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Is The Bull Market Back At Baseball Card And Autograph Shows?

on Samstag, 24 Januar 2015. Posted in General Autograph News

by David Seideman

If you’ve read my other posts, you can tell that I really enjoy attending a good baseball card show to swap stories with other baseball history fans and revel in vintage tobacco and gum cards, But for the past year I have worried that these events are going the way of Sunday double-headers that were routine in the 1950s and 1960s.
During the 1980s baseball card boom the crowds were so overwhelming at the Westchester County Center, the locale of my favorite show in White Plains, N.Y. 25 miles north of New York City, that the fire marshals showed up.  Over the past year, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that most of the buying and selling has been between dealers. Other than a small group of heavy-hitters at auctions, the average collector has yet to show signs of fully opening his wallet. “Most collectors spend between $100 and $1000,” Jonathan Celona of the Boston-based Champion Sports Cards told me at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Cleveland this past summer. That’s not chump change, but it doesn’t get you very far in the vintage market, either.

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With Mantle’s 1952 Topps out of reach for many collectors, dealers like Don Hontz are stockpiling his 1951 Bowman. These range in price from $2500 to $5500. The 1952 Mantle Topps in the upper left is back on eBay $11,000.

So I was surprised to see that business at the most recent show, J.P. Sports Promotion’s and Rock Solid, Winter Extravaganza, was very brisk. “We had our best Saturday ever at that show,”   Celona said. “It was amazing, phenomenal.”  His partner at Champion Sports Cards, Steve Gadziala agreed: “Saturday was excellent and the busiest I have ever seen at the show.”  I overheard another dealer saying “there’s a certain buzz in the room.”

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A dealer’s dream: A an owner of vintage baseball cards with many miles on him bringing his old collection to sell.

Brian Coppola, J.P.’s co-owner, cautioned me against reading too much into a single show headlined by two Hall of Fame autograph guests: “The Big Hurt,” Frank Thomas who was inducted last year for hitting  521 homeruns, winning two MVP awards, and compiling .301 lifetime batting average and Gaylord Perry, the renowned spit-baller and one of only 24 pitchers to notch 300 victories.  The cost of Thomas’s autograph was less than $100 and Perry’s was free. Even so Coppola was struck by the presence of a certain elite crowd. “A few wholesalers on eBay were spending a heavy coin,” he said.

One dealer told me that he paid a walk-in seller in the “high five figures” for a unique lot featuring members of the 500 homerun club, including Babe Ruth, Jimmy Foxx, and Mel Ott. Celona sold a well centered, excellent-mint Roberto Clemente 1955 rookie Topps for $3500, double the SMR (Sports Market Report) price guide. Don Hontz, the owner Donscards7 in Portland, Maine, sold a rookie 1967 Tom Seaver in near mint-mint condition for about his asking price of $1200 and a complete set from the same year for $2400.

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This clean 1952 Mantle rookie is already worth more than the $8850 it fetched in November, based on the price of a comparable one in  another auction.

As usual, when it came to post-war cards, Mickey Mantle was king. Roger Centrowitz pulled a 1952 Topps rookie in excellent condition out of his pocket pants like a magician. He said he was consummating a $50,000 deal, $15,000 above the price guide. In fact I had never seen so many Mantle rookies at any show besides the National this past summer, counting a total of four.  “Things are way out of whack,” Bill Brodhead, a veteran dealer from Northern New Jersey, said, referring to the price guides lagging well behind the actual Mantle market.  A sign of the times was a Mantle rookie in his display case that may have been the sorriest card I’ve ever seen. It looked as though it had been through the wash.  Who knows how many flipping contests on playgrounds it survived six decades ago?  “It is for a collector on a budget,” Brodhead explained. His was asking $4300.

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You know a card is hot when even ones as distressed Bill Brodhead’s carry a high  price relative to other cards. One dealer called it a “poor mans’s Mantle.”

The high price for Mantle’s Topps rookie did not deter Hontz from paying $8,850 for one in Good+ condition in early November in a Love of the Game Auction. Two and a half months later the same Mantle was in his case with a price tag of $11000, but Hontz, who has been in the baseball card business for 37 years, said he would take $10,000 in person.  After the show he put it back up on eBay for $11,000.   That’s still a fair price, if you consider that a Mantle rookie one half grade lower in Clean Sweep Auctions is up to almost  $10,000 with five days left to go. Hontz mentioned a friend who is hanging on to his Mantle for retirement.

The rising Mantle tide appears to be lifting all Mantle boats. Many dealers and collectors are now wagering on his true rookie, the 1951 card issued by Topps’ arch rival, Bowman. “It never got the respect,” Hontz said. “But people are now saying, ‘you know what? I will buy the other rookie. I am speculating that in another six months they will go up.’” For his part he has five for sale, after buying two more at the show.  They range in price from $2500 in good condition to $5500 in excellent.

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Love them or hate them, Bowman’s last issue in 1955 trumpeted color TV back in the day when the vast majority of Americans still watched on black and white sets. Personally I l think they are wonderful artifacts  and you can get a decent one for a few hundred dollars.

Brodhead told me that his passion for baseball cards began when he was young. At a luncheonette his parents owned in the early 1960s they didn’t dare carry bubble gum cards because they feared he would take them all, but did treat him to the occasional $1.25 box containing 24 packs. During college his parents refused to let him shell out $3500 for an example of the iconic Honus Wagner tobacco card in very good to excellent condition since books and tuition were a higher priority. Today that card would top $1 million. Years later his mom teased him about the Wagner that got away. There’s is no point dwelling on his opportunity to own the hobby’s number one status symbol. Had he pulled the trigger in college he probably would have flipped it any way for a healthy profit. Said Brodhead, “if you are in love with this stuff, you cannot be a dealer.”

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