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Mykalai Kontilai And Baseball’s Biggest Contract

By Charles Karel Bouley II

“They’re really more Freedom Documents than contracts,” entrepreneur and founder of Collector’s Cafe Mykalai Kontilai told me as he eagerly awaited another milestone in the long list of his career.

“We are going down to the center of the world, to Times Square, and we are going to announce not only the international brand of Collector’s Cafe, but we are going to show the world documents that have not been on display for almost seven decades, documents that really changed the world,” Kontilai continued.

The documents are Jackie Robinson’s 1947 contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers and the 1945 Montreal Royals contract; documents that not only broke the color barrier in baseball, but just like President Obama breaking the ceiling for the Presidency, it’s a barrier that would forever be torn down. They have been hailed as the sporting equivalent of the Emancipation Proclamation, and Kontilai found them in 2013 using their unveiling to launch his auction adventure, Collector’s Cafe.

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Jackie Robinson Photo: Jackie Robinson Foundation

The documents have been estimated at over $35 million dollars; Robinson was paid $5000 for the season. 10% of the proceeds from any sale of the documents will go to the Jackie Robinson Foundation (neither the Foundation nor Rachel Robinson reportedly have seen the documents which Robinson himself parted with over 50 years ago).

Seth Kaller, who has authenticated documents signed by Lincoln, Jefferson and others, told ESPN, “Their effect on American history, and even the world, transcends the bounds of sports,” Kaller wrote in his valuation.

The moment is a crowning point for Kontilai, who realized his passion for collecting early in life, but like many kept it a serious hobby. His passions are shared by millions, as collecting generates over a quarter-of-a-trillion, yes. $250 billion, annually throughout the world; with most collectors being amateurs.

Kontilia could be called a media mogul. He was the first individual to ever solely own a public broadcasting news and affairs brand, the Nightly Business Report on PBS. He sold that company in 2011 and is now going head long in to collecting. Outside of Collector’s Cafe, he has established Authenticity Insurance backed by some of the biggest insurance brands in the world.

“We want to make sure that people that love collecting are not victims of fraud, which runs rampant in the community,” Kontilai continued. “This insurance is based on the reputation of those in-the-know, the people that authenticate items. We work with them and the insurance companies to make sure collectors are getting the genuine items.”

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Kontilai seen with Larry King at a filming of his show.

Genuine items indeed, when it comes to the Robinson contracts, Kontilai cannot contain himself.

“When I heard these were coming up for acquisition, and after we had three outside people confirm their authenticity, I became overwhelmed. “When King gave his ‘Dream Speech,’ Robinson and his family were there. King himself said of Robinson that he is, ‘a pilgrim that walked in the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.’ To see the actual contracts that paved the way for history to be made, the signatures that made it real, well, in a time of such division, it’s so powerful to see documents that broke the color barriers and brought people together,” Kontilai added.

That brought up the matter of responsibility: what responsibility do collectors have to put documents like these on display for the public?

“At a time of iPads, iPhones, Blogs, digital photos and so much more, it’s important to see something real, something physical, and something that actually changed history. That’s why every collector does have some responsibility to share their important finds with the world. Before anything, these documents will be going on tour, so to speak, traveling to Robinson’s home town, to stadiums where he played and to important stops along the way. We want people to come out, to discover history, to see a living testament to progress and to perhaps, learn to love collecting,” he added.

And while Kontilai’s interests are far from purely altruistic (if Collector’s Cafe taps in to the marketplace in a major way and Authenticity Insurance is a hit he stands to add another stellar success to his list) there can be no doubt this is a man who passionately collects things that excite him.

So what’s the difference between a collector and a hoarder?

“Well, not much if you ask my wife,” he laughed as he was readying another interview, making sure all journalists knew of the embargoed time for release, that the conference was all set, that the press were all cared for…”this feels like a bigger production than a wedding!” he laughed.

An avid collector of fashion and lover of Marilyn Monroe, Kontilai would love to get his hands on the “Happy Birthday Mr. President” dress (as would 1,234,325 drag queens around the world) and I can’t help but tell him I once bid on Barbra Streisand’s tea set, as I drink tea daily, love proper sets, and would die for hers.

“See, there’s a collector in all of us, some of us just need to let it out,” he laughed. “I bet there’s other things you’re already collecting, or want to. Some things are just for us, but when they get to be of historical importance, we need to make sure someone like you is really getting Barbra’s tea set and not a knock off, that the document signed by whoever is real and that the articles you love so much to seek out are genuine. If I can do that for collectors, along with providing an auction place for them, that’s incredible. Add in the historical importance of the documents that are launching the entire venture, and your really do have a dream come true for me; one I can share,” he concluded.

I once held a document that sold a boy in to slavery. Another collector, Dana Linett, deals in documents and memorabilia from America’s history. Linett is the resident expert on the show “Pawn Stars” and has many such items. My friend, David Ethridge, handles his online auctions / web design and has brought many to my home to work on cataloguing. Robert E. Lee signatures (my late husband Andrew Lee Howard was a relative, thus the Lee), Aaron Burr, slave documents…just having them in the house made me nervous and holding them in their protective cases made me cry in some instances. Such is the power of history, of the actual documents that survived and were the instruments of change, of greatness, of horror, or progress or regression.

African Americans still have “many rivers to cross” as the song says, but Robinson’s historic entrance in to the majors remains a turning point of the 20th Century that helped pave the way for King and for Obama. These documents made that real, put it in to writing, guaranteed it and pulled it out of the ether. What a piece of history indeed.

“That’s exactly it, that so beautifully sums up why I do it, and why so many should and do,” Kontilai finished. “You get this, you feel it. It’s visceral, the effect seeing such things has on one, it goes right to our emotional cores. And no matter what it is that you treasure, that you value, we all need something to love, to feel passion towards, to remind us who were were, who we can be and what brings us joy.”

Of course, Kontilai was almost flabbergasted when I told him I bid on Jeffrey Dahmer’s freezer so I could have a BBQ and tell everyone what the meat was stored in; Lizzy Borden’s hatchet or the Sword of Calais, the Executioner’s Sword that beheaded Anne Boleyn; truly, I would buy those things if I could.

“Well, we each have our tastes and while those are a bit macabre for me, it just shows how diverse the community is and how much one thing could mean to someone and yet hold no value for another. It truly is a diverse group, and one that grows daily,” he added.

So, what do you, or would you, collect? Be sure to leave a comment below.

Listen to the interview here

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