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Mantle and Monet: The Intersection of Art and Sports Cards

Mantle and Monet: The Intersection of Art and Sports Cards
August 25, 2022
Bradley Calleja

$10 million?

$12 million?

Or maybe even higher?

Wherever you predict the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle will land when it sells via Heritage Auctions, one thing is for certain, the sale will reshape the sports auction market as we know it. While we previously covered what record-breaking Mickey Mantle sales can do for the overall market (if you missed it: read it here), but how does the rising attention and value of sports card grails intersect with art? In this article, we review how the 1950s and 1960s Topps sets combined a modern art movement into their design and how card prices are starting to hit levels that were once only reached by names like Monet and Picasso.

The original photo used for the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle (Image: SCD)

The Art of the Vintage Sports Card

Before the emergence of Project70 and other art inspired sports cards, there was the 1950s and 1960s Topps designs. Fulling embracing a transformative era of pop art, the post-war Topps sets moved away from standard profiles and advertisement-based cards and introduced unique colorways that coincided with the aesthetic that was being curated by painters like Edward Hopper, Wayne Thiebaud, and later, Andy Warhol. Prior to this newfound trend, sports card designs had not reflected the culture and color schemes that were present beyond the sports world. After World War II, art and design went through a rollercoaster of styles that were influenced by both Europe and the United States. By the early 1950s, pop art became the prominent form of expression and with it, the increased demand for bold and clashing colors. In 1958, the first baseball card subsets were introduced and the series known as Sports Magazine All-Star Cards provided the first glimpse at a modernized card layout.

1958-1960 Topps Subsets

The 1959 Topps edition was the first complete set to separate itself from the field with its pop art inspired design. The cards included a clean profile image, facsimile signature, and distinct backgrounds that artistically conflicted with the font color. Dark red backgrounds were matched with light blue text boxes while red text was pressed against bright yellow shades. The era of traditional sports cards with cautious designs was over - for a few years at least - and a period that would become known as the Golden Era of baseball cards was in full force.

Cards from the 1959 Topps Set (Image via Heritage Auctions)

So wait, let's back up, how did we get to cards becoming pieces of art?

The early 1950s Topps sets were printed as portraits, with intricate levels of detail and precise shading against a standard solid-colored backdrop or a depiction of a baseball field. While these portrait-style cards did not display the daring colors that would become prevalent in the latter-half of the decade, they offered something that future productions would struggle to provide - a Mona Lisa for the sports card industry. The simplicity of the 1952 Topps design was actually revolutionary for the industry. The cards were vertical, differing from the horizontal style delivered by Bowman the year prior. The player images were large, eye-catching, and dominated the face of card while the logo and name placement provided a spark of color and visual texture. Gone were the days of grainy images that adorned the late-1940s Leaf and Bowman sets. While Bowman had delivered their most detailed design in 1951, the basic black and white name stamp fell short. The Topps production in 1952 was the equivalent to the Wizard of Oz scene when the screen suddenly changes from black and white to color. Yes, colored cards had existed, but the smoothness and flawlessness of the design had not been perfected. It is important to note that this colorful profile was produced during a period when colored images were not common in newspapers and would actually not be prevalent for nearly 20 more years. Encased within cream-white borders were the clearest and cleanest baseball cards produced to date and they featured a pop of color that had never been seen before on a piece of sports-related cardboard.

(Image: Heritage Auctions/BBC)

No, this is not comparing a picture of Mickey Mantle to the Mona Lisa or the artists at Topps to Leonardo da Vinci. The emphasis is on the influence that an image can have on the culture beyond its intended audience. Just as the artists at Topps could never have imagined what would come from the 1952 portrait of Mickey Mantle, the same could be said about the value of da Vinci's most recognized work. Both portraits are pieces of history that carry conspiracies (how many Mantle's are sitting at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean?) and unanswered questions, but both have been transformative within their respective markets.

Sports Cards Enter the Fine Art Stratosphere

The first sports card to sell publicly for more than $1 million was a T206 Honus Wagner. The Wagner set a record for any sports card when it struck a hammer price of $1.3 million in 2000 and it would take Mickey Mantle more than 15 years before he would join Honus in the seven-figures club. That million dollar Mantle sale took place at Heritage Auctions on November 17, 2016 and the PSA 8.5 graded 1952 Topps Mantle closed at $1.14 million. In 2021, a private sale resulted in a new Mantle record when a PSA 9 graded copy of the '52 card sold for $5.2 million.

The SGC 9.5 graded Mickey Mantle is considered one of, if not the best conditioned example in existence today. The current price heading into the final 48 hours of the auction stands at $8.1 million with buyer's premium. The final tally could reach above $12 million and might even potentially double the current auction record for any sports card ($6.6 million) which was set by a T206 Honus Wagner at REA Auctions last summer. While art has a half-century long history of seven-figure sales, the gap between the lower-end of the fine art market and the upper-end of the sports card market is quickly closing. The current price for the Mantle at Heritage has already passed the top price ever achieved for a number of high-profile artworks including Roy Lichtenstein's Happy Tears and a 1976 production of Andy Warhol's Hammer and Sickle.

The sports collectibles market is still nowhere near the valuation of the fine art market but the idea of a sports card passing the prices of some of the most respected paintings in the world would have been unimaginable at the turn of the 21st century. With billionaire investors like Steve Cohen entering the sports collectibles space and high-rolling buyers like Jim Irsay moving the sports memorabilia needle, the future taste in what truly is a 'piece of art' could also begin to shift. For the same reason someone might look at a Monet, with the talent, design, history, and story, a new age of collectors could look at a rare vintage Mantle. And as that appreciation of collectibles continues, only time will tell what that could mean for the record-books.

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