In light of the skyrocketing prices attained for 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle cards lately, I’ve seen a few collectors start referring to it again as “the post-War Honus Wagner”. They’re right, for the most part. Mantles aren’t tumbling out of long-lost collections on a regular basis but they’re far more readily available than T206 Wagners. Hop on eBay any day and you might find a dozen for sale. Most are lower grade, but they’re out there and those lesser lights have been lifted up by the market surge, too.
The Wagner card, on the other hand, usually only appears when one of the (maybe) 75 people who own one (or two) opts to sell. Most times, the card is sold through an auction house so it gets plenty of build-up.
Those two cards, though, share some of the same qualities that have kept them at the forefront for a long time and are helping fuel the uptick in vintage card prices. Knowing the qualities of what sets them apart is an important part of understanding why certain cards attract those huge prices.
All vintage rookie cards are desirable but the list of what the hobby generally refers to as truly “iconic” older cards is pretty short. Wagner and Mantle surely make the list. The 1914 Baltimore News Babe Ruth. Maybe the 1933 Goudey Nap Lajoie. You could make the argument for a few others, I suppose.
The real question is exactly what generates the buzz that causes certain cards to rise over time, sometimes taking huge jumps from one auction to the next.
The common denominators with Wagner, Mantle, Ruth and Lajoie generally involve the same, small group of factors that can also help identify other cards that have the potential to increase, even if they never quite reach the same lofty plateau.
Auctions for high-grade cards tend to generate bidders who aren’t typically avid collectors. Some are investors. Others simply want something collectible and old and most importantly, one that comes with a great story. With Wagner, it’s the mystery of why his card disappeared from production so quickly in 1909. While it’s generally accepted that Wagner didn’t want kids hounding adults who smoked or, egad, taking up the habit themselves, we don’t really know for certain. We only know it’s rare.
The Mantle card is scarce because Topps tossed a few hundred cases of high numbers that contained his card into the ocean sometime around 1959 because they couldn’t sell them for even a few cents. The story is part of the card’s legend. Similarly, the “missing number” in the 1933 Goudey set was done on purpose so set building kids would keep buying packs in hopes of finding it. When people complained, Goudey made cards of the long-retired Lajoie and sent them out after the season. The #106 is rare and valuable and like the other two comes with quite a tale. Maybe not quite as entertaining as the ones behind Honus and Mickey, but good nonetheless. The story isn’t well known among the general populace, though, and Lajoie isn’t the household name that Wagner and Mantle are. I suspect, though, that if the story does get some mainstream media legs to interest new potential buyers, old Nap could see a corresponding bump.
The second part of what makes a card instantly recognizable and desirable to a wide cross-section of potential buyers is that star power element. Mantle played in the nation’s biggest media market, was loved by men, women and children and was good enough to propel the Yankees to a bunch of championship seasons. Wagner was a god to baseball fans who watched the game at the turn of the 20th century and his legend was passed down. Ruth is the biggest star of all-time and the first card ever made of him—created even before he reached the big leagues—is the one that will naturally stand above the rest.
The third part of the equation is scarcity. Fewer than a dozen Baltimore News Ruth cards are known to exist. The total number of Wagner cards is probably well under 100. The number of 1933 Goudey Lajoie cards is likely somewhere around 130 if the graded population reports are accurate. 1952 Mantles are more plentiful. Heck, it was double printed. Still, it’s rare compared to every other Mantle and just about every other major post-War card.
Fourth, not surprisingly, is demand. While Mantle may not necessarily be the rarest of the bunch, the pool of buyers is a perfect storm: set collectors, Mantle collectors, collectors of Hall of Famers and investors all want one. Wagner, too, is wanted by the same type of groups. And who doesn’t want a Ruth rookie card? Prices are bound to increase when buyers far outnumber available stock.
History plays a role, too. The track record of sales for iconic cards doesn’t usually lie. They’ve been appreciating for a long time. That attracts collector interest but really gets the attention of those who have the money to buy the best. Many times, such cards have outperformed traditional investments over the same time frame. Any investment involves a certain risk but the best vintage collectibles rarely disappoint long term.
There are other cards from across virtually every era that meet the criteria that often leads to increased value. Some are already well-known to collectors but haven’t crossed into the threshold of the mainstream. Others may have all of the right ingredients but are so rare they simply need to be flushed out and presented in a way that creates interest.
Information is king when it comes to turning a card from interesting to investment worthy.