Interest for early Jesse Owens track and field cards has spiked

The earliest cards of the legendary Jesse Owens are rising in value

The prices for sports cards have risen dramatically in value over the past couple of years — that’s nothing new to most of us. And while many modern cards have come back to earth a bit, prices for pre-war cards remain quite high. Among those on the move in the past year or so have been cards of the iconic track and field star Jesse Owens.

Owens rose to fame, of course, with the 1936 Olympics. He starred at those games in Berlin, Germany, winning gold medals in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay, and long jump. His performances were particularly noteworthy as they took place in Nazi Germany. To this day, Owens remains one of the most popular track and field athletes of all time, despite 100 years fast approaching since that event took place.

Despite his popularity, the majority of Owens’ early cards were often dirt cheap, in part due to a vast supply of them. But since the recent spike in card values, his cards have reached new heights with more collectors pursuing them.

The most valuable mainstream card of Owens is likely his 1935 Muratti card. While many of his 1936 cards are often touted as rookies, it’s his 1935 Muratti card that was issued a year earlier that can make that claim.

While some Muratti cards are not nearly as rare, the Owens is tougher to track down. And because of that, it’s extremely valuable. Even lower-grade versions sell for a few thousand dollars. A PSA 2.5, for example, raised over $3,600 on eBay earlier this month. Mid-grade cards top five figures with ease. This isn’t only an iconic Owens card, it’s one of the most valuable track and field issues.

Other Owens cards have seen strong gains, too.

His 1936 cards are the ones most often bought and sold. Part of that is because they are near-rookie issues. But the primary reason for that is, 1936 is when the abundance of his pre-war cards were issued. Many of these cards were issued internationally and the majority came out of Germany where the Olympics were held.

All sorts of German tobacco cards were issued in 1936 when the country hosted the Olympics. And most of these cards were designed to be pasted into collector albums. Because of that, they were usually printed on thin paper stock and were also a bit oversized in nature. Really, they were more like small photographs than they were actual trading cards. Owens’ has several cards from these issues but his most common ones were from the 1936 Reemtsma Olympia set.

In all, Owens appears on a total of seven cards in the set. The ones featuring only himself typically sell for the most (he appears with other athletes on a few cards). The cards could previously be bought very inexpensively. Even now, they are still relatively affordable despite a rise, usually starting around $20-$40 for decent copies with cleaner ones closer to $100.

One of Owens’ most popular cards is from 1937. It was issued by Ogden’s Cigarettes out of the UK as part of a multi-sport set featuring champion athletes.

The card is often erroneously cited as an Owens rookie. It is also sometimes called a 1936 card even though it’s believed to be from 1937 instead. The set is called, “Champions of 1936,” leading to the incorrect assumed date. But it is believed to have been issued the following year.

Nevertheless, it’s a very attractive card of Owens and one of his most sought after ones, in part because it is not terribly rare. Most early cards of Owens were black and white or sepia issues. This one, however, is a full color lithographic image.

Only a couple of years ago before the major price increases, this was commonly a $5-$10 card. It was not too uncommon to find complete 50-card sets for around $20. Even high-grade examples did not typically cost too much. These days, you can expect to pay $150-$200 as a starting point for decent raw copies. Mid-grade examples slabbed by one of the major grading companies typically start around $300-$400. High-grade examples can reach or even exceed $1,000.

A final very popular Owens card came a few years later in 1939. This card comes from the 1939 Churchman Kings of Speed set.

The set is sort of a hodgepodge of all sorts of things, including track and field athletes, race car drivers, aviators — essentially, things that go fast.

While it does include some notable figures in Howard Hughes, who was into aviation, and Harold Vanderbilt (featured for his yachting), a card of Jesse Owens is by far and away the most important one in the set.

These black and white cards featured real images and Owens is seen here sprinting. This card, like the 1937 Ogden, used to be very inexpensive. It was not uncommon to find it for as little as $5. Today, for that same raw card in decent condition, you will usually pay starting prices of roughly $30-$50 for it. Nicer ones, however, will top $50 and graded examples in mid-grade or high-grade condition, of course, will be more. Mid-grade slabbed cards usually top $100 as a starting point.

These are some of Owens’ more popular issues but he has a litany of other pre-war cards (primarily from international sets) that are rarer and similarly expensive, often selling for a few hundred dollars even in modest condition.

Part of the problem with Owens cards in the past is that supply has always been quite high. Cards such as his 1937 Ogden’s or 1939 Churchman’s issues were simply not all that rare. But with an increased interest in sports cards, more collectors have found out about these cards and that has driven up demand. That has made his card prices much more commensurate with the outstanding career he enjoyed.

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