Sunday, December 11, 2011

Thoughts sought on modern collecting

I  received  an email from a reader the other day seeking my thoughts on how to approach card collecting in today's hobby milieu. He wrote:

Hello Mr. Lemke,

I came across your blog and figured I drop you an email. I am 34 years old and have collected cards since 1987. Unfortunately I grew up in the junk era and have accumulated many cards from the late 80s thru 90s.
I have since tried to revamp my collection in order to focus better – I still need some more focusing in my opinion but would like to hear your thoughts. Here is what I collect:
  • Michael Jordan cards – mostly commons and inserts (I may stop this collection and save up for a rookie card instead)
  • Yankee cards – Jeter rookies and commons/inserts, Mo rookies and commons and inserts and cards of any Yankee player. I have also tried to stop buying the average Yankee cards and instead will buy a common or insert of a great – Mantle, Joe D, Lou G, Yogi etc.
  • Commons/Inserts of baseball HOF
  • Thru the mail autographs

So that being said I have lots or commons/insert Jordan, Yankees and baseball HOF. I want to have a collection that I can pass on to my kids that will have some value. I love the vintage cards but they are too pricey but sometimes I wonder if I am wasting my money with what I currently collect.

Thoughts, ideas, suggestion are welcome. Tell me a little about your collection.
Pete Pagliaro

In most ways, I'm not really the guy to ask about this subject, since I am no longer a "collector," and have not been for nearly 20 years.

I began collecting cards in the mid-1950s. I bought Topps and Bowman bubblegum packs of baseball, football and non-sports cards at the corner store. I persuaded my mother to buy Johnston cookies for the Braves cards packaged inside, and I studied the backs of Post cereal boxes for the cards of favorite players. I traded with my brothers and other kids at school and around the neighborhood.

As kid collectors go, my interest waned rather early, by the time I was 11-12 years old -- say around 1962 --the first phase of my collecting days was over. 

My interest in cards returned in the late 1970s, when a coin collector who I saw regularly at shows around the Midwest introduced me to Sports Collectors Digest, at that time the hobby's largest publication. 

Like many card collectors of my generation who were re-exploring the hobby in the Seventies, I wasn't so much interested in the current cards as in those I had collected 20 years earlier.

Through SCD, I discovered that the hobby was benefiting from a tremendous boom in the type of information that had not been available to kid collectors in the 1950s-60s. 

Prior to 1956, we were collecting "blind." There were no checklists to tell us what cards had been issued and whether or not our sets were complete. By the late 1970s, Larry Fritsch had published the first readily available book of baseball card checklists and the hobby papers were printing articles from collectors around the country sharing information about obscure regional issues.

At the same time, Dr. James Beckett was using the pages of SCD to solicit and distribute information about baseball card values; the first time this had been done on anything approaching a comprehensive or scientific basis. 

With five or six years of hobby publishing experience in the fields of coins and old cars under my belt, in 1980 I began my professional association with the card/memorabilia hobby by creating Baseball Cards magazine and arranging for the purchase of SCD and several smaller periodicals in the field. 

From 1980 through early 2006, I was involved in the world of cards and related collectibles every working day. From late 2009 until very recently, I re-engaged in that world on a part-time basis as vintage editor of the Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards.

For all professional involvement, however, I never really considered myself a collector of contemporary cards. 

Because of their ubiquitous presence on television I had become a Braves fan once more, especially so after a second baseman named Lemke joined the organization. My collecting of current cards, such as it was, was limited to a few favorite players. Even that was abandoned, however, in the mid-1990s when card companies began creating instant rarities in the form of numbered parallels, contrived short-prints, game-used and autographed inserts. I pretty much tuned out modern cards when buying packs became a lottery.

Through the 1980s I maintained my interest in vintage cards, primarily those of the 1950s though I dabbled a bit in cards as far back as the Old Judge series of the late 1880s. My concentration was primarily on cards that I had enjoyed as a child, and cards of that era that I never knew existed when they were new.

In late 1991, realizing that the market value of cards in which I was interested was rising faster than my budget, I sold virtually my entire collection to Alan "Mr. Mint" Rosen. 

That experience seems to mirror what my correspondent Pete Pagliaro is seeing today. He realizes that even a millionaire can't realistically pursue a "complete" collection. The greed of the leagues, the unions, the card companies and the "collectors" has changed cards from a kid's toy to a speculative penny stock

Those realities, whether they are the cause or the effect, have conspired to significantly limit the number of today's youngsters who have any interest in sportscards. 

For all those reasons, I doubt that Pete can succeed in putting together a baseball card collection that he can pass on to his kids that "will have some value." In 30-40 years will many of today's kids even have any interest in a collection of their dad's cards? 

With nothing other than a lifetime's experience in studying collectible hobbies to base it on, I'm of the opinion that baseball cards -- current and vintage -- have largely had their day in the sun and that overall trends will be of declining market values.  

To be sure, the iconic rarities of the hobby -- T206 Honus Wagner, 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle -- will always have significant value, and that value will likely continue to rise, but I'm not sure buyers in a future generation will understand why those cards are valuable. They will have become status symbols rather than collectibles.

I believe the card hobby over the next 25-50 years will mirror the stamp collecting hobby of the past 25-50 years. The current generation of collectors will die off, there will be few new collectors and values overall will spiral downward.

All that being said, my advice to Pete can be succinctly stated: Collect what you like, within a budget you are comfortable with expending in the name of entertainment, and give no regard to future potential value. It is only natural that your collecting focus will shift over the years as favorite players change teams and retire, and new favorites emerge. Try to eliminate the concept of investment from your collecting endeavors; that is not the yardstick against which your lifetime of collecting should be measured. Rather, the "success" of your collecting should be tallied in the enjoyment you took in making the connection between your cards and through-the-mail autographs and your favorite players and teams, as well as the connections you may have made with like-minded family and fellow collectors.

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