Niskayuna native Daniel Wulkan has the power to make or break a sale on “Pawn Stars,” at least when it comes to anything sports-related.
Wulkan, who lives in Irvine, California, has been the sports expert on the show for the last few years and has been featured in nearly 40 episodes.
For good reason.
Wulkan became a sports memorabilia expert at a young age.
“My grandfather owned a candy store in the Bronx,” Wulkan said. “When my grandpa and grandma would visit they would bring boxes of unopened cards for my two older brothers and I. They opened them up, they loved the gum, I loved the cards. I loved sports, played sports, so that’s kinda how it started. This whole thing is kind of a hobby turned career.”
Growing up, he spent just about all his allowance on sports trading cards, and at 12 years old he had a collection worth around $400, he estimates. He asked his father to invest another $400 so he could have enough to start selling at sports card and memorabilia shows.
“I just started figuring out that I could . . . follow these rookie players by reading about them and buying them for like 10 cents apiece and then waiting and selling them for a dollar. I started to see that profit margin and I just figured this is something I love and I’ll never [have] to work a day in my life because I’ll be able to make money at something I love,” Wulkan said.
During high school and after graduating in 1989, he traveled around the United States selling at various shows. He was able to put himself through college at the New York Institute of Technology mostly by collecting and selling.
Yet, it wasn’t his only dream.
“I wanted to pursue Hollywood. I always wanted to work in the film industry and so I went to New York Tech for film and I learned everything on my internship with the movie ‘A Bronx Tale,’ so that was one of the greatest times in my life,” Wulkan said.
There he worked with Robert Di Nero and, briefly, with Joe Pesci.
“I was assigned to pretty much bodyguard him and keep people away from him for those two nights. At 22 years old, that’s like a dream come true … that’s when I really knew that that was for me,” Wulkan said.
One of Wulkan’s Pawn Stars appearances:
Playing basketball with Clooney
He moved out to California in 1994 and, not too long afterward, landed a production assistant job with the show “Step By Step” at Warner Bros. Studios. While working on the studio lot, he became friendly with some of the actors from other studio shows, like George Clooney, who was playing Doug Ross on “ER” at the time. Wulkan said he, Clooney and a few others would often gather at lunchtime to play basketball.
“That was a dream. I mean, you’re rubbing elbows with all these stars that you grew up watching as a kid in Niskayuna. Now you’re working with them and they’re saying ‘Hey, let’s go grab some lunch’ and you kinda do a double-take,” Wulkan said.
After working on “Step By Step,” he had a role as an orderly on “ER” and was on camera for a few episodes. Then he jumped around from studio to studio, working with people like Judge Reinhold and Michael McKean.
“My goal was to become an independent producer, so my main goal was to learn about TV, work on some TV shows [and] work on a music video. . . because I wanted to use that time as an extended master’s degree, to learn in the field, on the spot. That’s something I advise lots of people these days [to do]. It’s great to get a degree, and it’s great to get a two-year degree to get your feet wet, but I think you mainly learn so much in the field,” Wulkan said.
In 1998, he started producing independently and produced a few pilots and features as well as a music video. He also continued to collect and sell sports memorabilia, and especially in recent years, it has become the focus of his career.
“I really felt that the sports stuff was what was going to fuel my entire career financially. I always compare it to the stock market, that all you’re doing is buying on margins. So if you’re buying something for a dollar and you’re selling it for two dollars, you’re making 100% — you’re doing a lot better than a stockbroker. It’s an asset, it doesn’t fluctuate as much as stocks do. Yeah, stocks in the long term, it’s good to diversify but [with] cards we know how many are out there, how many have been graded a certain grade,” Wulkan said.
Since 2006, he has been a partner with Memory Lane Inc., a sports memorabilia auction and consulting company based in California. They handle everything from rare sports cards to jerseys and even items outside of sports memorabilia.
“. . . we have in our collection a double signed document of Al Capone, a photo signed by Amelia Earhart and two other pilots that were the three women pilots [and] Marilyn Monroe contracts. All walks of life,” Wulkan said.
Around six years ago, he started getting emails from the production team of “Pawn Stars” asking if he’d like to sell on the show.
“I didn’t answer probably for a straight six months because I come from the film industry and I know the world of creative editing and I have an incredible reputation in the business. We’re successful and the last thing I want is for someone to put me on a show and creatively edit my answers and mix [them] up with different questions so then I look like a fool and I don’t want to take that chance,” Wulkan said.
Eventually, he wrote back and agreed to do an episode. It went well and after being featured in several other episodes, the production company asked him to interview for the sports expert position. He got the job and has been featured on nearly 40 episodes.
“I love being on TV so it was great and they treated me great. It was fun and I traveled with them . . . going out to locations to look at collections. It’s just amazing,” Wulkan said.
One of his favorite episodes was included in last season, when someone wanted to sell their collection of Kobe Bryant memorabilia, including signed sneakers, jerseys, etc.
“That episode was a little tough to do because we had scheduled that before Kobe passed. It was tough because I also met Kobe two months before he passed. That kind of hit me hard because of how incredible a person he was, because of how dedicated he was to family and to fans. It hit me hard when I was filming. It kinda played with my mind a little bit but we got through it and I think the episode ended up coming out really good,” Wulkan said.
In another favorite episode of Wulkan’s, someone wanted to sell LeBron James’ mouthpiece that he used in high school.
“It was photo matched to a picture of him in Sports Illustrated so it was pretty cool,” Wulkan said.
The seller wanted $12,000 but Wulkan appraised it at $5,000 and the seller walked.
A mouthpiece is far from the oddest thing someone has tried to sell, on “Pawn Stars” or at Memory Lane.
“Once in a while, we’ll get offered a letter here or there handwritten by Charles Manson. Or Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker. I will not deal in any of that,” Wulkan said.
Besides, the sports memorabilia market has been rapidly growing in the last few years.
“I mean, when I started seeing what you could do with buying and selling cards and memorabilia, it blew me away that the market is so much bigger than people think,” Wulkan said. “Well, now I think people are starting to catch on because TMZ is covering that a Mickey Mantle card went for $5.2 million. And there are actually hedge funds getting involved.”
Even outlets like the Daily Mail are reporting on how sports trading cards are setting sales records during the pandemic.
“I think it’s just going to keep going and going,” Wulkan said.
That’s good news for his hobby-turned-career, which all started in Niskayuna. While he doesn’t have close family in the area — his father now lives closeby in California — he hopes to visit someday soon.
“I loved growing up there so much. It was such a cool place, [with] great morals, great values. . . it was a little bit slower paced [so I could] find out where my path would take me,” Wulkan said.