Whenever I write about anything involving the population reports from third party grading companies (i.e. PSA, SGC, and Beckett), I like to throw out the standard reminder that they aren’t perfect. But what those “pop reports” can do is help give us an idea of the rarity between certain sets.
Typically, I’ve used them in comparing the perceived rarity of sets from the same era. One of the most populous pre-war issues, of course, is the T206 set. Those cards are readily available and not too tough to track down if you have a computer. But we also need to keep in mind that, while some pre-war sets might not be considered all that rare, in stacking them up against most post-war vintage, they are indeed.
Sure, there are any number of tougher 1950s and 1960s issues out there that have low populations. Often, those were the result of very regionalized production. It’s pretty obvious that pre-war cards are rarer, but how much rarer? Let’s take a somewhat apples to apples comparison by reviewing population reports of some of the most popular sets.
T206 is the obvious pre-war outsider here. To date, PSA alone has graded a little more than 240,000 of these cards. That puts T206 on par with many post-war vintage sets in terms of actual numbers. But does that mean they aren’t any rarer than those later issues? Nope. I’ll explain a little later why they are still considerably rarer, even if the numbers don’t say so.
We really get a more accurate picture of the rarity of pre-war cards when we look at other, less populous sets. The T205 set produced in 1911 is a good place to start. Like T206, it is highly collected. But unlike T206, it was not produced in the same massive quantities. For one thing, it is believed to have been distributed in only one year as opposed to three, like T206. For another, it is a much smaller set that is less than half the size. To date, PSA has graded about 38,000 T205 cards.
Another popular set from the same era gives us a good look at the rarity of early caramel cards. The E90-1 American Caramel set is one of the most popular issues in that classification. Even those are considered to be somewhat plentiful compared to other E-Card sets. But PSA has graded only a little more than 5,000 of those.
As a third example aside from T206, let’s take a look at another popular set in the E120 American Caramel card set. These cards came about a decade later than the others and are from the early 1920s but are surprisingly even rarer. Thus far, PSA has graded only a little more than 3,500 of them.
Now, let’s take a few post-war vintage sets that are also popular and widely collected.
In post-war, it all starts with the 1952 Topps set. Those cards were produced in large quantities and today, PSA has graded more than 255,000 of them.
The most popular Bowman set of all time is probably its 1951 issue. That set sporting the true rookie cards of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays is a collector favorite. To date, PSA has graded about 96,000 of those.
I wanted to take something a little later, so let’s throw in the 1965 Topps set. There, PSA has graded a little more than 230,000 cards.
Examining the pre-war sets with the post-war sets, there’s really no comparison. The pre-war sets are considerably rarer, which is to be expected. But if you consider another piece of information, we can deduce that the pre-war cards are even much rarer than these lopsided numbers indicate.
The Raw Factor
One very important thing to take into consideration here is that, in general, a larger population of pre-war cards are likely to be graded than post-war vintage cards. Because they are generally more valuable, collectors will be much more likely to grade them than post-war cards.
Many collectors will grade even a low-grade pre-war card since those commons can still be worth a good $20 or $30. A low-grade 1960 Topps common that could sell for a buck or less? Not so much. Think about it — at larger card shows, you will routinely see thousands and thousands of raw 1950s and 1960s cards. Raw pre-war cards are found in much fewer quantities. 1952 Topps cards are generally the ‘granddaddy of them all’ when it comes to post-war vintage. But with low-grade commons worth only a buck or two, it’s not worth it to have even many of those graded. Thus, raw ones exist in very large quantities.
The population reports already tell us that pre-war cards are much rarer and, again, that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. But when you factor in the raw cards, the pre-war cards look even more difficult to find.