There are so many different ways to participate in the sports card and memorabilia hobby, sometimes it's easy for your brain to go on overload. From vintage cards and sets to game worn material, autographs, the latest parallels from card company sets, rookie cards, team issues. If you can name it, you can collect it. It's easy to go overboard or worse yet, have a collection that's just a bunch of...stuff.
Here are some ways you can be a smarter collector. Some may be obvious, others serve as a good reminder--a kick in your card-filled pants if you will. And of course, if you're relatively new to the game, a decent little daily affirmation so you can build wisely.
1) Have a focus: You can’t collect everything (many of us have tried) and while it might be fun to have a little of this and a little of that, you’ll probably accomplish more if you are a little more focused. If you find yourself spending more time in the card market, stick to cards. If you love autographs, find a particular niche. Baseball Hall of Famers. Players on your favorite team. MVPs. Rookies of the Year.
Also decide what type of items you’re going to collect. Think about the pros and cons of collecting balls, photos, jerseys, etc.
2) Ask questions: In online forums, on social media or at shows, don’t be afraid to start a topic. If you’re afraid someone will make fun of your lack of knowledge in a particular era, explain that you’re a newbie. Chances are most won’t give you a hard time either way. Find out who the long-time dealers are the next time you go to a show. Spend a lot of time at their table. Buy something. If they’re smart, they’ll chat you up and hope to earn your business long term while teaching you a little about the hobby.
3) Do Your Research: New collectors or those who haven’t been in the hobby for many years are often looking for a price guide to tell them what something is worth. Yet there are a lot of items out there for which price guides just won’t work. Other times, the price guide information simply doesn’t reflect the actual market. The best way to find out what something might bring if you put it up for sale or what you’ll have to pay to own it is to look at recent sales.
For high end or rare material, do an internet search for the item and see if an auction house has sold one over the last few years. For other items, use the sold function inside eBay’s search. You’ll get recent results, which will provide an accurate snapshot of what things are actually selling for. eBay’s ‘completed’ items search will include items that have ended but weren’t purchased which will tell you the price that others were not willing to pay.
4) Know Your History: The best sports cards and memorabilia—and often the most valuable items—are that way because they have a connection to the game. If you don’t know when Don Larsen pitched a World Series perfect game, chances are you probably won’t appreciate a ball signed by Larsen and his catcher, Yogi Berra. Being able to tell the story of why that piece of memorabilia is important is part of the fun of being a collector. Learning about sports history also helps you uncover things that someone else may not realize have significance and get them cheaper. Your local dealer who happens to have a stash of 1960’s NFL or college programs may not have realized that programs from the weekend after the Kennedy assassination have more value.
5) When buying an expensive card, buy graded examples: Even if you’re not a fan of graded cards, don’t risk hundreds or thousands of dollars on a card that hasn’t been looked at by an authentication/grading company. Are these guys perfect? No. But they’re right a lot more often than not and they have the equipment to catch trimming and ‘repairs’. There are a lot of doctored cards in the market and with high value cards, there’s even more motivation to pull one over on someone. You can also often buy graded commons and minor stars in the 6-8 range from the 1960's and up for less than the grading fee. That ensures a nice, quality collection for minimal cash.
6) Consider buying lots: You’ll see a lot of lots at auction these days. Partial sets, mixed years, gigantic lots of unopened, groups of stars, dozens of autographs, mounds of graded cards. Look at those lots very carefully. They’ll be skipped over by most collectors who are looking for individual cards. Even if you don’t ‘need’ every card in the lot, you can cherry pick what you do need and probably sell the rest individually for a profit. It takes a little work, but you just mind wind up with a profit for yourself, or at least break even.
7) Get on Auction House Mailing Lists: If you’re an advanced collector, you’re probably aware of the major sports memorabilia auction companies. If not—or if you’re only tuned into one—get connected. Most of them will put you on their mailing list (and their email list) for free. The catalogs are remarkable. A LOT of time and energy goes into the descriptions. You’ll learn about sports history, the nuances of various sets throughout the decades, you’ll find out what’s hot and what’s really valuable. At some point, you’ll probably want to bid. That’s what they’re hoping anyway, and it’s pretty hard to resist once you get a look at the best auction catalogs.
8) Buy What You Like and Don't Whine: You’ll see advice nearly everywhere you turn online and hear plenty of it at card shows too, but the bottom line should always be whether you like it. You’re the one who has to look at it for as long as you own it and if it makes you happy, who cares what anyone else thinks? That’s not to say you shouldn’t think about buying it. Never impulse buy a new car and never make a snap judgment on an expensive card, either. If you’re unsure, walk away for a while. If you still want it as much the next day as you did the day before, then buy it.
And please...we know that collecting was a lot different and a lot simpler 35 or 40 years ago. If you're old enough to remember those days, be glad. But don't pontificate about times were better then. The world is different. Business is different. Life and hobbies are different. I remember the old days too, but there are still thousands of ways to have fun in the hobby for a little bit of money. Maybe you can't dream of owning every card ever made any more. So what. You determine your own hobby happiness not the trading card manufacturers, authenticators, dealers or eBay.
And there's plenty of good stuff out there waiting to be discovered.