A wheeler and dealer makes a mint from collected nostalgia.
Troy Kinunen got his start by selling baseball cards out of his locker at Wausaukee High School in northern Wisconsin, counting teachers and fellow students among his customers. One of his first girlfriends lived in a house with a copy machine – it belonged to the girl’s mom – and she let him use it to run off form letters he stuffed into envelopes with baseball cards to mail to star players requesting their autographs. Today, Kinunen owns a lucrative memorabilia business in South Milwaukee that has generated as much as $4 million a year in revenue through auctions and sales made directly with celebrity collectors, including Penny Marshall, who played Laverne on “Laverne & Shirley.”
His private museum, set up inside a 104-year-old former church hall, is one of the area’s best-kept curatorial secrets, full of sports relics, World War I artifacts, old movie posters and more. Since 2008, the three-story brick building has also served as home base for Kinunen’s Memorabilia Evaluation and Research Services (MEARS), known worldwide for its authentication services and monthly auctions held at mearsonlineauctions.com. The 44-year-old spent about $1 million to buy and renovate the structure and now lives in a nearby condo.
From the outside, the facility provides few clues of the treasures it holds. Kinunen uses items in the museum as reference pieces in his authentication business – matching up potential fakes with confirmed antiques – and he came into his own in 2012, when he authenticated a Babe Ruth game-worn jersey that later sold for $4.4 million.
Kinunen, who has a boyish face, broad shoulders and slicked-back hair, speaks exuberantly about his first major purchase of sports memorabilia, a collection of 700 antique baseball bats that he acquired in the late 1980s. Early on, he also traded his baseball card collection for a game bat used by Ruth.
Much of MEARS’ success can be attributed to the 40-point system he uses to evaluate the authenticity and condition of items, taking into account wear and tear, and the materials used in their creation.
Kinunen has plans to open a retail store on Milwaukee Avenue in downtown South Milwaukee that will prominently feature military memorabilia and collectibles from WWI. He’s already purchased a building and hopes to mark the war that ended in 1918 with a variety of special events planned for 2017, including a re-enactment and a large-scale auction.
“It’s not Army surplus store stuff,” he says, but artifacts to rival his baseball collection. MLB greats Reggie Jackson and Ernie Banks have both visited the former church hall to look around (a privilege not normally available to the public), and Kinunen is still scrambling to meet the needs of customers like Marshall. “The rare stuff,” he says, “I can’t get enough of it.”
Authenticated sports jerseys remain Kinunen’s most popular items, and the vast majority of MEARS’ revenue comes from commissions generated at auctions. Other than Marshall, he’s had dealings with at least one rock star (not identified on the record) “movie stars, studio executives, athletes, Hall-of-Famers and computer magnates,” he says. “Money is no object for some of the buyers.”