27 Years After Famed Boston Garden Auction, Bruins Banner Back on the Block
On September 27, 1996, Rick Poulin's heart was racing a mile a minute. He was sitting on a cement floor in the center of the gutted Boston Garden on what once was the Bruins' hockey rink and Celtics' basketball court. Lelands, the first sports auction house, was holding the first auction ever of the relics from a sports arena or stadium from its demolition.
Lelands usually drew 50 to 100 bidders to its live auctions. This event attracted about 750 and national press, too. Poulin was an avid Bruins and Bobby Orr fan who attended about 25 games with friends over the years. "I went there hoping to own any piece of the Garden," he said. "I loved that old, beautiful pit."
As the auction hammer kept coming down for everything from the three-story high scoreboard to a 3/4 cigar chewed up by Celtics Coach Red Auerbach. Poulin waited patiently. The initial banner celebrated the Bruins first championship, 1928-29, led by all-time great Eddie Shore.
It opened at $1,500.
"Everyone wanted the banners," Paulin said. After all, who knows how many millions of fans gazed at them through the decades?
Paulin raised his paddle and won the banner for $1,650. The next four banners climbed higher until the one associated with Bobby Orr's Stanley Cup from 1969-1970 reached $6,000 because fans still remembered this great moment in Bruins history. "I had a limited amount," he says. "I just lucked out."
Now, after 27 years, it is coming up for sale in Lelands next auction on February 18. In November Poulin went to the busy Shriner's Show in Wilmington, MA where he visited Keith Vari at his booth. "Do you remember Lelands at the Boston auction?" Paulin asked him. "I bought one of the banners." (All of the Bruins' proceeds went to charity.)
Leland's acquisitions specialist practically jumped out of his shoes to accept the consignment and even offered to pick up the 9 x 15-foot banner up at his house in nearby Salem, NH. Poulin, 61, had such fond memories of the original auction that he figured working with Lelands would complete the circle. "In the end, it was a no-brainer," he explains.
Poulin had hung half the banner with a wire from his attic ceiling. It still retained the ancient watermarks from a leaky pipe or roof. Vari carefully rolled it up in papers as though it were a delicate movie poster.
At the Shriner's Show, Poulin had mentioned to Vari that he had other material from the original Garden. In a supremely ironic twist, Poulin did his own treasure hunting as part of a demolition crew that removed asbestos. He drove equipment back and forth and ran over a piece of metal twice. It turned out to be a two by three feet seating diagram showing the emergency exit. On a break he used company tools to extract it from the floor. The sign will also be in the February auction.
In addition, Poulin managed to unfasten from the general manager's office wall a nine by six foot, framed, panoramic photo of the Bruins in action in the 1950s. It has hung in his bedroom ever since. Vari explained it was too big to auction, so Poulin is considering donating it to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
"Keith was completely floored," says Paulin, who currently works for New Hampshire's Health and Human Resources department. "Every morning, I would sneak into the Garden and stand on the leprechaun at center court. There were no fans or security, just no one at all. I looked up towards the rafters and I could hear the cheers all around."
Just when Vari's day couldn't get any better, he met Tony, a friend of Poulin who dropped by for moral support. He also wanted to consign a prized possession. Tony gave Vari a game bat Carl Yastrzemski purportedly used during his 1967 Triple Crown and pennant winning season. It exhibited ball marks and other serious game use. Yaz signed it and added an inscription dating it to his Triple Crown year. John Taube, the top bat authenticator, is studying it before it goes to auction.
In another bit of irony, Mike Heffner, Leland's president, who has worked at the company almost since its inception in 1985, was recently digging through some old personal paperwork and he came across Poulin's original receipt for his banner back in the days when he was in charge of accepting payment.
The Garden auction was a milestone in hobby history. "We were really innovative in that aspect and it led to many more," Heffner says. "It was such a fun time. It was a lot of work. And we definitely didn't make money. We did it more for the experience and the relationships we built with the Bruins and Celtics. And it got our name out. The prices were astronomical."
At the time, the novelty was how seemingly worthless trash could fetch a fortune. "When the banners came down they were so damn dusty," Heffner says. "Hanging 200 feet up in the air, people must have kicked the dust up and the ventilation system sucked it up."
Until this auction, cities treated demolished stadiums and arenas like tenements. Some of the seats survived because they were functional. Almost all of the rest ended up in the dump. In 1974 you could buy an original wooden Yankee Stadium seat for $7.50 and five empty boxes of Winston cigarettes. (Sorry kids; the offer was only open to adults at least 21-years-old.) They now cost $1,500 on eBay.
Architectural relics were an afterthought. "There were hundreds of yards of the famous Yankee Stadium facade," Heffner says. "Just a few feet are known to exist. It's solid copper painted in white and so big." Lelands sold a section for $12,400 in 2008, Hefner estimates that it would now command more than $50,000.
Lelands has since handled the partial liquidation of the second Yankee Stadium and Busch Stadium. Of course, today everything is for sale, down to the bricks and infield dirt. "The best memories are from the Garden," Heffner says. "That's the only entire arena that we did."
His favorite memory was the hoopla surrounding the $1,600 sale ($3,100 in today's dollars) of the big broom pushed by Rudolph "Spider" Edwards, a beloved local celebrity simply known as Spider. At every home game for 33 years, he was in charge of the Celtics' parquet floor. Spider jauntily swept it with a fancy fedora perched atop his head to the crowd's delight. "We had him signing autographs," Heffner says. "It made his year. He was just so happy. Today, a broom would never get that price. Championship banners are more mainstream."
Poulin has no regrets: "Reality sets in. You can't take it with you. I've enjoyed the banner and I''m hoping the next buyer is going to want it to capitalize on the 100th year of the Bruins in 2026."