Are we in the midst of a bubble but don't realize it? The only way we can positively know that rapidly rising prices are a bubble is if they fall back down to Earth. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. Those who correctly call a bubble get recognition for their wisdom later, but what we forget is when they called something a bubble and it was not. So here we are, another record price for a sports card, which we seem to be writing about every month, and no one knows where we will go next. One thing we can say is that baseball and other sports cards are one incredibly hot market today. The future is yet to be determined.
This month's record price is for a baseball card. When we entered this year, the record price for a baseball card was $3.9 million, paid last year for a Mike Trout “Superfractor” card. That price seemed impossible way back in 2020. However, it was quickly eclipsed earlier this year when a Mickey Mantle rookie card sold for $5.2 million. That record fell too, although there is some question on the next one. In June, a pre-rookie Babe Ruth card sold for approximately $6 million, but that was in a private sale, rather than a publicly verifiable auction. It was a “pre-rookie” card because it was from Ruth's stint with the Baltimore Orioles, a minor league team at the time.
While some may be unsure of that price, there is no question about the record price any longer. That price was eclipsed by a sale at Robert Edward Auctions. The price for this one was $6,606,296. It represented a return to the longtime champion of baseball card values, literally the Most Value Player, Honus Wagner. This was his 1909-1911 Sweet Caporal card, put out by the American Tobacco Company to promote their Sweet Caporal cigarette brand. It is a rarity, but not so much of one that copies don't come up for auction fairly regularly. There are at least 57 known examples, but as with old books, condition is paramount to value. Few rival this Honus Wagner card for condition.
The rarity of the Wagner card can be attributed to Honus himself. He was a non-smoker and did not want to be associated with tobacco. Good for you, Honus! He demanded they be withdrawn.
This is not the first time a Sweet Caporal Honus Wagner card has held the price record. One was sold in 2016 for $3.12 million. That was a record price at the time and undoubtedly some people thought that represented a bubble. That record held until the Mike Trout card sold for $3.9 million late last year.
Robert Edward Auctions was able to provide a bit more of this card's history. It was discovered by collector/dealer Mike Aronstein in 1973. He put it up for auction that year and it sold to Fred McKie for a whopping $1,100. For the record, the current price represents a six hundred thousand percent increase since then. I guess we can safely say that the $1,100 price was not a bubble though it must have seemed so to many in 1973. In 1976, McKie sold it to collector Barry Halper, price unknown. Halper later traded it to a Texas collector (as an aside, in my youth I used to trade baseball cards too, though not on this level). Eventually, it made it to auction in 2012 where it sold for $1,232,466. It sold privately within the last two years for what Edward says was “at a significant premium to its 2012 sale price.”
The astonishing prices have not been limited to baseball cards. The $3.12 million 2016 price was not just a record for baseball cards, but for all sports cards. However, just this year, we have seen it exceeded by basketball cards for Lebron James, $5.2 million, and Luca Doncik, $4.6 million, a football card for Patrick Mahomes, $4.3 million, and a hockey card for Wayne Gretzky, $3.75 million. So far, the collectible card market, like the stock market, is in bull mode. How long this will continue is anyone's guess.