Of Hype And Baseball Cards In The Attic (Updated)
Sometimes – whether you merit it or not – you seed the Publicity Storm Cloud just right with the chemicals and you get eight inches of rain.
Such it was yesterday when a respected memorabilia auction house put out a story about the discovery of some hundred-year old baseball cards in an attic in Ohio. I have a little less than 400,000 followers on Twitter and it feels like half of them sent me a link, wondering if I would be buying what each and every article described as three million dollars worth of cards. As near as I can tell, the story was picked up by ABC, CBS, NBC, ESPN, Fox, AP, Forbes Agence France Presse, TASS, and Pravda. As I washed my face before bed last night and flipped on the radio, the story was on the CBS hourly newscast.
I’ve dealt with the auctioneers – Heritage – for years with nothing but professional results, and I’m accusing them of nothing but professional success here, but boy oh boy oh boy did they hype this thing.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Finding 1909-10 baseball cards in pristine condition in an attic at Defiance, Ohio, is a wonderful story and the cards are worth a lot of money. But comparisons to unique artwork (“It’s like finding the Mona Lisa in the attic,” said the finder) and the three-million dollar pricetag are ludicrous.
Here are some of the cards, and then I’ll explain why the pricetag is nonsensical:
There are 30 cards in the set, issued by an anonymous candy manufacturer during the baseball card craze of 1909-11. Labeled within our hobby for cataloging purposes as “E-98” (the “E” is for “Early Candy and Gum”) the cards are scarce compared to other more plentiful issues of the time (yet there are 15 of them available right now, in lesser shape, on eBay). They also just aren’t that popular. In an era in which the candy companies produced extraordinarily beautiful lithographs of players stylized to look like Greek Gods with blazing sunsets behind them, E-98’s are pretty bland colorized black-and-white images set against one-color backgrounds. The set is also full of careless errors (if you look at the card of “Cy” Young, lower left, you’ll notice it shows a lefthanded pitcher. Cy, who only won 511 career games, was a righthander. The photo actually depicts a very obscure contemporary named Irv Young).
Here’s what I mean about relative attractiveness. The Mathewson and the Wagner below are from the E-95 set issued by Philadelphia Caramel in 1909. Find me 700 copies of them in superb condition and we’re talking.
:Nevertheless, baseball card price guides agree that a full set of all 30 E-98 cards should be valued at about $125,000 in near perfect condition. The 37 cards that the auction house, Heritage, plans to sell next month, are the best of the bunch, real beauties with sharp corners, the kind investors love.
The problem is that there’s only one thing that investors react to more than beautifully conditioned old cards. That would be the sudden “find” of a large lot of previously hard-to-find cards.
From the time it came out in 1953 or 1954, a Dormand Postcards issue of Gil Hodges of the Brooklyn Dodgers was wildly scarce. In the days when regular cards from the series fetched a dollar or two and even a Mickey Mantle cost only $5 or $10, Hodges was “worth” $400. Then a few years ago somebody found a stack of them. I mean, like 750 of them. Like, however many they made and didn’t distribute for whatever reason back in the ’50s. Right now on eBay you can get your average Dormand postcard for $25 to $45. Hodges? Well, you can buy-it-now for $750. That’s $750 for 42 copies of the Hodges card (some poor guy, meanwhile, is still trying to sell his one pristine-looking Hodges for $2,000).
If you read the entire story of the “attic find” in Ohio you’ll notice that what they discovered wasn’t just 37 old cards, but 700 of them. The family and the auction house aren’t saying specifically what the rest of them are, but the way these things work, if there weren’t a lot more of the E-98 cards (presumably in lesser condition) than they’d be auctioning them off, too. If they were more valuable, or more intriguing, or just from a more collected or beloved set of cards, they’d be publicizing them.
So, congrats to the owners of the “find.” The estimate for what an auction next month at the national collectors’ gathering in Baltimore – $500,000 – might be a little high, but it’s probably in range. Investors will invest in anything, especially if they’ve read about it in the news. But even some of the news articles indicate that there are less than 700 of these E-98’s registered and encased in plastic (as in the illustration) with an unknown larger supply in “raw” (that is, not encapsulated) condition. If you introduce 700 new ones into the market, the price will initially go up, and then way, way down.
The family and the auction house have a stack of 700+ cards from a set nobody really collects and which investors might begin to doubt.
Don’t forget to wave to the Gil Hodges Dormand Postcard when you pass it.
UPDATE 5 PM EDT: A tweeter raises an important point. Javier Cepero writes: “Doesn’t the guy have a Honus Wagner 10 rated card?”
Yes. But not the Honus Wagner. The Honus Wagner – from the American Tobacco Company 1909 set called “T-206” has been sold for $3,000,000 by itself (in perfect, albeit altered condition) down to the $300,000-$400,000 range for the crappier ones.
“The” Wagner is on the right. “My” Wagner meets baseball historian/Braves pitcher Tim Hudson last year, in the middle. The E-98 Wagner is on the right.