"It is a once-in-a-lifetime find."
Best. Phone. Call. Ever.
That’s how Peter Calderon, collectibles consignment director and vintage baseball card specialist for Heritage Auctions in Dallas, describes the call he took from an Ohio man who told him he had unearthed a box in his grandfather's attic of mint condition vintage baseball cards. Calderon has heard such claims before, and more often than not, the cards had struck out from a quality standpoint. But this would be what the Associated Press would called, “one of the biggest, most exciting finds in the history of sports card collecting, a discovery worth perhaps millions.” Calderon calls it simply, “a once in a lifetime find.”
The century-old cards are from the extremely rare E98 series. It consists of 30 players, among them such Hall of Famers as Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Matthewson, Connie Mack, and Cy Young. The now-authenticated collection of about 700 cards could be worth in the ballpark of $3 million.
“I was just amazed,” Calderon told Millionaire Corner. (The family) had sent a picture of the cards from a cell phone. They looked incredible, and based on what he described, they appeared to be genuine. He overnighted a sample and I called him when I opened the box. I was awestruck. I picked up the Ty Cobb card. He told me I was only the second human being to ever touch that card (outside of the original owner).”
This is one of those feel-good stories, Calderon said, that gives the collectibles market a boost, although, he said, the demand for rare and high quality sports collectibles has been steady, even during the economic downturn. “We’ve been told for the last three years how we’re going to be out of business because the economy is so bad,” he said. “But people are still looking for quality material.”
Founded in 1976, Heritage Auctions bills itself as the largest collectibles auctioneer and third largest auction house in the world. Calderon said that company sales last year topped $800 million in auctions and private sales. The company has 26 divisions that encompass the wide range of collectibles, including rare currency, fine art, western art, movie posters, political memorabilia, rare books, and Civil War memorabilia.
Price-wise, collectibles in general may be more accessible to the average investor, Calderon said, but the opportunity to invest in something a little more personal connection gives it a more primal allure. “There’s little emotional involvement in owning a stock,” he said, “but if you grew up in Chicago and you’re a Cubs fan, to invest in an Ernie Banks bat or autographed card is a little more personal.”
Nostalgia is another factor in the enduring popularity of collectibles. Fifties memorabilia is popular with baby boomers, Calderon said, but boomers haven’t cornered the market on nostalgia. He said there has been an upswing of interest in ‘80s memorabilia.
While rare, high-end memorabilia has not been impacted too severely by the economic downturn, Calderon said he has seen “some softness” in demand for more modern materials that are not as scarce. A 1978 baseball card set will not fetch the premium price that one from 1948 would. He also noticed collectors who once bought items from different eras are now more focused in their investments than they were before the meltdown. “(In the heyday of baseball card collecting),” he observed, “collectors put together 10-20 different baseball card sets. Now, it may be two or three of their favorites.”
Collectibles are not immune to their own ups and downs, although they are not as volatile as the stock market. For example, Calderon cited, players from the so-called steroid era are down in value. “People who bought Jose Canseco cards back in the day are in unfortunate situations,” he said. “It’s best to buy quality and to stick to players such as Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Michael Jordan, who will always have the best value.”
If this collectibles success story does nothing else, it will certainly inspire families to clean out their attics and basements. “I was thinking the same thing,” Calderon laughed. “After picking up the cards (in Ohio), we were driving back to the airport. We were looking at old these old farmhouses and old homes and thinking, “Wow, what could be in that attic? There’s got to be a steamer trunk somewhere with a baseball uniform in it.”
Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.
A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.