Buying Vintage Sports Cards Offers Options

Walk the aisles at a major sports card show and listen to the conversations.  You’ll quickly discover that it’s not possible to put collectors into the same 800-count box.  Some are filling want lists; happy to finish their vintage sets with cards in virtually any respectable grade.  Others want the absolute best they can find, willing to pass on a card that might put them a step closer to completion if it doesn’t meet their near mint requirements.  Some are looking only for graded cards as they work on registry sets, player sets or collections of Hall of Famers.

Are they strictly collectors, strictly investors or a little of both?

It depends on the motive, but it’s clear that the most desired cards are still those that take up residence in the showcases.  Fans who are casual collectors and the die-hards both want stars…in whatever condition they can afford.

“Graded Hall of Famers are always a consistent seller for me,” dealer Brian Van Zant told Sports Collectors Daily while manning his booth at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago.  “Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, the list goes on.  People just love the old cards.”

Van Zant says his high grade cards move the fastest.

“They’re still looking for the higher grade cards.  They want investment grade cards, something they know they can put away for the future and know there’s a good chance they’ll get something more out of it later.”

It’s true in the football card market too where certain key rookie cards remain hot.  Johnny Unitas, Jim Brown, Joe Namath, Roger Staubach, Walter Payton, Joe Montana and the iconic cards of NFL pioneers like Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski are in demand.  While the league continues to grow, investing in football cards isn’t something most dealers are willing to recommend.

“I’ve always told customers ‘buy what you like, don’t buy for investment purposes’,” said Michael Hattley of Touchdown Treasures in Connecticut.  “Because if making money were that easy, there would be a lot of dealers and right now, if anything, it seems like they’re actually dropping off one by one. It’s a wonderful hobby.  I encourage people to participate, but stay within your means.”

The dilemma at a show is whether to invest in a card you can hold in your hands and inspect up close or buy it on eBay.  “Retail” prices at a show–even with bargaining factored in–can be higher.  But not always.  Dealers at a show are motivated and they’re able to give quantity discounts.  If you find a table with prices you can live with, chances are they’ll be reasonable on everything and be willing to give you a sizable discount.

In the baseball card market, knowing what’s hard to find means you have to be willing to pull the trigger.  Last week, it seemed most post-War vintage collectors were looking for the notoriously hard to find 1967 Topps high numbers.  Few dealers had a significant quantity.  Fewer still had the short printed cards.  One could literally work the entire floor and not find enough for sale to finish a want list.  Hitting a dealer up just after he purchased a complete set could mean a bonanza.  Don’t be shy about asking those types of questions and be prepared to pay a little more.

For those looking to build a meaningful collection, Hattley has some advice.

“Keep your collection focused,” he said.  “You can always expand down the road.  You can’t have everything that’s out there.  You don’t have a big enough house and more importantly, you probably don’t have the budget for it.  It’s supposed to be a hobby and that’s rule number one.”

To see stories from the National Sports Collectors Convention, click here.

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