If you’ve ever searched eBay or our Monthly Auctions at Small Traditions, then you’ve no doubt encountered the term “Pop” in listing after listing of professionally graded sport and non-sport trading cards. The term is is an abbreviation for the word ‘population,’ and it refers to the total number of cards that exist in a particular grade for a particular card from a given grading company. The famous 1993 SP Foil #279 Derek Jeter Rookie Card, for example, is a Pop 10 in the PSA Gem Mint 10 category, meaning that only 10 examples of this card have ever achieved the top grade from PSA out of 10,240 submissions, which helps to explain why the last two public sales of “Captain Clutch’s” most coveted rookie card shattered expectations when they realized $19,999 in 2011 and then $24,450 in 2012. I write this reluctantly because just two years earlier I had sold two of these PSA 10s myself for what I thought were the respectable prices of $5,000 and $6,000. I was a teacher at the time, moonlighting as the head writer at another auction company, and I tell the story now only to illustrate how quickly prices can rise (and fall) in the sometimes cutthroat world of high-grade trading cards. Then again, I had only paid $6,000 for the pair just a few months earlier, so who was I to turn down the equivalent of nearly two months of my teaching salary?
Understanding the idea of a graded card’s population is key to understanding the graded card market and the reason why even common cards often sell for thousands of dollars. To be clear, a “grade” is a numerical value that a paid expert assigns to a collectible trading card after he has thoroughly examined it from every angle and determined that it is original and unaltered. Grades range from 1 to 10, with 1 being Poor and 10 being either Gem Mint or Pristine. Once the professional grader has determined a card’s grade, the card is then sealed inside a tamper proof plastic case along with a label (commonly called a “flip”) containing the card’s name, number, and year, as well as a unique serial number that allows the newly graded card to enter into a database with all other graded cards in order to determine how many total examples of that card (and all cards) have been graded and how many examples in each grade have been realized. These databases are called population reports, or “pop reports,” and they form the mathematical basis for the funky economics of the graded card market.
So-called “low pop” cards are cards that are mathematically scarce in a given grade. A “Pop 1″ is the only example in existence in its grade, a “Pop 2″ is one of just two examples in existence in its grade, and so on. The world famous $2.8 million dollar T206 Honus Wagner card, for example, is a Pop 1 in the grade of PSA NM-MT 8, with none grading higher. Of the scant 33 examples of that card ever graded by PSA, it is the single highest graded specimen on record, with the next best copy residing several rungs down the grading ladder in the PSA Excellent 5 category. That copy is also a Pop 1 and is still worth over a million bucks. Heck, even copies in the PSA Good 2 grade are worth about $650,000, and there are ten of those on record, but the T206 Wagner story, which is still (in)famously playing out in headlines to this day, is for another post. An important point to take away from this example, however, is that, unlike the famous T206 Wagner card, once owned by “The Great One,” Wayne Gretzky, a card can be a Pop 1 in any grade other than PSA Gem Mint 10 and NOT be the finest example in existence. Suspicious sellers often proclaim that a card is a low pop card or a Pop 1 or Pop 2 in a certain grade, fully knowing that multiple examples of that card exist in higher grades, so unless that card is a PSA 10, you’ll want to look for the helpful clarification of “none graded higher.”
But let’s forget “The Flying Dutchman” and suspicious sellers for now. Before we can understand why so many common cards often fetch such hefty prices at auction, we must also understand the Set Registry concept, which is the second key to understanding the graded card market. Since graded cards have numerical values, a set of graded cards can be averaged together to determine that particular set’s overall grade point average, or GPA, just like academic grades in high school or college. A Set Registry, then, is a collection of graded cards that a particular collector has assembled and averaged together, either for the simple perfectionist’s pursuit of assembling the highest graded set possible, and/or for comparison against other collectors’ sets of the same cards, for bragging rights. Indeed, PSA’s Set Registry Leader Board and Annual Set Registry Awards and Set Registry Hall of Fame have spawned some famously fierce competitions over the years, and it is this competitive aspect of Set Registry collecting that drives prices through the stratosphere. I mean, why on earth would anyone ever pay $5,300 for a PSA 10 of Johnny Moore from the 1986 Fleer hoops set? And who forks over $1,214 for a common Checklist card from the 1984 Donruss set, or how about almost $13,000 for a PSA 9 copy of Virgil Stallcup from the 1951 Bowman set? Virgil WHO? Exactly. That’s roughly the same cost as a PSA 9 Whitey Ford rookie card or a PSA 7 Mickey Mantle rookie card, both from the same set, and both ranking as two of the most coveted rookie cards in the entire hobby, in any grade.
Here’s the point. If you take a quick look at the 1951 Bowman Set Registry Leader Board, you will see that of the 71 registered sets, the top two finest sets are separated by a mere three one-hundredths of a grade point. Mathematically, in terms of grade point average, this breaks down to the difference between a PSA 8 and PSA 9 or PSA 10 on just a couple of cards, and so when one of these leading set’s owners is able to either fend off the competition, or gain a little ground on the leader, with the purchase of Virgil Stallcup in PSA 9 condition, he pays big. Understand, however, that these are no ordinary collectors who currently command these award winning 1951 Bowman sets. These are two of the world’s most famous collectors, and they’ve been going head-to-head on the popular ’51 Bowman set for almost a decade. As you could probably guess, they are both well-resourced, and they are both men of exceptional character as well. Despite the price tags of the cards they collect, in dealing with them personally, I can attest that there remains a strong echo of their cherished childhood moments when they finally get what they want, flipping cards with their best friends in the schoolyard, or simply trading for players of their favorite team, and finally acquiring… Virgil Stallcup.
The Set Registry concept is huge. Collectors can assemble Set Registries of virtually any composition that their curious minds can conceive, and if you think the competition for Set Registry domination over the 1951 Bowman Baseball issue is fierce, then just imagine the competition for the world’s finest Player Set Registries of legends like Babe Ruth, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Mickey Mantle, Michael Jordan, Walter Payton, Derek Jeter. Indeed, there are thousands upon thousands of different Set Registry possibilities: Team Sets from just one year, Team Sets from championship years, Master Team Sets from ALL years, Player Sets, Manufacturer Sets, Rookie Card Sets, Rookie Card Sets by decade, Hall of Fame Rookie Card Sets. The Bowman Baseball Master Set Registry of all Bowman Baseball Cards produced from 1948 to 1955. The 1952 Topps Master Set Registry, inclusive of all variations, Red Backs and Black Backs, as well as all error cards. Or maybe just the 1952 Topps Basic Set Registry. The All-Time Topps All Star Master Set Registry of every Topps All Star card ever produced. The Topps Tiffany Master Set Registry of all Topps Tiffany Baseball Cards produced between 1984 and 1991. You name it. As you can see, the possibilities are truly vast, and PSA also provides Set Registry tracking for graded event tickets, graded wax packs, and autographs, among other collectibles, as well as for graded coins under their PCGS brand (actually, PSA and PCGS are both brands of their parent company, Collectors Universe, which is a public company traded on the Nasdaq under the symbol CLCT).
Hopefully, this entry has helped to increase your understanding of the graded card market, but before I close, I want to clearly state my reason for explaining this information so carefully. I’ve been in the card business for a long time, as both a collector and a dealer, as a wax-pack cracking 8 year-old kid in the back of my Mom’s station wagon and as a professional writer, and now as the owner of Small Traditions. Like most people in the hobby, I’ve had some amazing experiences. I’ve handled Babe Ruth jerseys, I’ve made new discoveries, I’ve shared drinks with Joe Montana and Rickey Henderson, who spilled my martini on me. However, like most people in the hobby, I’ve also had my share of letdowns. I’ve purchased counterfeits and altered cards from crooks, I’ve been cheated and robbed, and Rickey Henderson never bought me a new martini. As a former educator, the thing I value most in the hobby is access to free and accurate information, and one of the things that bothers me most is when non-hobbyists seek out the advice of us experts, only to be swindled. I’ve seen it happen a thousand times. A recently retired 65 year-old gentleman walks into a card show with one of his life’s most cherished treasures, a shoe box full of 1951 Bowman baseball cards. He knows they are worth tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. There are multiple Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays rookie cards. There’s Whitey Ford. There’s “Teddy Ballgame” and Yogi Berra. He thinks he knows what he’s doing when he sells the box for $75,000 on the spot, cash, only, he never asks, and no one ever tells him about, you guessed it, Virgil Stallcup.
Thanks for reading. As PSA’s President, Joe Orlando, always says, don’t ever get cheated! Keep reading at blog.smalltraditions.com, and I promise, you never will get cheated, at least not for quality information.