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Auction Action Special: The Appreciation of Under-Appreciated Vintage Cards

Auction Action Special: The Appreciation of Under-Appreciated Vintage Cards
February 24, 2022
Bradley Calleja

Herman Wehmeier, Joe Nuxhall, Dick Williams.

If you are a die-hard sports fan or an avid collector of vintage cards, you might know those names. There is no shame though if you have never heard of them.

Take Herman Wehmeier for example. He had a productive career as a pitcher that spanned 13 seasons and included 92 wins. But he also had 108 losses, a mediocre earned-run-average of 4.80, walked 852 batters compared to 794 strikeouts and never made an all-star game, let alone earned a spot in the Hall of Fame.

So how does a Herman Wehmeier card sell for $104,843 at an auction hosted by Memory Lane? It was an impressive card, the 1952 Topps Herman Wehmeier graded PSA 8.5 and is one of the two highest graded PSA examples. But what is the full story? Prior to this six-figure sale, Memory Lane had sold 31 different Wehmeier cards and the highest sale price heading into the event was $5,422. 

The sudden boost in prices extended into other names as well. For example, the most expensive Joe Nuxhall card ever sold at Memory Lane prior to February 19, 2022, was for $2,815. Then, on February 19th, the auction house sold a PSA 9 graded Nuxhall for $115,374, establishing a new record for the longtime Cincinnati Reds pitcher. Nuxhall had a respectable career, with 135 wins versus 117 losses, and earned back-to-back All-Star Game appearances in 1954 and 1955. 

One more example. As a player, Dick Williams made a living as a utility man, playing multiple positions for multiple teams over a 13-year career.  As a manager, Williams-led teams won three American League pennants, one National League pennant, and two World Series titles. Williams is one of only two managers in MLB history to lead four different teams to 90-win seasons and it was his success leading baseball teams as opposed to playing for baseball teams that would ultimately afford Williams a place in the Hall of Fame. Heading into the Memory Lane Auction, no Dick Williams card had ever sold for six-figures. That would change when a PSA 9 graded example attracted 48 bids and sold for $104,842.80.

Alright, time to get to the point. So what is the driving force behind six-figure prices for otherwise ordinary cards? In a word, or three, it's PSA set registry. Whether it is the 1933 Goudey or the 1952 Topps, collectors and investors spend years trying to acquire a complete set. PSA even has a ranking system for sets and for those wondering, yes, sets with an average grade that exceeds other comparable sets will appraise for more. This is why the lazy approach of taking one card, say the 1952 Mantle from the Topps set, and using that as the primary evaluation basis for a complete set is a significantly flawed process. The acquisition process and bidding wars are intense and the Memory Lane auction provided a strong example of that. In their Winter Rarities Auction, there were six cards that attracted 45 bids or more. Three of those six were the 1952 Topps cards of Dick Williams, Herman Wehmeier, and Joe Nuxhall. The three usually uninspiring pieces of cardboard collected a combined total of 140 bids and sold for $325,060.

Still not convinced people will pay significant premiums for the highest graded card from a renowned production just to complete their set? Well then, Johnny Moore would like the have a word with you.

Moore played 10 season in the NBA and never averaged more than 13 points or 5 rebounds in a season. The point guard did lead the league in assists during his second season but fell short of ever making an All Star Game and only started in eight games over his final five seasons. So why did two 1986 Fleer Johnny Moore cards just sell for more than $80,000 each? In the 1986 Fleer set, famous for the iconic Michael Jordan rookie card, there are three cards that have less than 2.4% of their total population graded 10 by PSA. Those three cards are Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, and Johnny Moore. There are currently only 67 PSA 10 Johnny Moore examples in existence out of 2,848 graded cards. While obtaining a complete set of PSA 10's is an impossible task for the 1952 set, it is doable for someone trying to complete the 1986 set... if you find one of the 67 Johnny Moore cards. As the quest for complete sets becomes more common, the minuscule Moore population will continue to offer collectors a difficult hurdle that just got substantially higher. As of May 20, 2021, the most expensive Moore card ever sold was via eBay for $42,800. After months of anticipation, two PSA 10 graded Moore's finally returned to the auction block in the same weekend. One sold at Memory Lane for $90,1999 while the other struck a hammer price of $84,000 at PWCC.

Just as there is a tier of players that are seeing price appreciation due to factors that have little to do with their actual talent, there has been a recent surge in prices of players who actually were superstars in their era.

Frank Gifford

Unlike Wehmeier, Nuxhall, or Moore, Frank Gifford is a name the average fan might be familiar with. The “Giffer” played multiple positions for the New York Giants during his 12-year career and earned eight Pro Bowl selections, four All-Pro nominations, and a spot in the NFL Hall of Fame. In 2005, Memory Lane sold a 1952 Bowman Frank Gifford Rookie Card for $4,318. The sale was the highest for any Gifford card at that time but the Gifford market has displayed impressive appreciation since that 2005 sale. On February 19th, Memory Lane sold the exact same Gifford card for $49,620, which represents a total return of 1,049% and an annualized return of 15.7%.

Jim Brown

It almost feels unfair to put Jim Brown on a list of under-appreciated vintage but the market has forced me too. In a world where heads no longer turn when a card sell for more than one million dollars, the state of the vintage football market is lagging significantly. To emphasize just how much the vintage market lags modern, look at every single million dollar football card sale that has ever occurred. Every sale for one-million dollars or more has been for a card from the 21st century, and there have been no public sales of a card from the 20th century to every exceed $500,000. On February 11th, Rick Probstein sold a PSA 8.5 graded example of the 1958 Topps Jim Brown rookie card for $360,000 which established a new record price for any other vintage football cardboard. Based on that result, PSA 9 graded copies would likely sell for over $1 million and would appraise for around $1.2 million, but no public sale has occurred yet.

Eddie Mathews

Is there any player with at least 500 home runs who is lesser known that Mathews? Overshadowed by teammate Hank Aaron, Mathews received plenty of laurels as a player, with 12 All Star appearances and an induction into the MLB Hall of Fame. Eddie Mathews card values have struggled to find footing, similar to his often overlooked legacy as six-figure sales are surprisingly limited, especially since Mathews was included in multiple high-profile sets including the 1952 Topps. On February 5th, SCP Auctions established a new record for any Mathews card when they sold a PSA 8 example from the '52 Topps edition for $161,215. The sale was a significant uptick for the PSA 8 Mathews market, as previous sales had closed in the $90,000 - $95,000 range.

It is no secret that there are historically under-appreciated vintage cards that are suddenly experiencing an increase in appreciation. How much of that appreciation is being driven by factors such as set registry compared to value discrepancy needs reviewed on a case by case basis. There is also no secret though that there is opportunity in under-appreciated vintage cards, even if performance has historically lagged.

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