2020 Pre-War Cards Year in Review

For 2019, I did a year in review, which was pretty well received. It worked so well that I thought I’d do it again for 2020. Here’s a look back at the highlights in pre-war cards throughout the year. Much more happened, certainly, but here’s a brief rundown of the things that stuck out to me.

Soaring Prices

2020 was a year like no other. With the rise of the COVID-19 virus, we saw folks homebound for quite a while. And, well, that led to many people buying things that they ordinarily would not.

One of those things? Sports cards. Prices for modern cards skyrocketed and even cards from the junk wax era soared with collectors rediscovering cards from their youth. And that meant that prices for pre-war cards were on the move, too.

Pre-war cards have generally seen a pretty steady rise over the decades. But prices reached new heights this year — particularly for the biggest names, including Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, and more. Some cards doubled or even tripled in value this year and, in general, most collections got a whole lot more valuable. If there’s a story of the year in sports cards, it’s certainly that.

What does that mean for future prices? Beats me. But I think that while we could see a correction for modern cards, pre-war prices have a better chance to remain healthy. That’s not only because of the rarity of such cards, but also because many folks jumping into the card market did so for the more modern cards. I believe that pre-war cards have been bought and sold primarily by those already in the market. That isn’t to say that prices couldn’t come down a bit — only that I think prices for pre-war cards have a better shot at remaining fat.

The Record-Breaking Honus Wagner T206 Card

Among those cards seeing record prices is the most famous card of them all.

The Honus Wagner T206 baseball card saw some record sales prices in 2020. Those prices seemingly were shattered with every sale.

Case in point, a PSA 1 sold for a record amount in that grade in September, fetching $1.17 million. Shortly after, another Wagner PSA 1 fetched a new record of $1.43 million.

Then, in October, a modest PSA 3 Wagner card sold for $3.25 million. That broke the record of the most that any Wagner had ever sold for (the previous record was $3.12 million).

The Wagner was also in the news because, with the sale of the modern Mike Trout SuperFractor card, that card broke Wagner’s record for the largest amount ever paid publicly for a baseball card. But as I wrote here, pound for pound, the Wagner is still the most valuable card in the world.

Card Show Cancellations

Since collectors were homebound, that meant that card shows became a thing of the past.

A few shows would be held early on in the year before major crackdowns began. But for the most part, shows were canceled throughout the entire year, and that included the famous National convention. The National tried to proceed at first by announcing the event was anticipated to be held. But then, they tried postponing. Soon after, when it became evident that COVID-19 was not disappearing anytime soon, that postponement became a cancellation — and other shows followed suit.

Here’s to hoping we see some more shows return in 2021.

Grading Delays and Updates

COVID also wreaked havoc with card grading companies. These businesses have often experienced delays with collectors sending in more and more cards for grading. However, 2020 was something like we’ve never seen before. Major delays were seen throughout the year and that continues until even now.

PSA and Beckett put a hold on all grading activities, which added to already heavy backlogs. And while SGC remained open, they were forced to alter their operations and then, later in the year, develop an entirely new two-tiered structure. In particular, SGC moved to a structure of cards graded with a short turnaround time or with a timeframe that was longer and undecided, fluctuating with demand.

Beckett also introduced new prices.

Also in the grading news category, SGC completely revamped its population report database online. I certainly didn’t care for every change but some made sense.

Big Finds

As usual, plenty of big finds made their way into the news.

A bag filled with nearly 200 M101-4 baseball cards (including a Babe Ruth rookie) was discovered. A large pre-war find, including several rare Texas Tommy cards, was discovered in a Yahtzee game box. A man also stumbled upon a Shoeless Joe Jackson T210 Old Mill minor league card as was a rare Ty Cobb W600 card.

The find of the year, though, was likely the Uncle Jimmy collection — a collection of rare autographs that yielded numerous 1930s autographs including a handful of Babe Ruth 1933 Goudey cards.

Modern Pre-War?

Yes, a bit of a contradiction with that title. But 2020 also brought along some news in the modern card industry that sort of has to do with pre-war.

Through numerous releases, Topps has tried to introduce pre-war card designs into their offerings. While many pre-war collectors hate this sort of stuff, I’ve always maintained that it’s a great idea because, eventually, some of those modern collectors will trickle down and begin collecting older stuff. The newer Topps releases featuring pre-war flashbacks are a great way to introduce those sets to collectors focusing on modern cards.

One thing I didn’t particularly care for was the company’s push to make a Chrome version of Allen & Ginter cards. A&G cards were really as basic of a design as you could get in the pre-war era and making Chrome versions of them seemed a bit much to me. A less offensive offering was Topps deciding to bring back its Topps 206 cards, which are, of course, a nod to the famous T206 baseball card set.

These cards are not for everyone and I do not collect them myself. But in general, I love that pre-war designs are still being used to this day.

Another very cool thing is that high-grade authentic E98 baseball cards found their way into modern boxes as part of a promotion.

New Discoveries

New pre-war cards are constantly being discovered and 2020 was no exception. The additions are too numerous to list here but here are a few I was particularly interested in.

The R813 baseball trade card had been cataloged by Frank Keetz as a standalone issue (No. 211). But collectors clued me into others that existed and it is now considered to be a set of at least four cards. And speaking of trade cards, a suspected but unconfirmed card in the H804-5 trade card set was finally verified, likely completing that checklist. Finally with regards to trade cards, variations were confirmed in card No. 220 categorized by Keetz.

A new variation for Jackie Coogan’s card was reported in the 1920s W512 strip card set, upping that master set checklist by one.

The 1914 Baltimore News checklist expanded with the addition of a previously unknown card for Dave Danforth.

Arguably the most significant discovery, though, came late in the year. Eight previously unknown cards were added to the 1912 J=K checklist with Heritage auctioning the new finds off. The most significant one was a Ty Cobb card, which sold for $50,000 in the auction.

Site Expansion

Finally, with regards to the Pre-War Cards site, I finally followed through on earlier promises for an expansion.

Previously, the site’s database of set articles went back to 1939 — the final year for pre-war cards, in my personal opinion. But realizing a demand for the sets that came during the war and shortly there after, I decided to expand the site to include sets through 1947. The reason for that was quite simple — cards from 1948 onward are viewed by most as the post-war era.

In all, to date, there have probably been about 50 sets added to the database and more will certainly follow with new ones continually being added.

Another major addition was installed with the breaking out of the various Exhibit card sets with each set getting its own review.

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