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On MetroCards’ Flip Side, Art Exhibits That Catch Collectors’ Eye


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On MetroCards’ Flip Side, Art Exhibits That Catch Collectors’ Eye



September 1, 2008



Earl Wilson/The New York Times

Lev Radin’s collection of special-issue MetroCards fills four large binders.

“I must admit, my favorite is this one,” he said.


What Lev Radin referred to as his “artwork collection” was on display in his Bronx apartment.


“I love these portraits of Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela,” said Mr. Radin, a computer programmer who works in Manhattan. “But I must admit, my favorite is this one, of the New York City skyline, with the Statue of Liberty and the Chrysler Building off to the right.”


Mr. Radin, 55, who has spent several thousand dollars amassing his colorful collection over the past 14 years, had something else to add. “Some of these pieces have been swiped,” he said, and he meant that literally.


In 1994, the same year Mr. Radin left Samara, Russia, for Riverdale, the New York City subway token was going the way of the Third Avenue El, and the MetroCard arrived, allowing train and bus passengers to pay their fares electronically, with a single swipe of a thin plastic card.


Since then, Mr. Radin and many other memorabilia buffs have been collecting MetroCards, not for swiping, but for swapping, selling or simply saving what they consider to be miniature works of art, as the flip sides of the cards depict world leaders, landmarks, entertainers, animals, advertisements and a variety of other subjects and themes. In its first three years of existence, the MetroCard had a blue front, but since then it has been gold.


“Whenever I get a little extra money, I put it into buying some new cards,” said Sam Aronov, 51, a retired building superintendent who lives on the Upper West Side.


Two years ago, Mr. Aronov, a friend of Mr. Radin’s, created a MetroCard collectors group on Yahoo.


“Almost immediately, people started joining,” he said. “I had suspected a lot of people were really into these cards, which is why I started it in the first place.”


Mr. Aronov said the group now had 60 members, from around the country and around the world.


“As a collector, what I love is the quality of these cards and their thematic variety,” Gary Huff, 66, a member of the group who edits a newsletter for a card collectors club in Perth, Australia, where he lives, said in an e-mail message. “I’m planning a trip to New York next month, and hope to collect plenty of MetroCards during my stay.” The club collects MetroCards as well as other types of cards.


On Saturday, 18 MetroCard listings could be found on eBay. In recent auctions, a blue-front card advertising Anita Baker’s Grammy-nominated 1994 album, “Rhythm of Love,” went for $169.49, and a blue-front Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus card from 1995 fetched $122.50.


Someone on eBay also bid $20 for an expired student MetroCard, and someone else bid $520 for an expired MetroCard stamped “NYPD.” (A police MetroCard can be used while an officer is on duty.)


“We have customers out there who have been collecting these cards since Day 1,” said Margaret Coffey, the assistant vice president for marketing and service information for New York City Transit, whose department coordinates the production of MetroCards.


“We get a lot of calls from people who inquire about the availability of certain cards,” Ms. Coffey said. “All they are trying to do is make their collections as complete as possible; it’s really no different than collecting baseball cards.”


MetroCards are often produced in limited quantities and have limited runs. In 1994, for example, the Transit Authority issued a five-card set in honor of the Rangers’ winning the Stanley Cup. To commemorate the year, production was limited to 1,994 sets.


That set, along with thousands of other cards — including transit passes from Atlanta, Los Angeles and Tokyo — are a part of Mr. Radin’s collection, neatly displayed in four large binders. Along with the cards, one of the binders holds the seven kinds of subway tokens used by New York City straphangers in the 20th century.


Mr. Radin, sitting in his kitchen, proudly displayed the first MetroCards ever produced, a four-card set issued in January 1994 that features the New York skyline, Times Square, the World Financial Center and Grand Central Terminal. Mr. Radin went on eBay and paid $400 for the set, one of only 20,000 produced. His biggest eBay purchase, he said, was a limited edition New York Times card (another advertisement, issued in 1995), which set him back $700.


Brian Weinberg, 28, a transportation planner from the Bronx, considers his “Celebrate AirTrain JFK” MetroCard the crown jewel of his collection.


“I believe that it was only handed out to people who rode the JFK AirTrain on opening day,” said Mr. Weinberg. He said his favorite cards were those issued to recognize special events and dates for New York City Transit, like the series produced for the centennial of the subway system in 2004 and the two-card set issued in honor of the 75th anniversary of the A train in 2007.


Harley Spiller, a science teacher who lives on the Upper East Side and is known in the memorabilia world as Inspector Collector, said he was “on the case of the MetroCards from the very beginning.”


“What is most unique about the cards is that they form a diary of sorts that tells a history of New York City,” said Mr. Spiller, 49, who also collects, among other things, neckties, yellow pencils, and chewing gum from foreign countries (including banana-flavored Chiclets from Lebanon).


“For me,” Mr. Spiller said, “my MetroCard collection ranks very high on that list.”

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Some of those cards sound really impressive, as I look at the boring one in my drawer.


I'd consider it, but I already collect baseball cards and diecast. The wife would kill me if I started something else. B)


what kind of diecast do you collect?

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