Black Swamp Find of E98 Cards Remains a Cautionary Tale for High-Grade Collectors
Sit back and let me tell you a tale
I’d been meaning to write something on the Black Swamp Find of 2012 for some time now but had been kind of dragging my heels. But the current sale of one of the top cards from that group sort of piqued my interest again and offered some motivation.
Heritage is auctioning an absolutely gorgeous PSA 9 of Ty Cobb from the 1910 E98 set that was part of the Black Swamp Find. Bidding is already past $20,000 and it will sell for more than that. But while that’s a lot of money, shouldn’t a card in that high of a grade of that big a star from that long ago sell for much more?
Of course. This card, like other Black Swamp Find issues, is a little different, though.
The Black Swamp Find, if you’re unfamiliar with it, was a massive discovery of E98 caramel cards in Ohio back in 2012. To give you an idea of how jarring the shock was, prior to the find, PSA had graded about 600 cards. After it, the PSA population virtually doubled. Finding so many cards from the rare set was surprising enough. You sometimes will see some larger lots of more common cards, such as T206, found all at once. But finding hundreds of truly rare pre-war caramel cards? I mean that just doesn’t happen too often.
That was the case here, though. The find was big news as it was but when the condition of the cards was known, it went from surprising to mind-blowing. Card after card was in high-grade condition with several 9s and even 10s being found. Even a flawless Honus Wagner PSA 10 was part of the group. The cards were in such great condition because they are believed to have remained untouched for about a century since having been printed. They sat and sat. And sat. Finally, in 2012, they were brought to light, promptly graded, and sold.
Yeah, but …
So what happened? Well, the cards sold for big time money.
That Wagner sold for nearly $240,000. A PSA 9 of Cobb brought nearly $40,000. Others sold for high prices as well.
Here’s the thing, though. The find absolutely obliterated the value of the high-grade cards from that set. Realistically, without the find, a PSA 10 Wagner E98 should be a million dollar card. At least. Seem high? Well, if PSA 9 1952 Topps Mickey Mantles that are more populous are selling for $3 million, I don’t want to hear that a better example of a much older and rarer card of an equally great player can sell for at least a third of that. The Mantle is a legendary card and one of the most iconic ones in the industry. But a PSA 10 of a caramel card from that era is simply unheard of.
Still, those prices are large amounts, right? Yep. But as time went on, people began to question if they were too high. Plus, the euphoria surrounding the find began to wear off. After all, there were now suddenly numerous high-grade examples of a once rare set. Even though those values were already somewhat muted given the rarity of what the cards were before the find, prices began to sink like a rock.
That, of course, is really saying something as virtually all other pre-war stuff has risen steadily. Save for an outlier with one PSA 9 selling for $48,000 since then, all other selling prices on record for that grade have dropped (and, often, sharply). A PSA 9 last year earned only $26,400.
While those losses have been less, well, bad, the drop the PSA 10 Wagner has taken has been catastrophic. After selling for nearly $240,000 in 2012, the card went for under $100,000 in 2017. Sure, people spending that kind of money on baseball cards can generally go unaffected from a financial standpoint. But the message is clear. Given the number of other high-grade cards, even in an elite grade, it’s just not ultimately as special as it should be.
2 + 2 = 4
Is there a lesson here? You bet. While many pre-war cards are rare, all it takes is one significant find to shake things up. The Black Swamp Find, of course, is an exceptional rarity. But large quantities of old cards are constantly being found. I just wrote about a large find of a few hundred cards and while those were in much lesser condition, the reality is that large pockets of cards are out there to be discovered.
That, when you put two and two together, has the ability to put high-grade cards in jeopardy. After all, if you’ve got a Ty Cobb T206 card in a PSA 7 grade, if a dozen 9s were found at once, that is going to hurt the value of not only those cards but yours as well.
So does the same thing happen with low-grade cards? It could. But lower-grade cards are going to be hurt significantly less and the E98s are a good example of that. For example, a pair of Wagner E98s that were graded a PSA 2 and not part of the Black Swamp Find sold for an average of about $1,700 back in 2011. The last reported sale of a non-Black Swamp Find Wagner in that grade is from earlier this year and it sold for – $1,700. Sure, you’d like for it to have gone up a little in seven years but maintaining its value is a heck of a lot better than seeing it lose 50% or 60%.
Lower-grade cards generally are a less risky proposition. That’s not to say they can’t lose value but they don’t have as much risk because adding to the population generally isn’t going to hurt very much unless it’s something drastic. Conversely, high-grade pre-war cards are extremely valuable because, in part, they are usually rare since there aren’t many cards in those grades. So adding to that population is much different and makes them less of a commodity.
Should you avoid high-grade cards? Not necessarily. Things like the Black Swamp Find don’t happen everyday and many high-grade cards have risen exponentially in value. Those cards are almost always rare and collectors are paying good money for high-grade cards. But discoveries like the Black Swamp Find also remain cautionary tales that the game can change at any moment.