If your last experience with collectible sports cards was buying a package to get a stick of bubble gum, you’re in for a surprise. Cards have evolved into collectibles, with independent quality-grading companies, hard plastic holders to protect them and a plethora of buyers, sellers and shows.
Prices at the top end of the market continue to move higher, although as with any collectible, there is a risk that prices can drop rapidly if collectors’ tastes change.
Chris Ivy, director of sports memorabilia for Dallas-based auctioneers Heritage Auctions, follows this market closely. In February, Ivy presided over the firm’s Platinum Night auction in New York, when almost $10 million of sports memorabilia traded hands. He answered some questions from ThinkAdvisor recently on demand for these popular cards.
Do you have a sense of the size of the collectible sports card market?
The trading card market is so vast and varied that placing an annual figure on sales would be little more than a guess, but I’d imagine it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of the low hundred millions.
This would encompass both the modern material that is sold by trading card manufacturers and the vintage, secondary card market, which is our specialty at Heritage Auctions. Our card sales have grown at least 20% each year since 2004, which is a factor of both the escalating prices for cards and a greater volume of cards sold.
Are any sports’ cards more popular and in demand than other sports?
Baseball is, by far, the most powerful trading card market.
It was about 60 years between the first baseball card and the first football card printing, so baseball has enjoyed an enormous head start. The gap has surely narrowed in the modern market, but vintage baseball card collectors outnumber the other sports by many multiples.
How do you distinguish among collectible cards’ sub-markets?
Vintage vs. modern would be the clearest delineation in the card market.
Typically “vintage” is considered pre-1970, which was about the time that the volume of production from trading card printers increased dramatically. Particularly when you reach the 1980s, you’ll find full sets still in the shrink-wrap selling for less than the original retail price. [There’s] too much supply, even with a sizable demand.
What factors determine a sports cards’ collectibility?
Like any collectible, rarity and desirability are the factors driving value. Obviously there is always a strong demand for sporting legends, but a very rare card of a “common” player can be worth multiples what a Hall of Famer’s card from the same issue can command.