By Amar Shah
The secret was ammo cans.
"They're just airtight, dark and thick," said Sander Halet. "I mean, cardboard does disintegrate."
Finding a treasure trove of items is like hitting the jackpot. For Sander Halet and his wife, Christy, that's what they found after Sander's stepfather Robert Armstrong passed away more than a year ago. His collection was so vast that even his family didn't know the full extent of it until they started going through his house. In his house, they found a treasure trove of cards and memorabilia that had been stored for decades in ammo cans.
Robert was a fireman for the city of Los Angeles and a member of the Coast Guard. Sander grew up with Robert and his mother in Mar Vista, between the 405 freeway and Santa Monica. Still, his passion was collecting cards and woodworking.
"He loved collecting everything, from toys to license plates, but mostly cards," said Christy.
Robert had his own room called the War Room.
"It was packed with all kinds of things," she said. "We found tons of baseball cards, newspapers like "Man Walks on the Moon" and "JFK Assassinated." They were actual newspapers when they came out. And then there would be cards lying here and there."
He amassed everything from toys to license plates, but mostly, he collected cards. He started as a kid, and his stockpile grew over the years. He was always looking for the best card he could find and would trade cards via mail or through different correspondence.
"I think a lot of it centered from just as a kid," said Sander about Robert's collecting hobby. "Wanting to get that card that he wasn't able to get as a kid or the card that he got when he would walk from the store and then unwrap it, eat the bubble gum, and throw the wrapper on the ground."
Robert was the kind of collector who loved telling people about his collection.
Sander explained that there are two types of collectors in the world: those who keep their knowledge to themselves and use it to profit from their collection and those who want to share their passion with others and spread knowledge about their hobby. Robert was definitely the latter.
"After he passed, we went to the bank and one of the tellers actually, when he found out he passed, started crying and saying that they used to talk about sports all the time,” said Christy. “And he was the one that actually told us that I think you'd have a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar rookie card." At the time of his rookie season in 1969, he was of course still Lew Alcindor.
Sander and Christy began the daunting task of sorting through his extensive collection. When they started going through his cabinets and storage lockers, they realized the full scope of his collection. Thanks to those ammo cans, Robert's collection was preserved through the years.
"There was a lot of stuff that was not really organized. It was different from having a Dewey Decimal System or some sort of thing laid out in a clear, organized manner. He was more like a collector and enjoyed the art of buying and buying the best card that you could find. And then kind of moving on."
During the scavenger hunt, they uncovered a treasure trove of cardboard gold. The collection included 1961 Fleer Basketball Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson rookie cards, both in PSA NM-MT 8, a 1972 Topps Basketball Julius Erving rookie in PSA MINT 9, and an unopened cello box of 1962 Topps "Civil War News" cards. They also discovered cards from the 1953 and 1955 Bowman baseball sets, and a plethora of cards from Topps baseball and football from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, including Paul Hornung, Len Dawson, Alan Ameche, Otto Graham, Jim Thorpe, The Four Horsemen, and Chuck Bednarik.
Despite the size and value of Robert's lot, Sander and Christy are not collectors themselves. Sander is in the rock and minerals business but sees a correlation between his and Robert's hobbies.
"I think everyone needs to kind of disconnect from the world that we're in, and just kind of direct a little bit of energy towards something that they're passionate about that gives them joy," Sander said. "I think that's what we're in this world for. It's to be happy, joyful, and appreciative of what we have and enjoy the small things, whether a baseball card, a mineral, or a rock."
Robert Armstrong's massive collection will be split up between several of REA’s 2023 auctions, beginning with the June Encore Auction that opens on June 8, allowing hobbyists worldwide to own a piece of history and continue Robert's legacy of sharing his passion for collecting with others. Pieces of his collection will also be featured in the September and October Encores along with the Summer and Fall Catalog Auctions that open on July 24 and November 17, respectively.
It is unclear if the ammo cans will be included in the auction, but those might be nostalgic pieces that Sander and Christy want to hold on to.
Amar Shah is a multiple Emmy-winning writer and producer who has written for ESPN.com, NFL.com, The Wall Street Journal, The Orlando Sentinel, Sports Illustrated for Kids, Slam Magazine and The Washington Post. In the 90s, Amar was a teen sports reporter and got to hang out with the Chicago Bulls during their golden era. He even landed on the cover for Sports Illustrated for Kids with Shaquille O’Neal. His debut novel "The Hoop Con" comes out on February 6, 2024 with Scholastic. You can preorder here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-hoop-con-amar-shah/1143287376?ean=9781338840315