Bull Case Bear Case: Wilt Chamberlain and Warren Spahn Rookie Cards
February 22, 2022
Dylan Dittrich, Bradley Calleja
Welcome to the latest edition of Bull Case Bear Case. As always, the goal is to give investors a clear, balanced view of both sides of the coin. Prepare to tackle the week with confidence, and for access to great analysis on even more key offerings, upgrade to Pro today!
1968 Topps Nolan Ryan Milton Bradley Rookie (PSA 9)
An all-time workhorse. Warren Spahn was essentially omnipresent in baseball for over two decades. He was selected to 17 All Star Games, is sixth all time in wins (surpassed only by dead ball era pitchers), eighth in innings pitched, and sixth in shutouts. He led the National League in wins eight times. These numbers are made all the more remarkable by the fact that Spahn served in World War II and didn’t record his first win until the age of 25.
Rarified air for Spahn. In the entire PSA population of over 26,500 1948 Leaf cards, there are just 97 PSA 9s and 3 PSA 10s. This Spahn card’s standing as one of four PSA 9s (with just one PSA 10 higher) puts it in the top 0.5% of cards in the population. While none of his 1948 Bowman cards have attained PSA 10 status, there are ten PSA 9s in that population (putting it in the slightly less vaunted top 0.7%). Simply put, with the exception of the PSA 10, you’re not likely to find a more desired Spahn card.
Improvement in the Spahn market. After quieter results throughout the 2010s, Spahn cards have seen their breakout moments in 2021. Notably, the only PSA 10 example of this card sold for $252,000 in May, a 31% improvement over a $192,000 April 2018 result for the same card. At a lower tier of the market, results have been even more pronounced. A PSA 9 1948 Bowman sold for nearly $30k in this summer’s marquee Newman Collection auction at Memory Lane. That result was more than 3x the 2019 low for the card. Similarly, a July 2021 result of $8,400 for a PSA 8 1948 Leaf card was 2.5-3.5x results from 2018. A bull would be encouraged that today’s market continues to take notice of key Spahn issues.
Short of top tier, waning relevance. While Spahn’s resume is certainly impressive, as argued above, a bear might argue that much of his standing towards the top of many statistical leaderboards is the result more so of longevity than dominance. On many statistical measures that do not consider volume, he ranks far less favorably. For example, he is 199th all time in ERA and 145th in walks & hits per inning pitched. In 21 years of service, he won the Cy Young Award just one time. In a Hobby that doesn’t typically attribute as much value to pitchers as it does position players, a bear would argue it takes unquestionable dominance to remain relevant and command top values over time.
Muted track record of appreciation. Prior to the broad upturn in the market beginning in 2020, the track record for premier Spahn cards was not particularly encouraging. His 1948 Bowman card in PSA 9 condition sold with relative frequency at Memory Lane, and almost each successive result from 2015 onward was lower than the last: $16.5k in 2015, $13.2k in 2017, $11.3k in April 2019, and $9.3k in August 2019. Of course, the Newman auction this summer quickly rectified that pain, drawing nearly $30k. Results for PSA 8 1948 Leaf examples showed a similar pattern in the late 2010s. While the Spahn market participated in the broader market increase, a bear would have concerns about the sustainability of interest in sleepier moments.
Valuation concerns. As noted above, PSA 8 examples of this card are up in the range of 2.5-3.5x from 2018 levels, while the PSA 10 sale was just 31% higher in 2021 than in 2018. Applying the midpoint of the PSA 8 range to a $31k November 2018 PSA 9 sale of course gets you to over $90k, clear of the valuation here. Similar points could be made about the appreciation of the PSA 9 1949 Bowman card. However, whether that level of appreciation would carry over to a higher value tier of Spahn card is anything but certain, a hypothesis further disputed by the more muted PSA 10 value improvement.
1961 Fleer Wilt Chamberlain Rookie Card (PSA 9)
IPO 2/27 @ 8:00PM ET Valuation: $320,000
Legendary pedigree. Has there ever been an athlete that dominated their sport more than Wilt Chamberlain? From his 100-point performance to holding multiple NBA records, Wilt is one of the safest bets for continued long-term appreciation. When examining prices for retired players, one key factor to consider is how at risk their records are. For Wilt, the vast majority of his records are likely untouchable. For starters, the single-game record of 100 points has never had a serious challenge. Kobe Bryant came within 19 points of it in 2006 but outside of that performance, only one player, Devin Booker in 2017, has scored 70 or more points in the 21st century. Some other records that will likely never fall include the number of 50-point games he had during his career: 188. To understand just how insane that number is, Michael Jordan is second on the all-time list with 31. No other player has more than 30 and no active player has more than 25. While there are records that have fallen in recent years, like Steph Curry knocking off Reggie Miller and Ray Allen for most career three-pointers, many of the records that exemplify Wilt’s dominance will never be touched. For collectors and investors, this fact alone provides piece of mind that some other star athletes do not have. For example, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has the most career points but LeBron James is closing in fast on his total. Or even the ‘Great One’, Wayne Gretzky, who is at risk of losing the all-time goal record to Alexander Ovechkin.
Microscopic Gem Mint market. When collecting or investing in any card that is not a PSA 10 or from a limited print run, there is a level of concern that comes with buying a mint or lower example. Their concerns are valid, just look at the price difference between most PSA 9 and PSA 10 graded cards from nearly every post-1980 production. The 1961 Fleer set predates the mass production of cards though and in return, investors pay gem mint prices of mint quality examples. There are over 1,800 graded examples in PSA’s database (including qualified) and only three have earned a PSA 10. Not only is there such a limited quantity of PSA 10s, but none have appeared at auction in the last 10 years. This gives the 31 cards that are graded PSA 9 an added value boost since they are the highest graded copies on the market.
Strong fractional performance. Across both cards and memorabilia, fractional Wilt offerings have shined on Collectable’s secondary market. The 1959-60 Rookie Uniform is up 94.5% since IPO and has climbed 17% in the last month while Wilt’s High School Uniform is up 120% since IPO and has ballooned 37.5% in the last week. This is the second time one of these 1961 Fleer Wilt Rookie Cards has appeared on Collectable and the first showing resulted in a lucrative quick-flip for investors. Collectable offered the PSA 9 graded Wilt card at a $200,000 market cap and just four days later, investors accepted a $350,000 buyout offer for a 66.5% ROI after fees.
Priced in line with recent sales. At face value, this probably does not seem like a bear case. Is it really a negative if the card is priced in line with recent comps? Not necessarily, but this bear case is primarily tied to the previous PSA 9 offered by Collectable that was bought out in four days for a 66.5% return. That card IPO’d on April 4th for $200,000 with 50.1% of the offering retained. The $200,000 market was well under recent comps at the time though which made the buyout acceptance somewhat questionable. Sales data at that time was limited but there had been a PSA 9 sold via eBay through PWCC for $400,000 on February 28th. Then on April 24th, less than one month after the Collectable buyout, Goldin sold a PSA 9 for $461,250. Unlike the April IPO, this new PSA 9 offering is not opening in at a steep discount to recent valuations. Instead, the market cap falls 8.75% below a sale on January 28th and around 10% above prices realized this summer. There are only 31 examples graded PSA 9 so direct comps are limited. In the spring, this was a card with catalysts due to the rising market. While it is still the same iconic card, there is no longer an immediate opportunity between Collectable’s market cap and auction prices. This can also impact secondary market performance as the upside could be capped until another breakout sale.
Straggling sales. When will we see this card surpass $400,000 again? And when will we see Wilt’s only recognized rookie card reach seven figures? Considering this is considered one of the finest vintage NBA cards in existence, why have sales lagged behind other similar sets? These are all valid questions that can result in a bearish attitude toward the 1961 Fleer Wilt rookie. While other basketball cards such as the 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan and 1980 Topps Scoring Leaders have pushed toward $1 million at one point over the last twelve months, this Wilt Chamberlain card has never exceeded $500,000. From Steph Curry and Kobe Bryant to LeBron James and Luka Doncic, there are plenty of modern NBA players that have had cards sell for seven figures but this vintage example has never come close. There are some potential reasons, such as the overall underperformance of the vintage basketball market and the mystery surrounding the three PSA 10s. Whatever the actual cause for lagging performance is, the 1961 Fleer Wilt market will still be waiting on its banner sale when this offering goes live.
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