A friend was spring-cleaning last week, because he could bake no more sourdough bread, when he found stashed in a “junk” closet three long, narrow cardboard boxes long ago forgotten about. Beneath the lid were stuffed hundreds of baseball and football cards collected … well, exactly when he bought them, our friend couldn’t quite remember. Twenty years ago? Maybe 30? Longer?
Before he began pulling the cards from the box to examine the find, our friend was convinced he’d found his son and daughter’s college fund. He became even more excited when he discovered among the lot a few Hall of Famers and household names. He ran to the Internet and began searching for the value of his collection, so sure he’d struck gold. Not even close.
The total value of his find turned out to be $49.78. Give or take a few cents.
Most of the cards were from the early 1990s. That’s when card-makers mass-manufactured “collectibles” and essentially rendered them worthless. Nothing’s special if everyone has it, after all.
Perhaps during some quality stay-at-home time, you, too, have uncovered that forgotten cache of sports cards from your childhood. Maybe they’re extremely valuable or frustratingly worthless; hard to say until you peek at these few tips. It’s OK to get excited; that’s why we collect, after all – for the thrill of The Big Find. But get informed, too. That’s what keeps us collecting.
THE ROOKIE OR THE VETERAN?
There’s a Mickey Mantle card … and then there’s The Mickey Mantle card.
Which is to say: That 1962 Topps No. 18 featuring Mantle and Willie Mays – two of the best to ever play the game – is a nice find and wonderful keepsake. And depending upon its condition it can go for as much as $11,000 – in graded MINT 9 condition. But on average it’s a $30 to maybe a $100 card.
As opposed to the 1952 Topps Mantle, which is fast becoming The Card in the hobby, as evidenced by its $2.8 million sale in MINT 9 condition. And Mays’ 1952 Topps card sells in MINT 9 for around $250,000.
It’s nice to own a Hall of Famer’s card, absolutely, no matter the year. But the rookie card is almost always the most valuable.
OLD AGE OR NEW WAVE?
The older a card, the more valuable – not a bad rule to live by, though keep in mind, so-called commons from the Good Old Days might buy you a nice meal but aren’t putting the kids through school. A middling condition Luke Easter from the same ’52 Topps collection that gives you the multi-millions Mantle is only going to fetch about $40.
And then there’s the rarest of the rare — like, say, the 1910 T210 Old Mill Series 8 Joe Jackson card, which had been in the same family for more than a century until Thursday night. Heritage Auctions just sold that “lunch pail” card — so called because it was discovered in an actual lunch pail — for $492,000, the first time ever that card had been to auction.
On the flip side, some brand-new cards are selling at vintage prices – because they’re made to be rare, those shiny game-used-artifact inserts and one-of-one autographed shiny offerings. A random Mike Trout isn’t worth much. A 2009 Bowman Chrome Mike Trout Rookie Card Refractor Auto graded 9.5 can sell for around, oh, $250,000. Or higher.
On Thursday night, when Heritage kicked off our three-day Spring Sports Collectibles Catalog Auction, we saw several modern-day rarities far exceed their pre-auction estimates. A one-of-one 2011 Bowman Chrome Draft Prospect Autograph Superfractor Francisco Lindor sold for $102,000 — five times its pre-auction estimate. And that 2010 Bowman Chrome Draft Prospect Autograph Superfractor Christian Yelich you see above went for even more — $111,000.
What you have to watch out for are those offerings from the mid-1980s and 1990s, when card-makers flooded the market with so-called rarities and variants that were just the same-ol’ dolled up by the truckload. Let’s be honest: Sure, a mint-condition 1993 Upper Deck SP Derek Jeter rookie card can go for close to $170,000, but the cliff is steep after that.
A BRILLIANT MISTAKE
The 1990 Frank Thomas Topps card is a nice card. It’s his rookie card, and goes for about $6 in tip-top condition.
Then there’s The Big Goof on The Big Hurt’s MLB bow. The version of the Topps offering where they forgot to type in his name. The one with the big blue blank spot where his name goes.
That one goes for about $25,000.
That’s one of the great things about being a card collector: It’s one of the few times you’re rewarded for owning an error.
SPECIALTY BUT NOT SPECIAL?
In our current Spring Sports Catalog Auction, there’s a 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan No. 57 in PSA Gem Mint 10 condition – and it sold for a record number because it’s considered THE Michael Jordan Rookie Card. Except it’s really not.
That would be the 1984-’85 Star Co. Michael Jordan card issued as part of its Bulls set in sealed team bags. These were for locals-only, and there weren’t many made – somewhere below 5,000, with few of survivors given good grades. Doesn’t sell for close to $100,000; on Thursday night it went for more than $15,000. Still, that’s almost twice its original estimate. Impressive.
That’s a special specialty offering. So, too, were the Dad’s Cookies baseball cards in that same spring auction – one-offs from a small company in Vancouver. No one knew what they were worth until Thursday night. Now we know: $11,400.
But take it from someone who has a million of these: Those sheets of Texas Rangers cards that Hostess and 7-Eleven produced in the 1970s and 1980s are valuable only because of sentiment. Not sure they’d buy you a Twinkie or a Slurpee today, much less both.
CONDITION, CONDITION, CONDITION
Almost every inquiry about a collection begins this way: “I found this card in mint condition …”
And, usually, it’s far from. Keep in mind, mint doesn’t just mean the card is crisp and clean. There are numerous things that influence a card’s grade – from the way it was printed to the way it was packed. Is the image perfectly centered? Is the image sharp? Are the colors bright? Or is this a muddled mess?
In the immortal words of Heritage Auctions’ Sports Operations Supervisor Mike Provenzale, “Mint card aren’t just sharp corners.”
GET GOOD GRADES
Used to be people got their cards graded just to sell them — it was, and remains, the only way to know what you really have, whether that’s a $3 keeper tossed into a shoe box or a new car in the garage. It costs a few dollars to see if that’s an investment or a bookmark, but look only as far as PSA’s website to discern the differences between the grades – and the ungraded.
Nowadays, some collectors get all their cards graded if only to protect their conditions, and keep them from having to pull out the tweezers and gloves whenever they want to look at what they own.
“It takes a trained eye to grade a card,” Provenzale says. “We know what a grader looks for – how to measure centering, for instance. It takes a trained eye to determine a grade.”
Long story short: Heritage Auctions is happy to have someone take a look at your cards. It’s as easy as clicking here. Even if you don’t want to sell them. And if you do, swing away.