Broadly defined as baseball cards produced from the late 1980s through the early 1990s, the “Junk Wax Era” is often cited as a primary reason for the crash of the industry felt in the late 1990s. The gist is that cards produced during that time were usually printed in far greater quantities than many collectors believed. As a result, supply became much greater than demand. That led to a crash of sorts where many cards from that era were ultimately deemed to be pretty worthless.
But thanks to graded cards, interest in these sorts of cards has been renewed. Mostly, anyway.
Now, it’s not all about graded cards, mind you. The junk wax era has a steady stream of collectors that still treasure cards produced from that time. And many of them couldn’t care less about the precise condition of a card. Many collectors (including this one) broke into collecting during that time period and those cards will always be enjoyed by them for that reason. And when you consider that, in many cases, those cards are actually cheaper now than they once were, that’s just another reason many collectors flock to them.
But the other reason for a junk wax resurgence is because of third party grading companies. Grading companies such as PSA, SGC, and Beckett have played a key role here for a couple of reasons.
First, many collectors simply enjoy graded cards because of the way they look. Slabbed in a plastic case, the cards just display nicely. While storing large collections of them can be problematic, there’s no doubt that many collectors just enjoy graded cards for the aesthetic reasons. And since these are cards from their childhood, it’s all the more reason to start collecting them. Even if the card is not a valuable one, some collectors will pay the premium to have one that is encapsulated.
Second, and more importantly, the values of the cards can skyrocket with the right grades. No, you’re not all that likely to see much of a return on that 1987 Topps Jose Canseco All-Star Rookie Card that grades out at a PSA 7 or PSA 8. In that case, you may be hard-pressed to even get your money back for the cost of grading and shipping. But collectors are doing quite well with junk wax era cards that grade a PSA 10 or, even in some cases, a PSA 9.
Sticking with that Canseco as an example, an ungraded NM card is worth about $1 on a good day. But PSA 10 copies of the card can sell for around $40 on eBay.
That’s a rather mild case, too. Many other examples are far more extreme with perfectly graded copies exponentially increasing a card’s value. Some key 1980s rookie cards worth only about $20 raw can be worth hundreds if graded a PSA 10. Check out the selling price on this 1993 Topps Gold Derek Jeter graded 10. Collectors will also recall a PSA 10 1993 SP Derek Jeter famously sold last year for nearly $100,000. High-grade vintage is often worth a lot of money but high grades have had the same effect on some junk era wax cards as well, albeit to lesser degrees.
But is that justified?
In dealing with vintage cards printed, say, in the 1950s and 1960s, it is much more difficult to find those in exemplary condition. But should the grading effect hold true on cards produced by the millions with many still even found in unwrapped packaging? After all, the number of PSA 10 examples of junk wax era cards would skyrocket if collectors cared enough to send them in.
Here’s the thing. Thus far, the grading of the more modern junk wax era cards has held up because collectors have been more reluctant to send those sorts of cards in for grading. After all, if a Canseco 1987 Topps card is worth only about the price of grading if it receives a PSA 8, what would be the point in paying the grading fees, going through the waiting period, and turning around to sell that same card for no profit?
As a result, while there is an absolute boatload of raw Canseco 1987 Topps cards, PSA has graded less than 1,000 of them to date. The reason is simple — as stated, taking a chance on a decent payoff is pretty risky. Collectors hoping to make money would need a perfect grade on them to make it worth their while.
That has helped keep graded quantities somewhat low for many junk wax era cards. However, that would change in a hurry if more were submitted. And if/when that happens, the number of high-grade cards in the population reports increase. That, in turn, almost certainly would lower prices.
Regardless of the fluctuation in pricing, though, the bottom line is that cards from the junk wax era have more value thanks to the demand for graded cards.