The Wayback Collector is a weekly look at important news in the hobby as it relates to pre-war and vintage collectibles. This week’s topic takes a look at their place in the market with regard to recent news.
In case you missed it, a recent study estimated that the sports memorabilia market conservatively consisted of approximately $5.4 billion. That study, performed by Dave Yoken of the Collectable app (here’s the full article), did not even include modern cards. So it’s safe to say that the number including those cards would be a bit larger than that, particularly when you consider the many newer, expensive high-grade cards these days.
As a pre-war card collector, my thoughts immediately went to the older side of the spectrum. More specifically, how large is the piece of the pie for only pre-war cards and collectibles as opposed to other memorabilia and post-war vintage items?
Tough to say, obviously, without more data. his work, while intensive and noteworthy, is still somewhat of a ballpark estimate because every sale simply cannot be tracked. No study like this will ever be perfect. For our own usefulness here, his calculations do not indicate the sales of pre-war collectibles compared to everything else observed. Additionally, collectors even wrestle with the idea of defining the pre-war era with some putting the cutoff line at 1939 (the most accepted start of World War II) and others going as late as the mid- to late-1940s when Bowman cards emerged. Simply put, there are some hurdles in helping us reach a definitive number.
But however you slice it, the pre-war portion is almost certainly a significant chunk of things.
With regard to baseball cards, even the market on T206 cards alone is quite large. The Honus Wagner card in that set is the most valuable card in the entire hobby with the most expensive one selling for over $3 million. Others routinely sell for six and seven figures. Others in the set can also be extremely valuable. The most valuable PSA-graded T206 collection was recently sold, hauling in more than $8 million (without a Wagner, mind you). A total of 13 cards in that collection topped the $100,000 mark with plenty more hitting five figures. Healthy, to say the least.
Then there are the rare Ty Cobb Tobacco back cards that most collectors also place in the T206 category. A recent find of seven of those yielded $3 million in sales. Consider, too, the sheer number of T206 sets out there with cards routinely bought and sold. One estimate figures there are approximately 3.2 million T206 cards still in existence. eBay alone generally has around 10,000 for sale at any given time.
Go beyond T206 and you’ll find many of the most expensive cards in the hobby from the pre-war era as well. Other six-figure cards have included things such as the Babe Ruth 1914 Baltimore News cards, Ruth M101 cards, Joe Jackson’s E90-1 American Caramel cards, and more. Admittedly, there aren’t boatloads of these types of cards in existence. But they are out there and a few hundred thousand dollars for a single card adds up quickly.
So, I get the counter to this. When you’re talking about a $5.4 billion hobby, a million here and a million there are relative drops in the bucket, right? No argument there. After all, it takes an awful lot of stuff to get to even one billion, let alone more than five. But there are thousands and thousands of smaller transactions, too. Each day, plenty of four- and five-figure pre-war cards are swapped with relative ease in private sales and on eBay without so much the blink of an eye.
Further, don’t forget that cards are only one piece of the pie here. When we’re talking about pre-war collectibles, one can’t leave out all of the expensive memorabilia such as game-used jerseys and equipment, autographed items, and miscellaneous artifacts. The Forbes article, for example, highlights the famous $4.4 million Babe Ruth jersey. There are a good number of very expensive pieces of memorabilia around there from greats such as Ruth, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, and others, which adds significantly more to the pre-war heap.
Finally, consider the study includes other sports, too. Old football, basketball, and hockey memorabilia. Many things likely have gone unnoticed by baseball collectors. For example, Drew Brees recently purchased a rare jersey worn by coaching legend John Wooden during his time at Purdue. Selling price? $250,000. There are lots of very expensive pre-war items up for grabs and not all of it has to do with baseball. Baseball is the cash cow when it comes to sports memorabilia but others factor in, too.
All of this is still a bit fuzzy, right? Unfortunately, it’s going to remain that way without more knowledge. But I’ll leave you with this. If you’re a pre-war collector, think about your own collection. You may have put five figures into it quite easily. Maybe more, if you’ve got the resources. Now think about all of the collectors you know personally. Or all of the ones you know on message boards. Or all of the ones you’ve seen at large card shows, such as the National. Get the picture? Even factoring in smaller collections, it’s easy to see how the number gets very big very quickly.
The exact size of the pre-war card market remains a Ruthian-sized question mark and my cursory glance around the hobby isn’t going to change that. More needs to be done to come up with a more conclusive number. But Yoken’s study provides us with arguably the best look at the overall industry as we’ve ever had. While figuring out the pre-war slice from afar and without all of his data may be challenging, we can tell that it makes up a considerable portion of the memorabilia industry.
A couple of recent eBay sales to note involving pre-War cards. a 1902 W600 Honus Wagner graded 2.5 by PSA was listed as sold last week for $39,950. Earlier, an E121 Ruth graded 3.5 by SGC went for $32,911.