November 18, 2011
The pawn king
A day in the life of pawnshop owner Yossi Dina looks something like this: A customer strolls in looking for a collar for his beloved dog, who is celebrating his fourth birthday. He finds a Gucci diamond-studded choker, pays $45,000 for it and leaves the store delighted at the great bargain he scored.
Another customer, Chinese actress Bai Ling (who played in “Red Corner” and “The Crow,” and recently bared her soul on the VH1 reality show “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew”) wants to sell a vintage Chanel necklace. She ends up selling it to Dina for $300,000 — less than half of what she initially demanded, but Dina promises to give her more should it sell for a better price.
Dina’s establishment, the Dina Collection, is not your run-of-the-mill pawnshop. It’s where the rich and famous dash for cash when times get tough or when they are in need of a large bundle of bills for a project. The Dina Collection, located on South Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills, boasts assorted treasures such as vintage and designer Cartier, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet watches; jewelry such as diamond cuff links and precious stone necklaces; a garage full of rare classic automobiles (a Ferrari Spider, circa1948, worth more than $2 million, is one of Dina’s prized possessions); and art offerings including Warhols, Cézannes and Picassos.
Many of Dina’s uber-wealthy clients pawn their expensive belongings temporarily; they come back later to redeem them, at a higher price.
“If I told you who my clients are, you’d be shocked,” said the tall, smooth-headed Israeli bachelor who owns two adjacent Beverly Hills pawnshops. “I’m talking about very famous people in town. It’s not that they don’t have money, it’s just that they don’t have cash flow at the moment and they need to complete a certain project or a film, and this is an easy and quick way for them to get a loan.”
Dina, who has a beautiful beachside home in Malibu, was born and raised in Israel. He arrived in the United States in 1979 with the typical immigrant fantasy of striking it rich and started out as a door-to-door salesman, selling $20 jewelry items. One day, he knocked on the door of an impressive Hollywood Hills home, and there stood the glamorous Lana Turner.
“I didn’t know who she was,” Dina admits. “She invited me in, and I sold her $500 worth of jewelry. She told me about the movies she starred in, such as ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice,’ and only then, it clicked in my head and I realized who this beautiful woman was. I didn’t want to deposit the check she gave me, I wanted to keep it as a souvenir, so in the end, Lana gave me cash. I kept the check, and we became good friends. When Lana traveled to Egypt, I went with her. When she passed away, I ended up purchasing her estate.”
Dina later moved on to selling more expensive jewelry. He used to carry his “store” with him in a briefcase, but after he was attacked more than once carrying thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry, he understood that it was time to open a store.
“The first time I was attacked, I had a gun pointed to my head,” recalls Dina, a former commando in the Israeli army. “I was not insured, and I was in serious debt. The second time it happened, I decided I’m not going to give up my briefcase without a fight, so I fought the attackers. One of the attackers escaped, and the other one, I was able to hold down until the police came and arrested him. However, while we struggled, he hit my head with the gun barrel and opened my skull. I found out later on that the two robbers had robbed before, about a dozen times, and killed seven people. I was really lucky to be alive.”
After that incident, Dina opened his first pawn store on Wilshire Boulevard, 28 years ago. A few years later, he opened the one on Beverly Drive. Right from the start, the store attracted high-end clients who needed to secure cash with discretion.
Not all of Dina’s clients, however, come to pawn their expensive belongings; some come looking for unique gifts or valuable art to add to their collections. Dina says one of his regular customers is a wealthy Jewish doctor to the stars. He purchases a variety of different items ranging from jewelry to paintings to cars every month.
Another loyal customer is George Hamilton, who recently adorned his “Dancing With the Stars” partner with bling from Dina’s store. Judge Judy Sheindlin purchased a timepiece for her husband at the Dina Collection. And Madonna borrowed jewelry for a Max Factor commercial she shot, Dina says.
Dina not only does business with the rich and famous, he also lives and socializes among them. His multimillion-dollar Malibu home used to belong to iconic singer and comedian Al Jolson, and his neighbors have included Ryan O’Neal, Charlize Theron, Aaron and Candy Spelling, and “The Hangover” director Todd Phillips.
In this era of reality television, it was really only a matter of time until some studio executive took notice of Dina’s charmed life and quirky business and made him a celebrity in his own right. “E! Entertainment Special: Pawn 90210,” the pilot for an ongoing reality series featuring the Dina Collection, aired Sept. 7, and Dina hopes it will be picked up for a full season.
“They aired the pilot several times, and we were told we received 1.4 million viewers,” Dina says.
The instense yet charming Dina is well suited for reality television. His line of work has inherent drama associated with it, and Dina is full of fascinating tales of desperate starlets, mysterious treasures and astounding deals.
“There was once a painting I purchased for $4,000, and I got an offer for it for $75,000. I decided that if they offered me so much money for this painting, without me even asking for it, it’s a sign that its worth is much greater. I decided to sell it at an auction and got for it $780,000.”
As a result of the past few years’ poor economy, business at Dina’s pawnshop has been booming. The new 5,000-square-foot showroom, adjacent to his original location, which he still operates, features luxurious leather couches, polished stone floors, rich wallpaper and designer furniture. The sleek storefront also offers a private VIP lounge and a discrete back-door entrance for paparazzi-dodging celebrities.
Dina decided several years ago to start observing Shabbat, and he no longer works on Saturdays or on Jewish holidays. Now, every Saturday, he visits Chabad of Malibu and spends the day at his Malibu beach home, with a good book or his surf board. For this master dealmaker, life couldn’t have handed him a better deal.