Skip the price guides – pricing pre-war cards is an inexact science
Todd Lichti was not a good basketball player.
Well, okay, he was pretty good because he made it to the NBA, and anyone in the NBA is amazing. But comparatively to other NBA players, he was not great. He was a first-round pick but lasted only a few years in the NBA before being relegated to overseas ball.
Whenever I think of price guides, Lichti’s name is the one I remember most. Why? Because he caused an absolute disturbance in my middle school days as a young collector.
Okay, let me clarify. When Lichti was a rookie back in 1990, one of the major price guides goofed. In a big way. Well, big for a bunch of 12-year-olds on the brink of puberty, anyway.
Lichti’s card, if I recall, was supposed to be listed at $.40 with the other rookies. Instead, it showed up as $4.00. That caused collectors all over (at least in my school) great panic. Panic if you didn’t have one, anyway. Most of us just assumed he was some uber-prospect we’d not heard of and all sorts of deals were made to try to get our hands on a Lichti card. For a month.
Things went back to normal by the next month as we found out that the pricing was merely in error. But that gives you some kind of context of just how important price guides were. They were gospel. Collectors even took them seriously when things made zero sense at all – like the Lichti card. If you went to your local card shop for the new Tuff Stuff or Beckett and it told you that a common card was suddenly worth $15, by God, that’s what it was worth.
When I really started getting into collecting cards as a kid, one of the things every collector needed was a price guide. Current Card Prices (i.e. CCP) was the first such guide that I ever had. After that, I got into Tuff Stuff and Beckett, like I’m sure most did. These books came out on a monthly basis, were printed in color, and while 99.9% of the prices didn’t fluctuate in any given month, they were vital for keeping up with, particularly, the latest issues. And in the pre-internet days, the articles and advertisements were needed, too.
But when it comes to using price guides for pre-war cards today, you might as well forget about it.
One of the most common questions I get from collectors new to pre-war is how to find pricing. Well, unfortunately, it’s not as simple as buying a monthly guide. Can some guides give you an idea on some cards? Sure they can. The problem is that the prices are often so inconsistent with reality that you don’t know which ones are good. Thus, even if some are accurate, the overall guide doesn’t do you much good because you don’t know which ones are not.
That’s no knock on these fine guides, by the way. For more current cards as well as post-war vintage, I imagine, the prices offered are probably decent. Pre-war is a different animal, though.
For one thing, there are generally fewer cards so you have wilder fluctuations. That’s particularly true of higher-graded cards that are not as affordable to everyone.
Further, the really scarce stuff can be extremely difficult to price. Ultimately, a card is only worth what people will pay for it. Sometimes scarce stuff can be less pricey if there aren’t a lot of buyers for those items. Other times, they can be even more expensive than expected when bidding wars flare up. It can go either way.
So what’s a collector to do? Your best bet is almost always to go down one of two paths.
Past Sales on eBay
I always recommend that you check eBay past sales first. 95% of the time, that’s the first place I go. Important to note here is not to merely check the completed items. Those will include items that did not sell and a seller’s asking price is not a good indication of a true value. After all, anyone can ask for anything. That doesn’t mean that’s what it’s worth. What you want are auctions for cards that sold.
Note, too, that even past sales aren’t perfect.
In particular, when you can, you should disregard Buy It Now sales. Those can involve cards that sold for less than they should have if a seller underpriced his item. Conversely (and more common), sellers might sell an overpriced item to either a buyer that is unfamiliar with true pricing or, in the case of rare cards, particularly, a buyer may overpay for a card they cannot find elsewhere.
Further, Buy it Now prices are also influenced by eBay promotions.
eBay often offers buyers a 15% off coupon for buying an item. I personally have taken advantage of these at times. An item may come up for sale that I would not typically buy but with the coupon, it makes it more affordable. That’s great but the problem is that the sale is recorded at the higher price. Thus, if I buy a card for $500 on eBay, that is what it shows the sale amount as – not the $425 I paid for it.
In general, however, past eBay sales are a great tool to use. And when possible, always check as many sales of those as you can to develop a range of what a card has been selling for.
Sometimes, the card you may be interested in does not show up on eBay much. eBay generally has most everything but a lot of the rare stuff eludes it. For that, you’ll need to check past sales from traditional auction houses.
Thankfully, the internet has made this easy as well as most auction houses leave their past sales out there to be accessible. On rarer stuff, often, you can even find past sales of that specific card from auction houses such as REA and Heritage.
Now, some caution has to be exercised here, too. Past auction sales can be around for quite a while. You can find some dating back more than 20 years. Obviously, a sale of a card ten years ago doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the value it should sell for today. Pre-war cards, in general, have been going on an upward trend. So while some stuff may be selling for less these days, the majority of it will cost you more today.
Again, there are exceptions to using only past sales of items. Things like an individual buyer’s personal situation regarding a card can lead to higher-than-normal sales. Sometimes, auctions go under the radar and are missed by people that collect them, raising lower prices. Most of the time, though, recent past auction sales for cards are your best bet when trying to price things.
A final word here is a brief pricing tip. If you’re new to pre-war cards, don’t expect to learn everything overnight. Even people that have been collecting these types of cards for decades have to research prices on certain items.
Try to get used to pricing similar items. For example, if you’re looking for T206 commons, as a rule of thumb, most will be in the same price range. That’s not true of all, obviously. Some are tougher to find, etc. But in general, a good price for a low-grade T206 common with a non-rare back is going to be between $10-$20 and many will fall in that category. Once you learn which ones are tougher, you’ll find you won’t need to research every single card as many will be worth about the same.
Similarly, you can do that with Hall of Famers, too, when working within the same set. Players like Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, and Cy Young, will always command a large premium. But many of the ‘lesser’ Hall of Famers – guys like Roger Bresnahan, Miller Huggins, Bobby Wallace, etc., will often generally be about the same. Not all the time. Sometimes cards are shortprinted. Sometimes cards are tougher for other reasons. But, in general, learning what cards are typically in the same price range will help you.
The absolute best way to learn more about how prices are adequately priced is just to study past sales. In particular, if you’re new to pre-war, I’d tell you to focus on maybe one or two sets and learn the pricing on those. Too much too soon will be overwhelming and you’ll have a difficult time keeping things straight. If you’re working on a particular set, I’d encourage you to focus solely on that for a while. Once you get more familiar with pricing for that set, check out another. With practice and time, you’ll do just fine.