In a scene that has constantly replayed itself through hobby shops and internet message boards, former collectors who hoarded their 1980s Topps cards have been gently – and sometimes not-so-gently – informed that most of their cards are not worth the paper they are printed on. Often heartbroken and sometimes indignant these individuals will either dump them in the trash, donate them to a local hospital for a tax write off, or store them away for ‘another ten years’ when they falsely believe the value may increase.
Like any industry, the laws of supply of demand remain paramount, and the simplest explanation of the ‘worthlessness’ of most 1980s base issues comes from the simple fact that they were produced in such massive quantities that anyone who wants one can just as easily obtain 1,000. Some collectors have theorized that even if all the 1980s base cards held in collections were simultaneously destroyed, enough unopened product would remain to keep values down until the end of time – or when the Cubs next win the World Series.
When low production cards went into production over the last twenty years, manufactured scarcity began raising prices of cards on the secondary market. This serial numbering technique can result in a collector opening a pack of 2014 cards and winning the lottery of sorts, striking it rich with a card that would sell for over $1,000 – or in some cases $10,000.
Returning to the 1980s, we come to the trend of artificial scarcity – that is to say scarcity where there was none originally. In the case of 1980s issues, third party grading has had a huge impact on an otherwise dull market.
Taking a look, for example, at 1982 Topps. Millions were produced and a total of 60,687 have been submitted to PSA alone. Over 9,200 have reached the coveted PSA 10 (gem mint) grade, roughly 15% of the graded population. On the surface, 15% seems like a ‘high’ percentage and not worth of a dramatic increase in price. However, when you consider that most savvy collectors are only submitting the cream of the crop it becomes more clear as to the inflation of the percentage. And when you factor in the literal millions (…and millions!) of ungraded, raw specimens, the percentage becomes infinitesimal.
The result in pricing is nothing short of remarkable, with cards like Cal Ripken Jr.’s rookie recently selling for $550. A 1982 card of Willie Randolph, a popular Yankee captain but no Hall of Famer, sold for $500 in a ’10’ grade because only three ’82 Randolph cards have been awarded a 10 grad. A raw 1982 Topps card of Randolph might not sell for a nickel.
An ’82 Topps Nolan Ryan – whose card is one of the most submitted and has been award the PSA 10 grade 95 times – recently sold for $260.
Some auction houses have begun to specialize in ultra high grade cards of popular players and ‘low pop’ stars for various years. Small Traditions recently sold a 1983 O-Pee-Chee #83 Ryne Sandberg in a ’10’ grade for $1,290.
Still ignored by many, the “Tiffany’ or ‘Glossy’ sets produced by Fleer and Topps years ago, carry rookie cards of iconic player that are much harder to find than their standard issue cousins with player collectors and those chasing registered sets pushing prices far above what was once considered possible thanks to encapsulated perfection. Two 1989 Bowman Tiffany Ken Griffey Jr. rookie cards sold in early December for more than $1,600 each.
Other sports are also impacted by the chase. A 1989 Score Football Barry Sanders rookie sells for around $50 in a ‘9’ grade but soars past $300 in a ’10’. Two PSA 10 opies of the 1987 Topps Jim Kelly offered on eBay last month sold for around $150 each. Even cards issued by companies that don’t exist anymore can sell for four or five times the price of a complete set with a gem mint designation on the flip.
One effect the prices have had is an increase in the price of sealed, vintage wax. Many collectors will open sealed product in the hope of finding pristine, untouched 30 year-old relics in order to hunt down their elusive gem mint grade. The result has been to expose a new generation of collectors to the 1980s product and some of the long forgotten players contained wherein. It can be an expensive and empty gamble if the cards come back from the grader at 7, 8 or even 9. However, one low population 10 can sometimes make it worthwhile and then some. You can see 1980-1992 PSA 10 graded cards on eBay here.
So the next time you decide to throw out a pile of ‘worthless’ 1980s base, first check those corners, measure that centering, and tilt the card to measure how much gloss has remained. It might just be worth something after all.