Everyone hits a dry patch where they need some quick cash. Sometimes you borrow it from family or friends, occasionally (very rarely) a bank will lend it...or the easiest of all, if you have any decent collateral (an object that is worth something), you can do what I always did when I was young.... Go to the friendly neighborhood pawn shop down the street in Manhattan and get a loan against my diamond wrist watch. A gift from my parents, it was a well-known Swiss brand with a few diamonds around the face. My friend at the shop knew that I would usually need about 150 bucks and would lend it to me against the timepiece. When payday came, I would then redeem it. Like all such deals, it was a four month loan, with an interest rate of about 2.3% per month. You could redeem it any time by paying the principal and interest. If, at the end of the four month period, you could not redeem it you could renew the loan for another four months. If I remember, the second loan period was at a greater interest rate. If you then could not redeem it, they would send you a ten-day notice.....and then the object belonged to the pawn shop. Yep, after several years of playing this game, I lost the watch during an especially dry period.
All of this came to mind when I interviewed a rather extraordinary fellow named Yossi Dina at his Beverly Hills shop and office, The Dina Collection, this week. As you can imagine, a Beverly Hills pawn shop is unlike any other in the world, just as Beverly Hills is unlike any other community in the world. In Yossi's shop you can wander around a mind-blowing selection of diamond jewelry and the largest collection of classic and antique watches I've ever seen. As I perused the 4,000 sq. ft. boutique, I was blinded by all the diamonds shining from the vitrines...Bulgari earrings, Cartier bracelets, Van Cleef & Arpels necklaces, most priced far below their original market value. And lots of lower-priced bling for the common man....engagement rings galore. As I walked around this luxury boutique, I was dumbstruck by a beautiful gown on display. It had been worn by Elizabeth Taylor in the George Stevens 1951 movie, "A Place in the Sun." It just so happens that it's one of my favorite movies of all time and I can remember almost every shot in the film, so I quickly recognized it as the dress she wore in the party scene when she first spots Montgomery Cliff playing pool in the library. The price tag was $45,000. Then I spotted another fascinating object, a pair of fancy bejeweled handcuffs originally owned by Prince. I wonder what he did with them.... bondage? There was even an indistinguishable Marilyn Monroe garment, and several Michael Jackson jackets. I spent a few minutes perusing Yossi's collection of antique and classic watches, mainly those exotic brands - Patek Phillip, Audemars Piquet and Rolex. No Bulovas here. Later, during the interview, I showed him my Rolex, bought some 30 years ago at Ike Borsheim's famous shop in Omaha. One glance and he dismissed it as the 'wrong one,' pulling a Rolex from the pile on his desk and saying that some old Rolexes are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, like that one.
There are many interesting art works adorning the walls of his shop and office, some Picassos, a Warhol, a Chagall, even what appears to be a Van Gogh. I asked him where most of his merchandise comes from and he replied that it was usually from estates and auctions. "But I will travel anywhere in the world if there is an interesting or exciting deal to be had." It appears that he has elevated the age-old pawn shop practice into a Beverly Hills one-of-a-kind experience....a far cry from the pawn shop of my youth with its three-balls outside. "Let's face it," he said to me, "I am helping all these people to convert underused assets into quick cash. This month I helped a filmmaker who needed cash to finish a movie, and then there was a well-known socialite who wanted to freshen her jewelry collection." Asked for names, he shook his head no. Walking through his vault, I noticed some musical instruments in the corner. My escort related that they belonged to "Earth, Wind & Fire." Yossi and I talked movies and he revealed that he is interested in getting more into film finance and production, a world that I know all too well. (Shoemaker, stick to your last.)
Yossi expanded on my understanding of the terms of the average loan. "Usually we loan about 80% of the wholesale value of an item. And there is often a three month minimum on a sizable loan. If the loan is greater than $2,500, after the second four-month period at 2.3% interest, the pawnbroker can charge whatever interest he wants, usually 3 or 4% a month depending on the liquidity of the collateral." I expressed astonishment, and Yossi said that he charges far less than other brokers around. I then noted that at 4% a month that's an annual rate of 48% and he shrugged and said, "This is a good business if you know what you are doing." Obviously, he does.
I asked Yossi about the Golden Globes statue he had on the shelf behind his desk and he smiled and said, "The well-known actor who sold it to me - He gets about $8-10 million a picture - also had two Oscars he tried to hock with me, but I know that the Academy doesn't allow that, so I just loaned him $10,000 on his motorcycle and that Golden Globe. He redeemed the bike the next day and gave me the Globe." Like I said, this is a fascinating character....an Iraqi-born Israeli, one of nine sons and raised on a kibbutz, he became an elite commando parachutist for the Israeli Army. He says that he was sent on a secret mission to France for two years and that's where he began to realize his love for fine art objects. After he came to the U.S. in 1979, he began his California career by selling $20 jewelry door-to-door in the Valley, often living in his car. Once he sold Lana Turner $500 worth of jewelry and they became good friends. "I actually accompanied her on a trip to Egypt which she made, and when she died I bought the estate. Great lady." Dropping a name that he could, he mentioned George Hamilton, who sold much of his mother's estate to him. "George bought some beautiful bling here for his partner on 'Dancing with the Stars'." And long-time employee Dominique told me that Sharon Osbourne just bought some diamond jewelry and celebrity stylist/reality star Rachel Zoe, was just in browsing Rolex watches. Everyone has read that Madonna came here to borrow jewelry for her Max Factor commercial. Eventually he built up a clientele buying and selling jewelry and opened a shop. The story is well-honed and well-known, and has been told repeatedly in many variations on the Reelz Channel TV show, Beverly Hills Pawn, on which Yossi stars with three actress-saleswoman. We see a rotating cast of the rich and famous who trust Yossi to give them, as he says in his accented English, "a great deal.". The international show is on hiatus at the moment.
He related to me how he buys, sells, trades and pawns precious goods, all in a very discrete and low-key way. "Three signatures and a thumbprint, that's all it takes to make a deal with me. No loan is too large or too small." I asked him if he ever falls in love with an object and hesitates to sell it? He laughed and said, "All the time. But there is always a customer who can convince me to sell it - for a price. But I do try to match the piece to the person.
My passion is particularly for fine classic, antique watches. But I don't even wear a watch....I use my iPhone to tell the time." Dominique, stopped by and told me that boxer Floyd Mayweather came in after his recent victory to look at watches.
Of course like any good reporter I wanted the 'scoop' about well-known celebrities who utilized his pawn-brokering services, but he was cautious and canny....no big names revealed, at least on the record. He recently told the Jewish Journal that a customer strolled into his store looking for a collar for his beloved dog, who was turning four. He left happily with a $45,000 Gucci diamond-studded choker. And he told them that Chinese actress Bai Ling came in to sell a vintage Chanel necklace, for which she received $300,000, less than half of what she had initially requested. But Dina promised to give her more if he sold it later for a greater amount. He didn't tell me the results.
The Dina Collection (249 South Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, 310-888-8888) has been open over 25 years, and it lends against precious stuff.......think paintings by well-known artists, classic cars like old Bugattis and Ferraris, diamond jewelry from Harry Winston, Tiffany, Cartier and the like, and of course unique Hollywood and sports memorabilia...things which collectors covet. I'm told there is a signed Kobe Bryant artwork about, and even a correspondence from Napoleon. Women's handbags abound, and they are the Hermes Birkin variety...ranging from $25,000 to $50,000 for an alligator one. Yossi then tried to make the point that they don't take advantage of people when times are hard. "We will work with them. Often I won't foreclose on a piece because I know the person will try to make the payment." He told me a long, rambling story about an heir to the Huntington Museum fortune who brought him an original First Edition of the Lawrence of Arabia book. "He wanted $150,000. for it to invest in the stock market. I made the deal, only to discover that the book's ownership was being claimed by both the museum and Pepperdine University. He never repaid the loan so I eventually ended up selling it for over a million dollars and splitting the money three ways." I asked him what was the most expensive item he had sold; he reflected a moment and said it was an old master painting which he sold for $14 million to a South Korean businessman.
I sensed that here was a so-smart, charming guy in his late 40's who 'lived for the deal.' He makes quick judgments about the worth of collateral with help of a staff of trained experts and outside analysts. I would guess that they rarely make a mistake, usually estimating on the lower level, and don't lose money on many deals. About 80 to 90 % of the objects on which we make loan are redeemed," he said. "If the economy goes down, then the percentage of unredeemed objects goes up." He made the comment: "I don't take electricity or garbage...no gadgets or trash things." Someone in the shop later gave me a description of some of the more exotic items they have bought and sold: things like the contents of a movie star's wine cellar, a Czarist Russian jeweled tiara, a restored E-type Jaquar, a 1929 Georges Braque painting and a 14th century Chinese jade vase. Then I read he had bought a letter by Greta Garbo and I saw an original Tiffany lamp in his window. I wondered out loud if my signed Edith Head costume sketches of Rod Steiger for my "W.C. Fields & Me" movie were worth showing him. Perhaps.
Recently Yossi and his collection got some unwanted publicity when a rap star brought him four valuable paintings and he lent a hundred thousand dollars against them, But Yossi got suspicious and called the police, who confirmed that they had been stolen. The rapper and his cohorts were caught and jailed, the owners got their paintings back, and of course Yossi got his money. No interest. He is a yoga-practicing /health food aficianado and bachelor man-about-town who resides in a Malibu beach house once owned by crooner Al Jolson. Everyone writes that he looks like the late Yul Brynner, but I don't see the resemblance, apart from the bald pate. We both love the restaurant Nobu Malibu, though since he resides next door he frequents it a lot more than me. I asked if he would ever open a pawn shop in Malibu and he laughed out loud. "Not a chance, unless Barbra Streisand would let me sell her collection."
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