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Hwang: Scarcity, Grade Dictate Card Values; Not Age

There’s a common misconception that vintage baseball cards are valuable because they are old. But this is not the case. The reality is that the most valuable of the vintage baseball cards – such as a PSA 10 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle or the PSA 8 Gretzky T206 Honus Wagner, for example – are valuable not because they are old, but because they are desirable and because high-grade examples are rare. That high-grade examples are rare is merely in part a function of age.

On the other hand, in the long wake of the great baseball card bubble of the late 1980s and early 1990s – a period of wild oversupply, from which a never-ending supply of unopened cases remain available in great quantities – common knowledge dictates that modern baseball cards are worthless, and that cards with non-zero values are strictly a vintage (pre-1981) thing.

Common knowledge is wrong.

Most people make two mistakes when thinking about baseball card values. One is thinking about baseball cards in a vacuum; the other is taking the wild oversupply of the bubble “junk wax” era, and applying all of its deficiencies forward to cards of more modern ilk. But if we really want to understand the value of the modern baseball card – and baseball cards and other sports cards in general – what we should be doing is looking at card values in the context of collectibles in general.

Consider fine art photography, for example. The table below is a list of the 10 most expensive photographs ever sold, along with each photograph’s author, print run, sale price, and date of sale. See if you notice anything.

Photographs1

The most expensive photographs ever sold all share a common element. No, it’s not that the photographers are all dead; to the contrary, the top five photographs on this list – and eight of the top ten – were composed by living photographers, chief among them the German Andreas Gurksy. Nor is it that the photographs are old or of “vintage” ilk, as eight of the top ten photographs were composed after 1980.  Rather, the common element among the most expensive photographs lies in the miniscule print runs, with each of the top ten photographs featuring edition sizes of 10 copies or less.

This brings us to the modern baseball card.

Rhein

Gursky’s Rhein II (1999) is the most expensive photograph ever sold, selling for $4.3 million in a November 2011 auction at Chrsitie’s New York. That copy was the largest of an edition size of six.

The Modern Baseball Card

As I wrote last year in a series of articles for the Motley Fool, the investment profile of the modern baseball card has improved dramatically over the past two decades due primarily to:

  1. Significantly smaller print runs in general, and limited print, serialized cards in particular. This is not dissimilar in principle to the modern limited print, serialized fine art photography of Andreas Gursky et al.
  1. Better product featuring autographed cards and/or game used materials, pushing modern cards more firmly into the broader category of sports memorabilia. 
  1. Enhanced liquidity due to the presence of eBay and other specialized online trading sites such as COMC.com.
  1. The emergence of relatively reliable 3rd-party grading and authentication services, chiefly Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) and Beckett Grading Services (BGS). These 3rd party grading and authentication services have helped to enhance liquidity by virtually eliminating the information and knowledge gaps between buyer and seller – a particularly big issue when trading over the Internet – while also helping to enhance card values by putting a relatively limited number highest-quality examples of a given card in a separate, more premium class.

And as it turns out, an astonishing number of the most valuable baseball cards – and sports cards in general – of the past 40-50 years have been printed in the last two decades or so, and many of those have been printed even just within the last 5-10 years. The table below shows 10 of the most notable modern sports cards sales on eBay in 2013 and 2014 (through the end of July), along with the card’s grade where applicable; print run; population (the number of copies of a given card in a given grade); sale price; and date of sale.

Graph2

 

Bowman Chrome Puig SuperfractorGenerally speaking, these cards share a common element, also shared with the limited print, serialized fine art photography Michael Jordan Game Jersey Card 1997-98of Gursky, among many others. That common element is scarcity.

Most of the cards on this list were deliberately short-printed and serialized, while other cards on this list are rare by virtue of grade. The 2012 Topps Chrome Andrew Luck RC Auto Superfractor 1/1 and 2013 Bowman Chrome Prospects Yasiel Puig Auto Superfractor 1/1, for example, were 1/1s off the printer. On the other hand, the 1993 SP Derek Jeter RC is not particularly rare, and might cost you $100-$150 in ungraded form; however, only 12 PSA 10 Gem Mint copies exist, while zero BGS 10 copies exist.

That said, it might be time to reconsider the view that modern baseball cards are worthless, and to consider the long-term investment prospects of the modern baseball card.

Jeff Hwang is a gaming industry consultant and the best-selling author of Pot-Limit Omaha Poker: The Big Play Strategy, the three-volume Advanced Pot-Limit Omaha series and The Modern Baseball Card Investor.  Follow Jeff on Twitter @RivalSchoolX.

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