With the "summer-early fall" major show schedule in full force as we come off the National and this past weekend’s East Coast National, that means many of the leading auction houses will either be on the prowl for items or showing off items in their upcoming auctions. Several years ago when Mastro was a big player in the industry, I watched at shows as their employees fanned out and worked dealer tables, scooping up everything they felt they could make a profit from.
But one aspect of these collections is rarely thought of in this market and that is the term "provenance." In simplest terms, provenance means a chain of ownership, especially if an important collector owned that card or piece of memorabilia at one point. In terms of baseball cards, we are far behind most of the other major collectibles in understanding and appreciating provenance. I do believe that is because many of the original collectors are still with us with the exception of the precious few major who came before the growing hobby interest of the 1970's.
Occasionally you do see an important collection sent to a grading company and noted as belonging to an important collector such as the Lionel Carter Collection when it was auctioned off or the tracing of the now infamous PSA8 T206 Honus Wagner card which was once owned by Wayne Gretzky and is so well known that single card became the theme of an entire book. Cards from the ‘Black Swamp Find’ of a couple of years ago received that designation on the label when they were graded by PSA, thus offering provenance from one of the most famous finds in hobby history. Obviously, those are exceptions in today's market but I, frankly, expect that to grow in importance as the years continue.
Sometimes the collection can be based on who the collector is. Some collectors have so many important cards we can create a buzz with measured selling of their cards.
I wrote about how when the Barry Halper collection was sold through Sotheby's the 1960's card sets went for a very reasonable price. Could you imagine buying the 1964 set for let's say $1500 and then selling singles from the set at $5 and up with the Halper provenance? At that time, you would have sold a ton of cards of the person then considered the leading baseball memorabilia collector of all time. For some it doesn’t matter but for others, having a piece of hobby history is fun.
Then there’s the ‘provenance of fame’. In the late 1970's-early 1980's I used to see the late Johnny Ramone at all the major New York City shows and I know that Jellybean Benitez (the record producer who was also an early boyfriend of Madonna's) were also both major baseball card collectors. If you are into entertainment of that era, it might have been fun to own cards tied to their collection. athletes have been card collectors, most notably Gary Carter, who was active in the 1980's and built a prodigious collection during that time frame. Sadly, he’s no longer with us.
These are just a few of the famous people I remember who were into cards during the 1980's and you have to know there are many more. In addition, some of the leading dealers have built major collections. Knowing they continually work on updating and those sets, it would be great to see their provenance attached rather than just having them show up at auction when it becomes their time to sell. And no, I am not nearly that important to have the Rich Klein Collection plastered on anything.
If you know someone reasonably famous or known for a stupendous collection, would you pay extra for the privilege of knowing where that card or cards came from? And if so, whose collection would you be interested in? And will we ever follow stamps and coins and really start paying attention to who owned the cards before we did? As always we'd love to hear your opinions.