Even with Increasing Prices, Here’s Why I Believe Pre-War Cards Can Continue to Rise
You can point to one post-war card in particular and see that there’s plenty of room for even more growth in the pre-war marketplace
Last year, I began doing some social media work for auction house The Collector Connection (a long-time auction house formerly known as Birmingham Auctioneers). One of the things that opportunity has done is shine a greater light for me on post-war cards, which, admittedly, I tend to largely ignore.
Aside from the earliest Bowman and Topps issues, post-war collecting is basically non-existent for me. That’s not because I didn’t find joy when collecting those cards in the past. It’s simply because, pouring so much effort into pre-war collecting has, frankly, left little room for anything else.
I tell this story all the time but I’ll repeat it briefly here. Several years ago when I decided to really go all in on pre-war, one of the concerns I had was having a limited number of things to collect. I soon realized that was incredibly without thought because, even just sticking to baseball, one can never run out of pre-war things to chase. And when you open it up to other sports and non-sports as I have, you suddenly find yourself quickly overwhelmed and in a vast sea of overindulgence. There are just so many pre-war cards that even documenting the majority of them seems virtually impossible.
But in following the Collector Connection auction house sales, I’ve seen first hand just how quickly some post-war stuff is growing. And one recent sale there really got me to thinking.
A few months ago, they sold a low-grade, PSA 1.5 of Mickey Mantle’s 1952 Topps card. That card, as we know, isn’t technically rare. PSA alone has graded roughly 1,800 of them to date. The card has become somewhat of a punching bag for me, which might not necessarily be fair. It’s a fine card and the selection of Mantle as this sort of favored hero is even justified. I just tend to think there are far better places to hang your hat when it comes to identifying the most iconic card in history, and that’s what this card is to many collectors.
Heck, in terms of what Ken Griffey, Jr. did as a player and how Upper Deck changed the game with trading cards in 1989, you can point to that card as the one that’s most worthy of such a crown. But that’s a discussion for another time. Mine is clearly an unpopular opinion and trust me, I’m good with that.
Even low-grade examples of the Mantle card have quickly gone through the roof. The card was already plenty valuable even in the pre-pandemic days. Even then, I touted it as being on the overrated side. Sales of PSA 1.5 examples in 2019 were roughly between $12,000-$15,000 for cards in that grade. But post-pandemic is quite another thing entirely. The PSA 1.5 card in the Collector Connection auction sold for over $46,000.
That figure, for whatever reason, got me to thinking of pre-war cards that could be bought for that amount. Here’s the Arguably better players, older cards, and definitively rarer ones in the same condition can be had for $5,000 or even less in some cases. But it gets better than that — a lot better.
Sure, we know the Mantle is a popular card. Personally, I’d say it’s the most popular post-war baseball card of them all and probably trailing only the Honus Wagner T206 card in collector interest. It’s a very well-known, highly publicized card that is the grail to most collectors in pursuit of 1950s and 1960s issues.
But the T206 baseball card set is popular in its own rights. And for that amount, you could piece together a similar low-grade set minus the Big Four, or at least come close to it. Not a few of the best cards, like, the entire 520-card set.
Seriously — on what planet does that make sense?
The T206 card set, as I’ve written before, is the most famous baseball card set in the history of collecting. It is over 100 years old now yet continues to draw collectors in to pursue cards of players that many have never even heard of, let alone seen play. Yet, you could build a very low-grade set of 520 cards with four Ty Cobbs, three Christy Mathewsons, two Walter Johnson, three Cy Youngs, and a boatload more, for roughly what that Mantle would cost you.
I’m not going to belabor the point that I think that’s an admittedly better bargain because that isn’t my intention. Put all of that, including personal biases aside. The point of this article is, as stated, to explain that there is room for pre-war cards to grow in value. And if I want to make that case, I’m specifically pointing to the Mantle. Even if you don’t necessarily believe that a T206 set provides more value than the single Mantle card, any reasonable person could consider the enormous amount of iconic Hall of Famers — ones that are basically as fluid as actual currency these days — and see that it could, if not should, conceivably sell for more money.
The case can be made that any of the Cobb T206 cards should sell for what the Mantle does, really. After all, three of the four are considerably rarer (based on PSA pops) and even the one that is not (red background portrait) is highly desired as an alternative portrait to the pricier green version. The valuable green background card, with fewer than 1,000 PSA graded copies, in particular, is really the one of the group that would have the chance to threaten the Mantle card.
Now, we may not agree that those cards are like for like. After all, rarity is only one piece of the puzzle in determining value. But should one be able to buy all four Cobb cards, the Mathewsons, Youngs, Johnsons and the additional 500+ T206 cards for anything close to what the Mantle commands? Eh, probably not. You can make a very good case that, despite recent gains, those cards have still not reached their potential given the rest of the marketplace.
Pre-war cards have risen dramatically in value. That’s been sort of a good/bad situation for someone like me that has a fairly large collection but is still buying boatloads of cards. But if you think the prices seem high, compare them to more plentiful cards like the Mantle, or even things like the 1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan card, which, despite falling in value recently, is still starting in the $1,500-$2,000 range for most low-end examples.
When you put pre-war cards into perspective with what more modern cards are commanding, those prices seem like relative bargains.