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"Nobody in Los Angeles knew much about that history or the coins," says McNall. Even as a teenager, he discovered that he could take advantage of local coin dealers, buying one shop's ancient coins for almost nothing and then selling them to another dealer for a profit. "It was cherry picking," he says. Eventually the shops caught on and refused to deal with him, but they did pay him to make up price lists for their ancient coins.
It occurred to McNall that he could do the same for himself. So he typed up a price list of his little inventory, mimeographed copies of it at his high school and began advertising. That led to his having his own corner at Coins of the World, Etc., a shop in Arcadia where he was supposed to sell U.S. coins for the owners. What happened, though, was that McNall steered customers away from U.S. coins to his own collection of ancients. "I didn't mean to," he says. "It was just my enthusiasm for my coins."
What money came in he committed to rarer coins. "My parents would get concerned when I bought some coin for $2, 000," he says. "Then I'd have to hustle my collection to somehow pay for it."
By the time he enrolled at UCLA, in 1966, he assumed he had grown out of his hobby. The $60,000 he realized by liquidating his collection was nice, but he planned to become a professor of Roman history, and during his freshman year he devoted himself entirely to his studies. But in a way he kept plundering his old collection. He found that in many of his courses he could steer the paper toward his expertise and write on some arcane topic in ancient history. The history and the classics professors cultivated him as a kind of social pet. "I was paraded around like a freak," says McNall.
His teachers introduced him to Sy Weintraub, owner of Panavision, and other entertainment moguls like Begelman, David Geffen and Leonard Goldberg. They began to buy coins on McNall's advice, and they began to make money. And when they made money, McNall made money, which was a problem for a 19-year-old in those radical times. "These weren't the '80s, remember," he says. So, for appearances' sake, he bought an old Corvair to drive around campus. The Jaguar was reserved for calling on moguls.
The dual life didn't last long. In 1971, after McNall was awarded a Regents Fellowship, a very big deal in the California university system, something snapped. With the fellowship, says McNall, "I was working on my doctorate and making $8,000—every graduate student's dream. Then it occurred to me I was doing $3 million in gross sales on the side. This was crazy. I quit the [UCLA] doctoral program, but not because of the money. It was the action."
He formed Numismatic Fine Arts, the shop on Rodeo Drive, and acquired an increasingly glitzy clientele and a worldwide reputation. Soon he was selling to the Louvre as well as to Nelson Bunker Hunt. McNall was making money, but he was also making important contacts. Hunt led him into sports ownership by arranging for McNall to buy stock in the NBA Dallas Mavericks. That friendship also led to horses, with McNall arranging the syndication of 400 of Hunt's thoroughbreds, two of which were the stakes winners Dahar and Estrapade. Later McNall formed his own string, Summa Stables, which has included Trempolino, winner of the $1 million Arc de Triomphe in 1987, and Golden Pheasant, winner of the 1990 Arlington Million.
Grateful clients in the movie business steered McNall toward profits in their field as well, until McNall finally said, "Let's do this right." In 1979, he formed Sherwood Productions, which gave us WarGames and Mr. Mom. Four years later he merged Sherwood into Gladden Entertainment Corp., which has produced Weekend at Bernie's and The Fabulous Baker Boys. The movie business seems to excite McNall least of all, though he promises to get more involved in it now that Candy—ol' Uncle Buck himself—has become more involved with him through Candy's interest in the Argos.
You will not be surprised to learn, after all this, that it was collecting that led McNall to ownership of a hockey team. Jerry Buss, then the owner of the Kings and still owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, collected U.S. coins, but he and McNall had run into each other through another of their shared enthusiasms, stamp collecting. Eventually they became friends. Buss, intrigued by McNall's interest in hockey—he was a longtime Kings fan-sold him 25% of the team in 1986 and another 24% the next year. In March 1988 McNall bought the rest.
McNall tinkered with the Kings, changing the team colors and increasing the staff, but he knew he couldn't galvanize Los Angeles, a star-driven town if ever there was one, without the hockey star. Buying Gretzky from Edmonton was the only move that made sense to him, even at the princely sum of $15 million. This would be the most valuable piece McNall had ever collected.