The reality is that there are many fake unopened vintage sports card products for sale in the hobby. And just because a product is authenticated doesn’t mean it’s legitimate.
One such item is the 1979 Topps hockey wax tray. There have been a smattering of them, graded by GAI, selling on eBay recently. Someone just spent $2k on one, and it’s an item that many respected hobbyists and dealers won’t go near.
The bottom line is that it’s highly questionable if Topps ever made hockey trays in 1979. Unfortunately, collectors see an “authenticated” pack and go ahead and buy it without doing their homework. It likely wouldn’t even cross their minds that this product could be fake.
In 2011 a collector opened a few three-pack trays and was insistent they were all handmade because the cards in the packs didn’t resemble packs from any box he had ever opened. In packs from an unopened box, five cards from each sheet are cut, and between them, an insert is placed. In the tray packs, there were only nine cards and no sticker insert. The sequence of cards in the trays three packs was pretty random, with doubles and triples stacked next to each other.
In 2012 Steve Hart, the owner of the Baseball Card Exchange, who authenticates packs for PSA, said he thought most long-time collectors agreed that Topps did not make these trays. He has made it a rule not to handle them, noting that nobody has ever seen a case of them. He added that these hockey trays were not available in the early 80s but were now are all over the market.
Is there a slim chance some of these trays were legitimately made? Sure, but it’s not worth the risk when we cannot find ANY evidence they were and cracked packs from these trays have shown suspect card insertion/collation.
When it comes to other trays of the era, we have sell sheets and unopened cases/boxes to trace the history and the pedigree of products. For older products, like 1974, 1975, and 1976 Topps baseball trays, we have Topps sell sheets advertising the product.
Next, we have seen 1978 Topps football wax tray cases, as shown below.
And while I cannot find an original photo of a 1979 Topps football tray case, the way back machine shows that BBCE had one for sale in March 2012, and a box of trays from a sealed cased was recently sold on eBay as well, as you can see in the images that follow.
There have also been a few 1979 Topps baseball wax tray cases sold over the last few years.
Over on a message board, a collector asked if anyone remembered seeing these 1979 Topps hockey trays back in stores in 1979, adding that 1979 wasn’t that long ago. He pointed out that 1979 was one of the first years he remembers seeing sports card shops start popping up in cities around the country. He pointed out that SportsCardPlus had just opened in Westminster, CA, and Fritsch card was around in 1979 and still operates to this day. Then people started hoarding cases when James Beckett began to release some of the baseball card industry’s earliest priced guides. That’s why late 70s unopened material is still pretty common today. So if Topps did make 1979 hockey trays, then there must still be many in the hobby today that remember buying such trays in 1979. Especially from hockey enthusiasts in the Northeast and upper Midwest like Fritsch, in particular. He noted that it was odd that they suddenly appeared in the mid-2000s in great numbers when they would have been desirable back as early as 1990 when hockey cards got hot. But again, he noted he hadn’t seen any evidence that they were around or advertised for sale.
Reed Kasoaka of DACardWorld has written that it is his understanding that there’s no proof that a legitimate hockey tray exists either. He added that he didn’t think these were ever made when you consider how Topps operated back in the day. He believes that wax trays were made towards the end of the seasons, as they represented the opportunity to buy a three-pack at a discount (the retailer had a chance to fill in the marked-down price). Only product lines with more significant production numbers have a greater chance of having excess inventory, i.e., baseball and football. Topps would take the remaining wax pack inventory, repack them as wax trays, and then offer them to retailers as a second chance to sell them for a profit. Could this have been Topps preferred way to handle returns or leftover inventory before they embraced the X-Out or the final sale method from the late 70s through the 80s? He doesn’t have proof of this theory, but it seems pretty plausible.
I’ll add that my reference guides from Mark Murphy and Darren Prince, some of the earliest dealers in unopened material, don’t list them in their guides either.
There was a discussion a few years ago about what was a fake 1980 Topps basketball tray. In that instance, a collector noted an excessive amount of slack in the cellphone on the front of the tray. That slack occurred when someone successfully opened the seal at either end of a legitimate 1979 Topps baseball tray, carefully slid out the three wax packs, and replaced them with three resealed 1980 basketball wax packs. The tray’s compromised seal was then resealed using either heat or adhesive. There was slack in the cellophane because baseball wax packs contained 12 cards, whereas 1980 basketball packs were thinner with only eight cards. So when thinker packs were inserted, it created space in the tray. A collector added that the ones he has seen have a strange brown tone at the end of one of the crimps, and the cello always seems to have a tiny tear described as fragile.
It’s been rumored that a team operating out of North Carolina is believed to be responsible for counterfeiting numerous 1979 Topps hockey trays over the years using the very same technique described above. That makes a lot of sense, and I suspect they did it starting with legit 1979 Topps football trays; since 1979 Topps football wax packs had 12 cards and the hockey packs only have 10, and all the hockey trays seem to have extra cellphone slack as well. Additionally, the hockey trays have the same brown oval on the front and the same serial code on the back as the legitimate football trays.
The serial codes on authenticated trays of 1979 Topps baseball I’ve seen are 4111600458 (458 just like the unopened case shows #458-79 on the outside).
Authenticated football trays from 1978 use code 4111600317, and you can see 317-78 on the 1978 football tray case pictures previously.
I suspect the 1979 tray case product code is 317-79 because the 1979 Topps football codes also end in 317.
All the hockey trays have brown ovals like the football cards and code 4111600317, just like the football trays. The color of the bubble is not the issue as 1979 baseball trays sold through K-Mart that year had brown labels. It just seems too coincidental to me that the hockey trays are identical to the football ones.
I’ll admit that the serial code theory isn’t fool-proof. But it adds more doubt to the authenticity of the hockey trays since we have no source material to go on.
To play devil’s advocate, it is plausible Topps made some authentic hockey trays. I mean, if they made baseball and football, why not hockey? A collector wrote that his grandparents used to get them packs (mostly baseball and football) during that era, sometimes trays. He once got some hockey and told his grandparents he didn’t collect hockey, so they stopped buying them. But when his grandparents passed, he found some 1979 hockey packs in a dresser drawer along with a tray. So he thinks Topps made them for a short time.
Another collector recalled getting 1979 hockey trays as report card gifts from his grandmother, saying that they were available in five and dime stores in Queens, New York but questioned whether or not Topps packaged them.
To wrap things up, we have seen a bunch of these 1979 Topps hockey trays opened over the years, but we have yet to see pack sequencing that appears legitimate. When you couple that with the complete lack of proof that Topps made these trays (dealer sell sheets, unopened cases, boxes, purchase receipts, etc.), it brings too much doubt of authenticity into play. And just because GAI slabbed a few doesn’t do anything to dismiss that doubt. There is currently a tray on eBay for sale for $4k, and I won’t go near it until I see evidence that Topps actually made this product.
If you are a vintage unopened product collector, a bit of skepticism will serve you well.
If you have anything else to add about 1979 Topps hockey trays, please add your thoughts to the comments below, or reach out to me on Twitter.