How Has The Recession Affected The Market For Collectibles?

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Given that collectibles are, by definition, luxury goods, it is not surprising that the market has nosedived since the recession kicked in. Tough economic conditions and rising unemployment have led to an increase in the supply of collectibles, with many collectors being forced to sell off some of their prized collections in order to make ends meet. By the same token, collectors have had less money to spend on building up their collections, and the net result of this has been to drive down the prices of most collectibles.

For example, in the US market for baseball collectibles, prices of rare baseball cards have fallen through the floor, with cards that were worth hundreds of dollars a few years ago retailing for tens of dollars – and they are still moving slowly. The popularity of online auction site eBay has also had a downwards influence on prices, which has made things increasingly difficult for dealers. During a recession, hardcore collectors rarely stop collecting, but they will slow down, and buy less expensive items. For more information on this topic, take a look at this article from the Missourian newspaper blog.

However, at the top end of the market, ultra-rare collectibles are still fetching record prices. This is because the market for these types of items has always consisted of high-net-worth individuals who have less to fear from the recession than the majority of working people. It is likely that this trend will continue for the foreseeable future, and some dealers have repositioned themselves in order to cater for this low-volume, high-value end of the market. This increases the risk for dealers, starved of the cashflow produced by a steady stream of low-value collectibles sales, but for those dealers who have stayed in the business, this remains an area where great profits can be made if they are sufficiently well-connected.

On the other hand, for those who have the disposable income to spend on collectibles, there has never been a better time to buy, as prices will surely begin to rise as the economy recovers.



Photo Credits: Mike French of Dugout Sports Cards in Columbia; by Irene Rojas of the Missourian.

I’ll get you a couple of dinners out of this … you like Wendy’s?

1980 Topps Rickey Henderson Rookie CardThanks Dad, thanks to all you Boomers. I knew you guys were ruining it, but heck, I was pocketing cash at the time myself, so who am I to complain. If you’ve read some of my past Inherited Values pieces you know I like to wax romantically about the purity of baseball card collecting when I was a kid, oh especially about 1979-85, and then interject some tale of how I soiled it through love of money. But man, I hadn’t realized it’d come to this!

I was talking with the father of a couple of the kids I’d grown up with recently and after his mother-in-law had passed away he was doing the house clearing ritual in advance of offering it for sale. He knows I’m an avid eBayer so of course he mentioned a bunch of antique items he thought would be worth a mint. As I kind of hem and hawed him along he let drop that he’d already let a few of the local antique shops sift through this stuff and he’d cashed in some, so right there I basically did a memory wipe because if there was any cash to be had out of these passed down possessions I was sure those cagey folks had found it. Then he mentioned baseball cards.

Oh, they didn’t come over from the house. They were his. Once he mentioned Mickey Mantle I zeroed in on him and had to at least see them. Well, major disappointment #1, they weren’t his cards, they were his kids, and far from the stockpile of 50’s treasures I’d imagined was instead a box crammed with the same damn cards I got my start with at shows back in the 80’s. Yeah, no Mantles. The oldest son is a few years older than me, and it showed inside this box as everything ranged between 1975-1981.

It was interesting to note that the older the card the poorer the condition, but actually everything from ’78 and up was much better than expected. The stuff from ’75? Well, I know I used to have the occasional card saved in my back pocket which would one way or another find the washing machine. It looked like these kids managed that trick every day throughout the summer of ’75 because that’s the kind of shape each and every card from that season appeared to be in.

So I randomly sorted through about 1,000 cards noting that at least they’d never been picked through before. “There’s lot of $2 and $3 cards in here, but those will never sell,” I told him. Now I haven’t handled baseball cards in a serious way since about 2003, and even then my prime hey day was about 10 years past. I dealt, and I dealt a lot between about 1985-1993. My re-entry to the hobby through eBay in 2000 allowed me to get reacquainted and realize that all those cards which formed the foundation of my youthful empire weren’t worth jack unless they’d been slabbed by PSA with a grade of 9 or higher.

But I assumed some of the good stuff was at least still somewhat in demand.

I stopped my sorting at a 1979 Topps Ozzie Smith rookie. I said to my pal’s Dad, “That’s a good card.” I took a deep breathe and said, “Now this used to be an $80 card back when I did this. In this condition it’d be worth about $40-$45. I’d imagine you could still get at least $20-$25 for it.” Then as I sorted through this late 70’s bounty I started pulling all the cards of George Brett, Robin Yount, Nolan Ryan and the big rookies. Besides Ozzie I spotted Paul Molitor, Andre Dawson, a halfway decent Rickey Henderson and a Yount rookie from that washed out group of ’75’s, but back in the day it was a $175-$200 card NM, I figured even beat it had to be worth something.

1978 Topps Paul Molitor Rookie Card
A pair of Molitor rookie cards. Good stuff, no?

And so I said, “There’s enough here where I could probably get you a couple of dinners out of this. You know, some decent pocket money.”

Now even though I’ve been dealing pretty much exclusively in vintage movie collectibles and magazine back issues for the past 7 years or so, I did have a clue of what had happened to the baseball card market–after all, I saw it begin to collapse and that fall was largely responsible for me finding something else that I loved to sell. So I told him, “You know, the shame of it is these cards are 30 years old now and they were worth more, a lot more, 20 years ago. You know, when you were a kid your mother threw your cards away. That’s why they’re still worth something. But you saved your kids cards and so did everyone else. Honestly, I don’t know what they’re worth but it’s probably not going to be more 20 years from now.”

I cringed giving this speech. It felt like I was BSing him, but I knew I wasn’t.

“Can you sell them for me?”

Hooked. Of course, I can sell anything. “Sure,” said the big shot.

“You can keep half.”

Cool. I pulled about 35 cards and walked away figuring we had to be looking at $75-$100 each. The only work involved was scanning them, which took under an hour. I composed the listings in less than an hour too. I grade tough, but I’ve been grading my whole life so I graded quick. The first shoe dropped as I was listing them.

Originally I thought I’d put them all in one lot, start it at $9.99 on eBay and watch it get tons of bids. Then I thought, well, maybe I’ll do a little more work, list them all as singles and eke the most possible money out of them that I can. So I checked eBay’s completed items to see what the same cards were actually selling for.

Beans! They’re junk! Little more than worthless! They were so cheap that I had to resist spending a couple of hundred dollars and just putting my boyhood collection together for myself. A couple of dinners I told him, gawd, I was thinking steaks, he’s going to be lucky to get a few burgers out of this deal.

Lot of Nolan Ryan cards 1976-1980
Apparently not anymore it's not.

I split them into lots, mostly by player, with one mixed lot of the leftovers. I wound up with 9 lots, each with a $9.99 opening bid. Even after seeing how little they were selling for I figured at least 7 of the 9 lots would sell and 2 or 3 of them should get bid up … hopefully by a few increments.

Well, as of this writing we’re waiting for late action. I listed the lots on Sunday, and finally today (Tuesday) the Paul Molitor lot received a bid (2 mid-grade rookies and 1 similar second year card). One of the other lots has a few watchers. The rest? Nada.

I’m left laughing nervously at what this poor guy is going to say if I wind up handing him a 5 dollar bill and saying, “Here’s your cut.”

Here’s a fun article from Slate in 2006 relating a similar experience. I tried to check an online price guide tonight to see if they still had the nerve to say these were worth anything and what I discovered is that all of the online price guides charge a subscription fee. Nice, at least they’re (presumably) making a little money. Tuff Stuff, which I was never really a fan of, does have up a pdf with their guide from June ’09 which leads me to believe somebody still thinks there’s some value in these late 70’s cards, just apparently not the people who are willing to pay hard cash for them.

I have mixed feelings about this collapse. Part of me is happy to see supply and demand bring about a return to reality and create a marketplace where I could if so inclined put together most of my childhood collection for a few hundred dollars. That’s nice and it’s the kind of thing I do every so often (like the box of late 70’s Funk & Wagnalls Animal Encyclopedias that I haven’t looked at since I bought but feel real good about knowing that I have again!). But there’s another part of me that knows I’d still be working for the man if I didn’t start my teen-aged baseball card business and get hooked by the entrepreneurial spirit those early days instilled in me. Then again, I guess if a kid wants to make a buck today there are alternatives.

Here are the apparently ill-fated 9 baseball card auctions, ending on eBay this coming Sunday night, March 28.

Baseball Card Collecting Purity Shattered at Age 6

To me collecting has always been about amassing and organizing, maybe a little displaying, definitely learning, and combining those last too a little bit “I know something you don’t know,” which is by all means a mature enough reason to start this story when the bug first bit, age 6.

My entry into the world of collecting came as it did for many kids, and in the case of my generation most of their fathers too: baseball cards. Oh, they’re so boring today with so many more exciting items having become accessible for collectors, but if you’re a six year old boy and it’s 1979 then there was nothing more accessible to collect than the baseball card.

Looking back, as with most memories of childhood, it was very pure. To be quite honest if you took my computer away and I wanted to take up baseball card collecting today I wouldn’t know where to go to get started. But I remember where I got them back then, often it was the five and dime, sometimes the grocery store, but what sticks out most as I write this, perhaps because it seems so unusual to me now, was the ice cream man. For some strange reason I can recall like yesterday peeling open a wax pack and pulling out a Mickey Rivers card, maybe because Mick the Quick was the only beloved Yankee I got, who knows.

Dad's deeply dented checklist
Dad's deeply dented checklist

My 1979 Topps baseball cards were interactive. I can recall keeping my cards sorted by team and laying them out in front of the television when a game was on. I’d place the 9 fielders in the appropriate positions and one by one bring the opposing batters forward as they came to the plate on TV. And sure I’d advance the batter base to base when appropriate as well. This led to my Yankees being the most beat-up of the entire bunch, but guess what, we didn’t care about condition then.

The cards were educational too, of that I have no doubt. I learned long division once I figured out dividing hits by at bats yielded a players batting average. That led to a fascination with math which filled the hours by my inventing my own stats for my own baseball career which probably often wound down when I was over the hill in baseball years by, oh, right about now.

Eventually I had amassed enough cards to presume I had the full set of 726. I took to sorting them and pulling the doubles out for trade later. I actually remember sitting on the back porch with Dad one day as he did most of the work putting everything in order and actually using the checklists for their designed purpose–marking each empty box with a sharpened pencil. I can also remember how red his face turned when I became distracted and knocked the table over, but the less said about that the better.

Now I didn’t buy my cards for the gum, but don’t think that that slab of pink didn’t offer some small inducement. I’ll even confess to growing nostalgic many years later and popping a 15 year old piece of gum in my mouth–the corners were sharp and it tasted like pure sugar. It didn’t last very long. About all that had held up was the familiar sweet aroma.

Finally I can recall the day the purity was drained from my newly found hobby. My buddies and I used to flip and match cards, winner taking the amassed stack, and while a small form of gambling that was all right, it was still pure. No, the day everything changed was the day one of us picked up one of the earlier editions of Beckett’s annual price guides.

I still remember the trade and since my guy eventually made it to the Hall of Fame I still hold that I won the deal on talent. If I didn’t know now what the price guide told us back then I’d still do the trade and I’d be right every time.

Rollie's still got that 'stache
Rollie's still got that 'stache

I was going to get a Rollie Fingers card, who besides being the top fireman of the day with World Championships in Oakland behind him and already us kids whispering in reverence, “He’s a Famer,” also had/has one of the best mustaches ever and it was captured firmly on cardboard for all time to the owner of this particular baseball card. This was quite an inducement, especially at a time before any us could grow our own mustaches.

The price was Bump Wills. Why did my friend want a Bump Wills card? I’m not even sure if I’d heard of Bump’s father, the much more successful ex-Dodger Maury Wills, at the time, but if I had I’m sure I used it as evidence. There was nothing unusual about this card. His stats read mediocre. The rookie card craze of the mid-80’s had yet to hit, but even so this was Wills’ second card anyway. My friend peered into the Beckett book, his brother leaning over his side snickering in a way that as I recall it makes me want to find them right now and play some cards.

Why? Now there’s no time limit on a deal, but still after several minutes of deliberation we were obviously reaching the critical juncture. Finally my friend and possessor of the Fingers card asked the fateful question: “Deal?” A deep breath on my part before responding, “Deal.” And so it was done.

Immediate laughter, and I apologize for all of the detail, but you’re not yet familiar with Bump Wills’ significance in the world of late 1970’s baseball cards you’re about to discover just why this was so traumatic, so very horrible, that I still believe I can recall every single detail on the 30th anniversary of the harrowing event, unembellished, of course.

“What is it?” I asked, knowing I’d had to have, in some way, goofed. They showed me the Guide.

The Bumper with his proper team
The Bumper with his proper team

The 1979 Topps cards had a pretty full photo of the ballplayer taking up most of the card’s space with a banner running along the bottom edge of the card spelling out the player’s team. Bump Wills was a Texas Ranger and my card said “Rangers” just as it should have across bottom. But this was the corrected version of an error card which in all other ways was the same as my card but read “Blue Jays” across the team banner, pre-supposing a rumored trade which never did occur if I recall the story correctly.

But the error card was only worth about a dime, which was fine, Rollie Fingers booked about a quarter. My memory is a little foggy here, but I believe the corrected version, the rarity which I had just dealt off, booked three whole dollars! Now in 1979 there wasn’t much booking for 3 bucks, at least not a lot of what we had, we were dealing in the cents column most of the time.

I’d been had! I’d dealt the prize of my budding collection without even knowing it!

From that day forward no deal was completed without consulting “the Book.” No more were deals based on wants, needs or even likes. Trades were balanced except on the rare occasion somebody would overpay for a card they needed for a set, or to complete a team set, or just a random hero Yankee–very rare times. Those deals still retained some of what made collecting so much fun, but the almighty dollar, or more accurately an otherwise unknown third party’s stated value, became the rule of the day across our childhood.