Forget commercial paper–take a look at this investment-grade cardboard.
1903-04 Breisch-Williams E107 Honus Wagner
The card didn’t look like much when Bernice Gallego plucked it from a bin of unsorted merchandise in her Fresno, Calif., antique shop. She examined the simple sepia-toned portrait of an unknown team from a bygone era and put it up on eBay for $9.99.
Within hours, the mushrooming volume of inquiries convinced Gallego that this wasn’t just any old card. She quickly pulled the item from eBay and took it to an expert, where she learned it was the first card ever printed of the first professional baseball team ever assembled, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. Through sports memorabilia specialist Memory Lane, Gallegos sold the card to Houston dealer Jeffrey Rosenberg for $75,000 in February.
1914 Texas Tommy E224 Honus Wagner (tie)
“This is my fantasy baseball–getting to own a card like this,” says Rosenberg, who purchased the card for his memorabilia company, Tristar Productions. “It’s the type of thing you could put in the Smithsonian or the Baseball Hall of Fame. I think we bought it for a fantastic price.”
The scarcest items can command even higher prices: The top 15 vintage cards routinely fetch six figures at auctions by Memory Lane in Tustin, Calif., and similar outfits like Goodwin & Co. in St. Louis, Huggins & Scott in Silver Spring, Md., and Hunt Auctions in Exton, Pa.
1914 Texas Tommy E224 Ty Cobb (tie)
The 1914 Baltimore News Babe Ruth card is the most valuable, worth $500,000 in good condition, according to Brian Fleischer of memorabilia evaluator Beckett Media. The second-most expensive card is the 1909 Honus Wagner rookie, worth $300,000 in comparable condition.
1893 Just So Cy Young (tie)
One Wagner rookie card miraculously survived the last century in near-mint condition. Dubbed the “Gretzky Wagner” after it was purchased by the hockey star for $451,000 in 1991, the card sold for $500,000 in 1995, then for $640,000 in 1996, $1.265 million in 2000, $2.35 million in March of 2007 and $2.8 million in September of 2008. Fleischer estimates it would bring $3 million today–and that a comparable Ruth rookie would go for $3 million to $5 million
1887 Four Base Hits N-Unc. (tie)
Value: Buck Ewing $50,000-$100,000
Rounding out the top three is a card that bears the image of one of baseball’s most controversial figures, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Accused of participating in the notorious Black Sox Scandal, in which the heavily favored Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series in exchange for cash from mobsters, Jackson was banned from baseball for life. Scholars point out that he posted a scalding 0.375 batting average in the Series and didn’t make any errors in the field, fueling a recent movement to have him posthumously elected to the Hall of Fame. Jackson’s 1910 Old Mill second-year card is worth $200,000 in good condition.
1888 G and B Chewing Gum Co E223 Albert G. Spalding (tie)
“It’s just one of the all-time great baseball cards,” says Robert Lifson, president of Robert Edward Auctions in Watchung, N.J., a sports house similar to Memory Lane. “It’s Joe Jackson’s only tobacco card. You don’t have to be a baseball card collector to appreciate it.”
1887 Four Base Hits N-Unc. Mike King Kelly (tie)
Play Your Cards Right
Vintage baseball cards have been something of a safe haven during the current recession. Last May, a 1909 Honus Wagner rookie in good condition fetched $317,000. Since then, the Wagner’s value has edged up to about $350,000. Other rare pre-war cards have held their value, and modern cards are down just 10-15% on average in the last year. That’s only a slight dip compared with the S&P 500, down 40% on the year.
“In past economic downturns, the hobby has done well,” says Beckett’s Fleischer. “We’re seeing really strong sales on high-grade pre-war vintage stuff. People are putting their money in cards instead of traditional investments.”
1914 Boston Garter Color Joe Jackson
To be sure, the hidden costs of the hobby are often steeper than brokerage fees or fund expenses. Auctioneers typically charge sellers a 10% commission on small lots; for big-ticket items they often waive the seller fee and hit the winning bidder with a buyer premium of 15% or so. Of the $75,000 Rosenberg laid out for Gallego’s card, Memory Lane took $11,000. A policy on such a card from Collectibles Insurance Services in Hunt Valley, Md., runs about $460 per year. Still, it’s hard to put a price on the satisfaction of ownership.
“It’s more fun to buy a Babe Ruth card than some AT&T stock,” says Fleischer. “You can’t show shares to your friends.”
1910 Old Mill T210 Joe Jackson
Bragging rights can be rewarding, but for some collectors, a solitary moment with a vintage card is the real treasure. If you take one of these items out of its case, trace the weathered edges with a careful finger and smell the ancient traces of tobacco ingrained in the tiny fibers, for a moment you might feel baseball’s mystical soul shuddering through your own.
1909-11 T206 Honus Wagner
Regardless of your desire to commune with ball-playing ghosts, you don’t necessarily need to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars to land a prime piece of vintage cardboard. There will always be more unwitting archaeologists like Bernice Gallego. Last year, a collector in Florida found a Wagner rookie in a tobacco tin in his grandfather’s attic.
1914 Baltimore News Babe Ruth
“It’s extremely rare to hit the lottery like that,” says Fleischer. “But it still happens.”