig's 1980 Olympics souvenirs (his gold medal, his shamrock mask, his bodywrap American flag, all the way to his winter jacket—19 items in all) as one big $5.7 million package. No one has ever sold a collection of sports memorabilia that large for that much, but Evans has the hubris to believe he can.

Nearly five months have passed since he tagged the collection for sale on August 1, yet no one has stepped forward to write him a check for $5.7 million. At that price point, of course, there's a pretty shallow pool of potential buyers with the means and the interest to do so. There's also some question as to whether the flag—the emotional cornerstone of the collection—is actually the same one that most Americans envision when they think of Jim Craig.

But none of that has trimmed Evans' conviction that he'll sell the collection as a package rather than breaking it up. "Finding one person to buy an entire collection is really hard," Evans said in a recent phone interview. "But you don't hear any tension in my voice about it not selling."

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Evans is a natural huckster. He started hawking stuff when he was eight years old, helping out his parents who sold antiques in Old Bridge, New Jersey. Since founding Lelands.com in 2000, he has garnered top dollar for some unique items, such as a Yankees uniform worn by Babe Ruth in 1920, his first year with the team ($4.5 million in 2011) and the "Mookie Ball" that slipped through Bill Buckner's legs in the 1986 World Series ($93,500, in 1992). He currently is selling a Chicago Bears jacket worn by Brian Piccolo, the uniform Tom Hanks wore in A League of their Own, and Michael Phelps' 2008 Olympics swimsuit, among other items.

In the past five years, Lelands.com has sold over $40 million worth of vintage sports memorabilia and cards. Though specializing in sports, Lelands.com has sold a variety of historical memorabilia, from the original Howdy Doody puppets (a little more than $113,000) to the white picket fence from Dealey Plaza's grassy knoll in Dallas ($32,664.47).

No doubt, Evans knows the business. And the market seems predisposed to accommodating a sale the size of the $5.7 million Craig Collection. Olympic memorabilia has risen dramatically in value, with gold medals that once sold for $5,000 now fetching ten times that amount (the record was set in 2013: $1.46 million for one of Jesse Owens' 1936 Olympics gold medals). Certain years have more cachet than others, such as the '36 Berlin games and '60 Rome games, and so do certain events, like a U.S. Dream Team basketball gold. The U.S. hockey team's incredible triumph in Lake Placid in 1980 tops the list. "The most desirable Olympic event of all is the '80 Miracle on Ice—by far," Evans says. "Anything from that event is gold: tickets, programs—nobody really cares."

Craig's teammate Mark Wells sold his gold medal in 2010 for $40,000 to a guy who flipped it for $310,000 later that year. Another teammate, Mark Pavelich, sold his medal for $292,900 in 2014. Captain Mike Eruzione, who scored the winning goal against the Soviets, sold his stick from that game for $262,900 and his jersey from the gold medal game for $657,250 in 2013. (The highest price for any hockey-related item is $1.275 million, which Toronto real estate magnate Mitchell Goldhar paid for Paul Henderson's '72 Summit Series jersey in 2010.)

Adding to the potential value of Craig's collection is Jim Craig himself. It used to be that collectors simply wanted a medal from a specific Olympics, but now they are more star-oriented. Michael Jordan's gold medal from the '92 Barcelona Olympics is prized more than one from one of his Dream Team teammates. "It's based on the individual player, his fame durability, importance and desirability," Evans says. "There's a huge emotional element that has value beyond money."

Craig, who played every minute of the seven Olympic games and was a key factor in the Americans' triumphant upset, carries a lot of weight for many Americans. "He's the guy, the darling of that Miracle team."

YouTube/Team USA

Evans appraised each of the items in Craig's collection within a range. For instance, he valued Craig's gold medal to be worth between $1.5-2.0 million; his team USA jersey worn during the Soviet game between $1.0-1.5 million; and so on, down to his Team USA Olympic winter coat, valued between $5,000-10,000. The total collection ranges in value from $4.95 to $7.36 million, which makes the asking price of $5.7 million, below the median, seem somewhat of a bargain.

Why would Craig want to part with all of this?

Well, of course, $5.7 million dollars can help loosen the emotional grip material items have on a person. The money alone could be his motivation. Yet Craig doesn't seem to be in financial trouble. He's still in demand as an inspirational speaker through his company, Gold Medal Strategies, and his autograph remains valuable, going for anywhere from $80 on a U.S. puck to upwards of $1,000 on a framed 16" x 20" photo of him clutching the flag.

When the sale was first announced this past summer, Craig mentioned that he was concerned the items could be stolen from his home. Many had previously been displayed at various museums, such as the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and the Sports Museum of Boston, but he said he started thinking about selling them instead of keeping them in a closet. "So when they were appraised, they gave a really high value, and I learned that collectors really love these types of things and they really take care of them," he told Beckett.com in July. "It was also time to take care of the family. My son is getting married and hopefully we'll have grandkids."

Craig and his wife have two adult children: their son, J.D., played hockey at UMass Lowell; their daughter, Taylor, played hockey for Colgate. If he had just one child instead of two, Craig said, he would have passed down his gold medal to that child, but, he explained, "it's pretty hard to split a gold medal." He did not say why he did not give the medal to one child and the flag or the mask to the other. (But apparently he has tired of talking about the matter because he has not spoken publicly about it since announcing the sale and he turned down an interview request for this article.)

The $5.7 million—minus Lelands.com's 15 percent commission—is not guaranteed. Evans says that he received some low bids, but he would not reveal how many, the exact amounts, or from whom. The lot is no longer listed on Lelands; Evans says he will wait at least two more months before considering the next steps. There could be a buyer out there biding his time until Evans and Craig drop the price. Alternately, they may have to break the collection down into smaller parcels. "We'd love to see it stay together, love to have people be able to come see these items," Evans says. "But if we can't sell it as a collection, we will go to the next step."

Courtesy Lelands.com

Another factor that might be giving a potential buyer pause is the question of the flag, which Lelands.com has appraised at $1.0-1.5 million, being the same Stars and Stripes that Craig immortalized by wrapping around himself after the gold medal game.

In 1992, Craig told the Boston Globe that he had given the flag to his friend Pelle Lindbergh, the goalie for Sweden's 1980 Olympic team, and that after Lindbergh died in a car crash in 1985, Craig received the flag in the mail with a note from a woman identifying it as Craig's flag. Yet Lindbergh's fiancée, Kerstin Pietzsch, claims she still has the flag Craig autographed to Pelle stowed in a safety deposit box. Bill Meltzer and Thomas Tynander relate these details in their book Pelle Lindbergh: Behind the White Mask.

Another story Craig has told is that a Lake Placid fan gave him the flag he wrapped himself in, but that he dropped it sometime during the post-game celebration. That fan, Peter Cappuccilli, Jr., then retrieved it from the ice. During a ceremony at the 1998 NHL All-Star Game, Capuccilli publicly gifted the flag to Craig.

At other times, Craig has said that he had the flag with him after the game in the dressing room and that he kept it at his house, either behind his desk in his third-floor home office or tucked away in the attic.

Evans insists that the flag in the collection he is trying to sell is the flag, and that Lelands.com employed a forensic specialist, a retired FBI agent, to analyze high-resolution photographs to match fibers like fingerprints. The forensic specialist vouched for the flag's authenticity. When asked about the mystery shrouding the flag because of the various accounts Craig has given, Evans abruptly cut the interview off. "I don't want to get into that," he said. "I've got to run now."

Evans has been involved in controversy previously. Last year, football great Jim Brown sued Lelands.com to stop its sale of his 1964 NFL championship ring, claiming that the ring had been stolen from him. Evans insisted that Brown had given the ring to his ex-wife, said it had documented its chain of ownership and countersued Brown alleging he had filed false affidavits. Neither side has disputed the authenticity of the ring itself. This past October, Brown and Lelands.com negotiated an undisclosed settlement that gave back the ring's ownership rights to Brown.

This is not to say that the flag Evans is selling is not the Jim Craig flag. It's just that the question of its authenticity could be slowing the sale of the entire collection. Whoever does eventually step forward to purchase it will no doubt have his or her own expert examine the goods.

In the meantime, if you're looking to do some last minute Christmas shopping for that hockey fan on your list, Evans has a gift idea for you.