1952 Topps Willie Mays Crushes Auction Record: Next Honus Wagner, Mantle, Ruth, Cobb?

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It has been known for many years now that collecting baseball cards is not just for kids with a few extra bucks. It’s now a serious money game. When sports collectors think of baseball cards and memorabilia selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, they generally are thinking about just a handful of players. Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb and only a few more occasional player cards or items reach such high prices when they sell in auctions. You can now put Willie Mays much higher on the list of most valuable baseball card prices.

Unless there have been private transactions or other auctions that have not been recorded elsewhere, the second week of May 2016 brought a new record for a near-perfect mint condition sample of the Willie Mays card from the prized 1952 Topps baseball set. The price tag, including the buyer’s premium, was a whopping $478,000.

After a slew of record-breaking sales prices in the past year or so in other player cards and memorabilia items, it seems that the high-grade vintage sports cards are quite obviously continuing to grow into more and more of an asset class. This trend has taken vintage sports cards and memorabilia into the league of rare stamps, fine art, jewelry, antiques, fine wine and so on. It is becoming ever more common to see items fetch tens of thousands — hundreds of thousands — of dollars when they come up for auction. A few other auctions, particularly in the case of the T206 Honus Wagner, have generated sales prices of $1 million or more for cards or memorabilia.

Heritage Auctions said going into the auction:

Those who have followed the past two years of Heritage auction offerings have witnessed the soaring ascent of the fabled Mickey Mantle #311 card, certainly the hottest commodity in the entirety of the sports collecting hobby at present. Let’s use three recent offerings of a PSA NM-MT example to illustrate the point: $179,250 (July 2014), $382,400 (July 2015), $525,800 (December 2015).

Another issue to consider here is that the Mays card at this high-grade level is even more rare than Mantle. Heritage noted that the Mint 9 Mays is almost four times as rare, according to the PSA population records.

As far as the investor appetite, investors have become increasingly involved in sports cards and memorabilia in recent years. That doesn’t mean that they all make money on their purchases, but it is not just people who grew up loving baseball cards and memorabilia driving up prices for the rarest and highest-graded collectibles. Here are three instances when investing has been referred to from auction houses:

  • Heritage said:

    For each joyous consignor that has enjoyed beneficiary status of the 1952 Topps Mantle bull market, we’ve heard a dozen laments from those who missed an earlier opportunity to invest. We suspect this lot will be very attractive to collectors hoping to make up for past mistakes.

  • Pre-War Card Collector Auctions (PWCC) told 24/7 Wall St. about a prior 1952 Topps Mantle sale:

    The 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle is arguably the most recognized sports card in the world. It now transcends the hobby from which it sprouted to represent this nation’s most iconic sport during its golden age, and thereby signifies a true piece of Americana. What was once a pure collectible is now a valid portfolio diversification which rivals the historical performance of virtually any other investment tool available.

  • Goldin Auctions told us in the past that one of the most famous cards, the T206 Honus Wagner card, sold for $2.1 million to a wealthy investor who has historically never been a buyer of baseball cards.