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Mick & Babe: The Collectible Clean-Up Hitters Highlighting This Summer's Sports Memorabilia Auctions

Mick & Babe: The Collectible Clean-Up Hitters Highlighting This Summer's Sports Memorabilia Auctions
August 24, 2023
Dylan Dittrich

Photos: Heritage Auctions, Graphic: Altan Insights

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Last weekend at Heritage, Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth combined for just shy of $16 million in sales.

Plenty has changed in the sports collectibles market over the last year, but those two have remained a constant over not only that period, but really the preceding decades. They're the standard bearers, and whether it's cards, jerseys, bats, or autographs, they're the ones counted on to anchor the auction lineup. For auction houses with a vintage-tilt, you pencil them into the meat of the batting order every time.

Over the weekend, they delivered - as they so often do. Mantle's photomatched 1958 jersey sold for $4,680,000, the highest sum ever commanded by one of his jerseys. Following on the $12.6 million success of the SGC 9.5 1952 Topps Mantle last summer, an SGC 9 example sold for $4,500,000.  The Babe pulled his weight, with his 1933 Goudey #144, graded PSA 8.5, selling for $1,065,000. In a year where the million dollar sales haven't flowed quite as effortlessly, three in one night is an achievement.

Numbness to large sales numbers is contagious, and perhaps these sales fell short of heightened expectations, so a reminder is in order. Pre-June 2019, the Mantle jersey would've been the most expensive of all-time. Pre-January 2021, the SGC 9 would've been the most expensive sports card ever sold. They're both shuffled down the rankings today, but they remain mammoth results, even if they're becoming somewhat more commonplace. The Goudey Ruth sale is the most expensive ever recorded for that card.

At $15.9 million in sales, the two Yankee sluggers comprised 46% of the total auction volume. Remember how we said they remain a constant? At last year's event, with $18.4 million in sales, they comprised....wait for it....47% of the total auction volume. There is, however, a fairly significant difference in composition between the two years. In 2022, it took just 51 lots from Mantle and 46 lots from Ruth to achieve those figures. This year, those lot counts swell to 90 and 93 respectively. 183 lots between them account for 16% of the total lots sold, way up from 7% last year.

While vintage has held its ground far better than modern in the sports collectibles market over the last year, consignors of vintage items may be acting with increased urgency for fear of that category following the well-trodden path lower. With so many Mantle and Ruth grails up for grabs and bidding activity spread too thin, the event was not without its casualties.

For example:

  • PSA 8 Goudey Ruth #144 sold for $312,000, lowest since February 2021.
  • PSA 8 1951 Bowman Mantle sold for $300,000, lowest since May 2020.
  • PSA 9 1953 Bowman Color Mantle sold for $234,000, lowest since July of 2019.
  • PSA 7 Goudey Ruth #53 sold for $96,000, lowest since July 2018.
  • PSA 8 1969 Topps Mantle (Name in White) sold for $54,000, lowest since July 2021

You get the idea. As resilient as vintage may have been on a relative basis, the market isn't so awash with excess liquidity that it can absorb significant supply without skipping a beat.  Vintage collectors and consignors will take notice. Their market remains a stalwart, but it's not unconditionally immune to pitfalls.

While Mantle and Ruth remain a timelessly good bet to anchor the auction lineup, they're not infallibly capable of playing all nine positions and pitching relief (as fun to watch as that would be).

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