Category Archives: EXPLAIN IT TO ME

Records Fall In Small Traditions Exclusive 100-Lot Summer 2015 Premium Auction

Denver, CO – Small Traditions’ recently concluded Summer 2015 Premium Auction established several new records on file at VintageCardPrices.com for a number of iconic Michael Jordan, Mickey Mantle, Derek Jeter, and Mike Trout cards. To bidders and other followers of Small Traditions, which now number over 20,000 on the company’s Facebook page, this came as no surprise, as the auction featured selections from the legendary DrPSA Michael Jordan Fleer Showcase Collection. For nearly two decades, the DrPSA collection has been known to contain several of the single finest Michael Jordan Fleer cards in existence, and the prices did not disappoint.

21320a_lgA PSA 10 Gem Mint example of the iconic 1986 Fleer #57 Michael Jordan rookie card led the way with a final price of $19,586, the highest price ever paid for a PSA 10 example of the Chicago legend’s rookie card since VintageCardPrices.com began aggregating eBay and other auction  prices in 2006. While Small Traditions would like to claim the auction listing as the highest price ever realized for the card, Dr. Stephen Hlis (AKA, DrPSA) has reported several PSA 10 sales that he personally conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s in excess of $33,000, a clear indication of the iconic card’s renewed potential.

As with Dr. Hlis, Small Traditions owner Dave Thorn expressed satisfaction with the strong results, but stated his belief that the card could easily have cleared $20,000. “Not all PSA 10s are the same,” he commented. “Some show fuzzy edges or marginally imperfect centering, and those have been averaging between $16,000 and $18,000 over the last six months. Also, a handful of the half dozen BGS 10 Pristine copies in existence have sold for over $100,000, and this copy was every bit as nice as those, so from our perspective, the winning bidder, a well-known collector within the hobby, scored a relative bargain.” With a strong upward trend in prices realized for the hobby’s very best cards, both Thorn and the high bidder indicated their predictions that the 1986 Fleer #57 Michael Jordan rookie card could easily top $20,000 to even $25,000 by year’s end.

21350b_lgThat’s a lot of money for a basketball card from the 1980s, but most collectors are well aware of Fleer’s limited print run, with estimates ranging from as low as 60,000 to as high as 125,000 copies of each 1986 card produced. All of those cards are well known to be condition sensitive, and the Jordan card, being so popular, has yielded just 220 total examples in the PSA 10 Gem Mint grade in nearly 20 years of professional third-party card grading. From an investor’s viewpoint, it’s an ideal item to stockpile. It might take a few decades, but the card will eventually be a six-figure item at some point in the future.

Some other noteworthy sales from the DrPSA Michael Jordan Fleer Showcase Collection, almost all of which established new sales records, included the following:

  • 1988 Fleer Stickers #7 Michael Jordan PSA 10 Gem Mint — $13,611 RECORD
  • 1986 Fleer #57 Michael Jordan RC BGS 9.5 Gem Mint — $10,802 RECORD
  • 1986 Fleer #57 Michael Jordan RC PSA 9 Mint — $4,036
  • 1986 Fleer Stickers #8 Michael Jordan RC PSA 10 Gem Mint — $5,460
  • 1987 Fleer #59 Michael Jordan PSA 10 Gem Mint — $3,086 RECORD
  • 1987 Fleer Stickers #2 Michael Jordan PSA 10 Gem Mint — $4,511 RECORD
  • 1988 Fleer #17 Michael Jordan BGS 9.5 Gem Mint — $772

21351d1_lgIn addition to these impressive prices for Michael Jordan cards, several of the following items from Mickey Mantle, Derek Jeter, and Mike Trout also approached and topped existing sales records:

  • 1951 Bowman #253 Mickey Mantle RC PSA 4 VG-EX — $5,342
  • 1952 Star Cal Decal #70G Mickey Mantle PSA Authentic — $5,460 RECORD
  • 1993 Classic Best Greensboro Hornets #1 Derek Jeter BGS 10 — $1,899
  • 1996 Select Certified Blue #100 Derek Jeter RC — $2,671 RECORD
  • 2011 Bowman Sterling Purple #22 Mike Trout RC — $1,365 RECORD
  • 2011 Finest Red Refractors Autograph #84 Mike Trout RC — $2,137 RECORD

Grade & Consign For Free with Small Traditions

With massive support from the collector community, Small Traditions LLC has been conducting its Monthly Masterpieces Plus (MM+) auctions since 2012, offering a 0% consignment rate to its customers on consignments numbering up to 100 pieces, as an alternative to selling on eBay and through other higher-priced auction services. The company also offers a collection management service through which it will liquidate entire collections for a reasonable fee ranging from 10-20%. Finally, the company’s most popular program, its Cost-Free Grading initiative, allows consignors to submit raw (or ungraded) cards for review by the Small Traditions staff, who then use their expertise to help consignors determine whether their cards are worth the time and expense of professional grading with PSA, SGC and/or BGS, the hobby’s leading third-party grading and authentication firms. Small Traditions pays for all shipping, insurance, grading and listing costs up front, and it only charges its customers their discounted grading fees after the eventual sale of their items.

In addition to these compelling consignment programs, every fourth month’s auction at Small Traditions features the company’s trademark Exclusive 100-Lot Premium Auction, in which all lots are valued at a minimum of approximately $1,000, and each receives an engaging and scholarly description composed by the academics on the Small Traditions staff, two of whom are in fact college professors. Small Traditions owner Dave Thorn has taught composition, literature and creative writing at Union County College in New Jersey and Red Rock Community College in Colorado, and Dan McHale teaches history at the State University of New York.

Consign Now To The Following 2015-16 STs Auctions:

  • September MM+36 — Graded Cards Considered by Thursday 9/17 Hurry!
  • October MM+37 — Raw & Graded Cards & Memorabilia by 10/20
  • November 100-Lot Holiday Premium — $1,000+ Rookies & Icons by 11/17
  • January MM+39 — Raw & Graded Cards & Memorabilia by 1/19
  • February MM+40 — Raw & Graded Cards & Memorabilia by 2/16
  • March MM+41 — Raw & Graded Cards & Memorabilia by 3/15

Please visit the company’s auction pages and its consignment portal for more information, or call 303.832.1975 or write info@smalltraditions.com for more information today.

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Boasting MJ’s Best, The DrPSA Michael Jordan Fleer Showcase Heads Back To Auction At Small Traditions Starting Wed. 8/19 & Ending Sat. 8/29

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The DrPSA ’86 Fleer Jordan #57, possibly the finest Jordan rookie card in existence, is back up for auction after 15 years in hiding

August 6th, 2015 – Auction Open Aug. 19th to 29th

Denver, CO – If you think that sports memorabilia and collectibles are hot commodities right now, then you’ve probably forgotten all about the 1990s, and who could blame you? It was in the 90s that personal computers and email became part of our daily lives, followed of course by the massive growth of the Internet, the dotcom boom, and the ensuing redistribution of trillions of dollars to businesses around the world, both real and imaginary. Indeed, by the late 90s, perhaps the only things keeping up with the unprecedented growth in dotcom stocks were the equally unprecedented growth in bicep sizes of Major League Baseball players and, in the same Herculean ways, prices paid for Michael Jordan basketball cards.

We’re talking about the Silicon-coated late 1990s here, folks, years before many readers were even born. It’s late in the summer of 1998, and while Slammin’ Sammy battles Big Mac for home run heroism on Professional Sports Authenticatorthe field, inflated bottom lines and cheap muscle mass reach deeply into the furthest corners of American popular culture. Previously for the most part innocent, even the baseball card and collectibles communities witness a massive proliferation in forged autographs, counterfeit memorabilia, and fake and altered cards and other material.

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Tougher than it looks, this 86 Fleer Jordan Sticker RC is 1 of only 79 copies ever graded PSA 10

Enter PSA. Under the umbrella of its Nasdaq-traded parent company, Collectors Universe (CLT), and following the 1985 lead of its sister company PCGS, or Profressional Coin Grading Service, Professional Sports Authenticator was founded in 1991 as the world’s first, third-party grading and authentication service for collectible trading cards. In 1998, the Newport Beach-based grading firm then expanded its service to also include autograph authentication under its PSA/DNA label, specifically, as the company’s constantly improving website states, “in response to widespread counterfeiting, forgery and piracy of autographed collectibles.” Two decades later and both PSA and PSA/DNA are the undisputed leaders in their respective fields, growing their expertise to include the “slabbing” and authentication of wax packs, tickets, baseballs, gloves, bats, photos, rings, awards, and even trophies.

Simultaneously working his way through the early years of sports card grading and authentication was a young optometry student by the name of Stephen Hlis. Veterans of the hobby might better remember Stephen by his nickname, DrPSA. After buying his first Michael Jordan rookie card with $300 of his student loan money in the early 90s, Hlis was hooked. Determined to find the finest Michael Jordan cards in existence, he set out across the country, attending card shows big and small, where he would characteristically employ his optometry equipment to measure the centering, first and foremost, on any decent Jordan encountered — on both sides — and then the corners, edges, surfaces… A pioneer in his own right, his quest was perfection.

21322b_lgBy the early 2000s, Hlis had amassed a legendary Michael Jordan collection. His goal had been to own the finest possible examples of each of Mike’s regular 1980s Fleer cards, all 12 of them. Condition was everything, and so when he learned about PSA and the concept of third-party card grading, he started submitting the special cards he himself identified as high-grade. Constantly seeking to upgrade each and every one of those 12 regularly issued Fleer Jordan cards from 1986 through 1989, Hlis (and the rest of the card world) soon learned that some of those iconic Jordans would prove to be far more difficult to find in perfect condition than others. On the rare occasions that he did find a higher-grade copy than he already owned, however, he’d proudly place it into what he soon dubbed his “Fleer Showcase,” the creme de la creme of his graded card collection, and he’d then sell or trade the inferior copies to finance his Jordan insert efforts or to feed his growing Carl Yastrzemski appetite.

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Hlis paid $40,000 for the first ’87 Fleer MJ Sticker PSA 10 in 2000

When someone offered $115,000 for the collection in 1999, DrPSA reluctantly decided it was time to tell his wife what he’d been doing with his optometry equipment after hours. Although she was upset to have been uninformed, MrsPSA encouraged the young doctor, who had just opened his own optometry practice, to keep his cards. Happy she did, Hlis made a website for the collection, and he continued to add to it, paying a record $40,000 for the first 1987 Fleer Sticker to surface in PSA 10 Gem Mint condition in early 2000. Like we said at the start, if you think that sports cards are hot now, then you’re forgetting the years preceding the dotcom and sports card crashes of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

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Hlis paid $22,500 for the first ’88 Fleer MJ Sticker PSA 10 in 2000

Case in point, when Hlis ultimately decided to sell his collection the following year, it fetched an astounding sum of $475,000, on eBay of all places, a record for basketball cards. Payment for the entire collection was split in two parts, with $250,000 paid up front for the inserts and non-traditional cards, and the $225,000 balance to be paid for the Fleer Showcase. The sale can still be verified to this day with surviving bank records, showing the first $250,000 payment, but when the dotcom bubble soon burst, precipitating an even steeper crash in the sports card market, DrPSA was stuck with his Showcase, albeit with a quarter million dollars in toe.

21312d_lgFinally making its way back to market for the first time in nearly 15 years is the DrPSA Michael Jordan Fleer Showcase Collection, which consists of all regularly issued 1980s Michael Jordan Fleer cards, all graded PSA 10 Gem Mint, except for the regular ’88 and ’89 cards which are in BGS holders. Because he was truly a freak — and we say that with all due respect and admiration — the DrPSA Fleer Showcase collection also contains another extremely high-grade 1986 Fleer #57 Michael Jordan rookie card. To be complete, Hlis insisted that his collection also contain the finest BGS-graded 1986 Fleer #57 Michael Jordan rookie card that he could locate through his obsessive searching for the ever-more-perfect Jordan, which at the time meant this incredibly high-grade BGS 9.5 Gem Mint 21321d_lgspecimen pictured here, boasting Pristine 10 subgrades for both its perfect centering and perfect corners. On top of this, the DrPSA Michael Jordan Fleer Showcase Collection contains yet a third high-grade 1986 Fleer #57 rookie card, chosen to represent the very upper limit of the Mint 9 grade from PSA, that is, a card that looks Gem Mint on first inspection but later reveals a few microscopic imperfections inconsistent with the top grade.

All 15 cards are currently available in Buy-It-Now listings with the option to make offers in the Small Traditions web store and on eBay, where we are previewing them for the first two weeks of August, in accordance with our consignor’s wishes. Any cards that have not sold by August 19th will then be listed with no reserve in our Third Annual Exclusive 100-Lot Summer Premium Auction, featuring The Supermen of The Hobby: Superman, Mickey Mantle, Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter and Mike Trout. In addition to some incredible items featuring these other hobby icons, the complete DrPSA Michael Jordan Fleer Showcase will be available in one lot, and the individual cards will also be listed in individual lots, with the cards selling via whichever format delivers the highest aggregate price for our consignor.

Additional reading:  Please click here to read an article about Dr. Hlis and his Michael Jordan collection, published by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Visit the auction August 18th to the 29th: http://smalltraditions.com/catalog.aspx

Limited Consignments Considered at 0% by Aug 17th

To make private offers, or to consign additional Jordan, Mantle, Jeter, Trout, or Superman items, please write info@smalltraditions.com or call 303.832.1975.

Collecting The Captain

10 Important Things To Know About Collecting Derek Jeter

14462a_lgby Dave Thorn

Dave Thorn is the founder of Small Traditions LLC, an online sports and Americana auction company that conducts monthly auctions in which selling is completely free and buyers pay the fees instead of sellers. This month’s Exclusive Derek Jeter September Farewell Auction features the key highlights from one of the most admired Derek Jeter collections in the hobby. With so many significant Jeter items coming to market this month, here are 10 important things to know about collecting Derek Jeter, especially for those who want to better understand his many different types of cards produced over the last 23 yeras — rookies, proofs, parallels, oddballs, inserts, autographs, Refractors, etc. — and which are the most valuable.

14480b_lg1. Derek Jeter has accomplished all of the following (see #s 2-10) without any remote suspicion of using Performance Enhancing Drugs. Quite the opposite, the mission of Jeter’s Turn 2 Foundation is to “motivate young people to turn away from drugs and alcohol and ‘TURN 2’ healthy lifestyles.” Just as his perennial postseason heroics in the late 90s helped baseball’s popularity to recover from the embarrassment of the strike-shortened 1994 season, Jeter’s consistently clean and classy style of play has helped to preserve the integrity of the National Pastime throughout its steroid era.

15395a_lg2. Some of his pinstripe predecessors might have won more World Series rings than Jeter’s 5 — Yogi has 10, DiMaggio 9, Mantle and Ruth both 7 — but Mr. November has more postseason batting records than any other player, not just in the Yankees’ books but in all of baseball history. Keeping in mind that baseball only played one round of playoffs until 1969 and that it now plays three, Jeter is the all-time postseason hitting leader in ten categories, including hits (200), runs (111), total bases (302), singles (143), doubles (32), triples (5), games played (158), at bats (650), and plate appearances (734). He ranks third in postseason home runs (20), fourth in postseason RBI (61), fifth in postseason walks (66), and sixth in postseason stolen bases (18). His postseason numbers represent an entire season’s worth of games, and a very good season at that. And for those who say hooey to postseason records, then consider that Derek is also one of just two players to ever accumulate 3,000 hits, 250 home runs, 300 stolen bases, and 1,200 RBI in the history of the game. The other player? Willie Mays.

15622a_lg3. Derek is one of just 28 players in baseball’s elite 3,000 hit club. He achieved his 3,000th hit on the biggest stage in baseball and with more pomp than any other player before him, hitting a home run off one of the best pitchers in baseball, going 5-5 on the day, and driving in the game’s winning run, a performance that will be remembered and replayed forever.

14501a_lg4. And the hits didn’t stop there. This summer, Derek passed the immortal Honus Wagner for most hits ever by a shortstop, and then he passed Adrian “Cap” Anson to earn the #6 spot on baseball’s all-time hits leaders list. Those who will remain ahead of him in the top five are Tris Speaker, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, and Pete Rose. That’s not just good company he’s in; it’s the greatest ever. What is perhaps most remarkable about Jeter’s standing among these players, however, is that Speaker and Musial both played 22 seasons, Aaron played 23, and Cobb and Rose both played 24. Jeter, just 20. His way, and on his terms.

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5. In short, Derek Jeter is one of baseball’s all-time greats, and we’ve been more than lucky to watch his career. His famous “flip” play in the bottom of the seventh inning in Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS, his gutsy “dive” into the stands against the Red Sox, and his clutch hitting and never-ever-hesitating hustle will be highlights for the eternity of baseball. He stands in direct lineage to those who wore single-digit NY Yankee jerseys before him: 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, and 1. Like all these legends in pinstripes, Derek’s legacy will only continue to grow after he retires, bridging the generation gap as only baseball can do, as millions of fans face the existential question: will there really ever be another like him?

15758a_lg6. Drafted straight out of Kalamazoo Central High School and quickly becoming one of the most touted prospects in Yankee history, Derek can be found on 325 different baseball cards produced between his draft year of 1992 and his rookie season of 1996, and there is considerable debate about whether or not all of these cards should be considered rookie cards. His traditional rookie card year has always been 1993, but collecting has changed in recent years, and most collectors are now more inclined to pursue his many more challenging cards produced during his ROY-winning season of 1996, when we watched with wonder as the rookie helped lead the Yankees to their first World Series Championship in nearly two decades, than to collect only his cards from 1993, when he batted .295 in his first full season of Single A, still three seasons away from his official MLB rookie season.

15335a_lg7. Jeter’s rookie years of 1992 to 1996 correspond to the hobby development of insert or “chase” cards — special, limited edition cards randomly inserted into packs, many of which were super-short-printed variations, or parallel versions, of a player’s regular or base card — and his rookie season of 1996 would be the first year that saw products with significantly more than the two basic tiers of print runs that had thus far characterized the insert card development of the early to mid 1990s. Instead of products with just a regularly issued card and a single parallel insert of that regular issue — like Finest Refractors, Topps Gold, and Upper Deck Electric Diamond, for example — there were now products by Bowman, Leaf, and Select Certified that had as many as a half dozen different parallels, each one produced in smaller quantities than the last, some with print runs as small as just 30. Scarcer than even the T206 Wagner, cards like the famous 1996 Select Certified Mirror Gold are also some of the most beautiful cards ever made. Their development happened during Derek’s rookie season, which makes collecting his rookie season cards that much more challenging and fun.15619a_lg

8. If 1992-1996 is the birth of modern insert cards, then 1997-1999 is their renaissance or golden age. During the late ’90s, modern card manufacturers developed several more innovations that now, two decades later, still dominate the industry. These innovations included game-used cards, serial-numbered cards, and the development of the ever coveted 1/1 or one-of-one masterpiece cards, when manufacturers produced an ultimate parallel of a particular card limited to just one single copy made. Finally, let’s also not forget the incredible die-cut cards developed during the period, which may be common encounters in packs today, but in the late 90s they were among the most special pulls imaginable, some of which have remained non-existent in PSA 10 Gem Mint condition and were so intricate and cutting-edge — ha! — that they will most likely always will.

15443a_lg9. Just as the development of insert cards corresponded with Derek’s rookie years of 1992 to 1996, this distinct period of later 1990s inserts directly corresponds to the New York Yankees dynasty years of 1996 to 2000. Game-used and serial-numbered autograph cards, and even 1/1 cards, are now extremely common in today’s products, but in the late 90s they were new and exciting, as was the printing technology that had made them possible, and they remain among the most collected cards in the hobby. For Yankees fans and for those who collect The Captain, the appeal of collecting cards from these years is therefore twofold, since so many of the innovative cards from these years were groundbreaking, and since they also document one of the last real dynasties in the history of the game.

14455c_lg10. Finally, let’s not forget that Derek has played his entire 20-year career with the most successful franchise in all of sports history and with all of us watching as closely as New York City watches anything, and he’s done it all with class, integrity, and grace. For this reason, wherever the Yankees have traveled during his farewell season, millions of fans have stood in ovation, and thousands more have held signs saying “Thank You.” But thank you for what? For the memories? Sure. And for the championships? Yes, of course. But the thanks we owe Derek Jeter have as much if not more to do with those three little words — class, integrity, and grace — than with anything. I’m not even sure what those things are these days, but I know that I’ve seen them whenever I’ve watched Derek play, and for that I will always be grateful.

15530b_lgDerek’s retirement announcement earlier this year took many of us by surprise, but it was in reality the ultimate classy act. Knowing that this would be his last season has helped him to pace and to preserve himself, and I’d certainly rather watch him with the knowledge of his retirement than to see him slowly decline over the next several seasons, even if those additional years could have brought him greater personal achievements, namely, the all-time hits record. But Derek doesn’t play for personal records, and he never has. He plays for wins, and that’s how he’ll be remembered. Although there were others before him and there will be many more to follow, years and years from now, he’ll be remembered best by his most common nickname: The Captain.

To consign your Derek Jeter and other New York Yankees items to Small Traditions November Holiday Auction, and to learn about the company’s popular Cost-Free Grading and Collection Management Services, please call 303.832.1975 or write info@smalltraditions.com, and be sure to follow the company on Facebook and on Twitter for more updates.

EXPLAIN IT TO ME: The 15 Minute Rule

A throwback to the earliest days of online auctions, the much maligned 15 Minute Rule is an automated method for ending an auction. It is the reason so many auctions last into the wee hours of the morning, and it is also the reason why some of the most coveted items in a given auction sometimes sell for multiple times their estimated values. At its simplest, the rule stipulates that the auction will not close until 15 minutes have passed with no bids being placed on any item within the entire auction. At that point, we assume, all bids are in, everyone has had a fair chance to bid, and so the proverbial gavel hits the sound block, the auction ends, and we all go to bed. I’ve been in the auction business for almost a decade now, and I’ve participated in hundreds if not thousands of auctions both as a buyer and as a consignor (or seller) and also as an auctioneer. On more than a few occasions, I’ve been kept awake until 4:00 AM to guarantee my winning bids. Other times I’ve set my alarm for 2:00 AM to enter my final bids, and still other times I’ve slept through an auction closing and completely missed my opportunity to bid. Today is the final day of Small Traditions Monthly Auction #6, and many of my customers have asked me to explain the 15 Minute Rule, so here’s an explanation of how the Small Traditions 15 Minute Rule works as well as a brief discussion of its pros and cons.

At Small Traditions, we’ve adopted the simplest version of the 15 Minute Rule. Our Monthly Auctions close on the final Thursday of every month at precisely 11:11 PM EST, at which time they enter into Extended Bidding. At that point, the 15 Minute Rule goes into effect, and each time a bid is placed within the auction, a new 15-minute timer begins to clock down to zero, and the auction will not close until a full fifteen minutes has passed with no bids being placed within the auction. IMPORTANT: All active Small Traditions bidders in good standing are permitted to bid on ANY item within the auction during the Extended Bidding period.

Of course, the primary reason we do this is simple: to generate more bids and to maximize prices for the lots within our auctions. For this reason, our consignors tend to love the 15 Minute Rule, while our bidders tend to hate it. The inevitable result of the rule is that most auctions last until 2:00 AM, 3:00 AM, or even 4:00 AM. But 4:00 AM where? 4:00 AM in New York is just 1:00 AM in Los Angeles, and while that’s still pretty late for a Thursday night, it’s just 10:00 PM in Hawaii and just 6:00 PM in Japan and Taiwan, where we have more than a few registered bidders. And so another primary reason we use the 15 Minute Rule is to give ALL bidders (east coast, west coast, far east cost) a fair chance to bid on the final night of our auctions.

The obvious complaint against the 15 Minute Rule is that it keeps bidders up too late, and several companies have developed alternatives to the rule to placate their bidders. Some auction houses apply the fifteen minute rule to multiple sessions within a single auction, while other houses apply the rule on a lot-by-lot basis, meaning that each lot closes individually after 15 minutes pass with no bidding activity. To the angst of consignors, a third alternative is to abandon the 15 Minute Rule and simply close the auction at an appointed time, but where’s the fun in that? In all sincerity, some of my fondest memories in this business have come on auction night, when bidding wars ensue and consignors realize record prices for items they were reluctant to sell, and when bargain-hunting bidders score incredible deals about which they brag to their friends the next day on chat forums across the internet.

A final note and a few suggestions regarding the 15 Minute Rule. Like all auction houses, Small Traditions reserves the right to use our discretion and to end our auctions at any time, especially when bids have slowed to a snail’s pace and the sky is paling. If you prefer not to stay awake until mid-morning, then consider setting your alarm for midnight, 1:00 AM, or 2:00 AM in order to check your status. The average ending time of our first have dozen auctions has been about 2:00 AM MST (Mountain Standard Time; we are in Denver). Alternatively, you can decide upon a price you are willing to pay for an item and use the Max Bid feature, available on all lots, or you can always call Small Traditions at 303.832.1975 and request a telephone bid up to a specific price before the auction ends. After all, more so than on other nights, on auction night, we work overtime.

Thanks for supporting Small Traditions, and good luck!

Dave Thorn

EXPLAIN IT TO ME: BGS 10 Pristine

JordanrookieHow does a piece of cardboard printed less than 30 years ago and for a fraction of a single cent grow in value to $100,000 today? To those familiar with the curious world of high-grade sports collectibles, the answer is simple: BGS 10 Pristine. To those not in the know, however, the answer is a little more complicated. Non-hobbyists (or citizens, as we in the hobby sometimes call them) have a difficult time understanding why such a piece of cardboard is worth anything at all, let alone 100,000 bucks, and even many long-time dealers and collectors can’t adequately explain the strange economics of graded baseball (and other) cards. This article, however, is an attempt to do just that, to explain, to both collectors and non-collectors alike, the freakonomic nature of the high-grade sports card market.

BGS 10 Pristine is the toughest, most elusive, and most coveted professional third-party grade in the card collecting hobby. 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 (we call it a “flip“) containing the card’s name, number, and year, as well as a unique certification number that allows the newly graded card to enter a database with all other graded cards in order to track how many total examples 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 economics of the graded card market.

BGS 10 Pristine is the highest grade awarded by Beckett Grading Services, a division of Beckett Media, the same Dallas-based publishing firm that first began hawking price guides nearly 30 years ago in 1984. On their website, they describe the Pristine 10 grade as follows, “Centering: 50/50 all around on front. 60/40 or better on back. Corners: Perfect to the naked eye and Mint under magnification. Edges: Perfect to the naked eye and virtually free of flaws under magnification. Surface: No print spots. Flawless color, devoid of registration or focus imperfections. Perfect gloss, devoid of scratches and metallic print lines.” The BGS 10 Pristine grade is a full step above the BGS 9.5 Gem Mint grade, which Beckett describes as, “Centering: 50/50 one way, 55/45 the other on front. 60/40 or better on back. Corners: Mint to the naked eye, but slight imperfections allowed under magnification. Edges: Virtually Mint to the naked eye. A speck of wear is allowed under intense scrutiny. Surface: A few extremely minor print spots, detectable only under intense scrutiny. Deep color, devoid of registration or focus imperfections. Perfect gloss, devoid of scratches and metallic print lines.”

The BGS 9.5 Gem Mint grade is generally equivalent to the Gem Mint grades at Beckett’s two primary competitors, PSA and SGC, and what’s important to understand about the Gem Mint grade at any of these companies is that it does not indicate perfection. Take PSA’s standards for its Gem Mint 10 grade: “A PSA Gem Mint 10 card is a virtually [my emphasis] perfect card. Attributes include four perfectly sharp corners, sharp focus and full original gloss. A PSA Gem Mint 10 card must be free of staining of any kind, but an allowance may be made for a slight printing imperfection, if it doesn’t impair the overall appeal of the card. The image must be centered on the card within a tolerance not to exceed approximately 55/45 to 60/40 percent on the front and 75/25 percent on the reverse.” The point is that the standards for Gem Mint at both PSA and BGS allow for slight imperfections. Another important point to understand is that while there are dozens of other grading firms in the market, PSA, SGC, and BGS are the most trusted and most utilized; they are the big three. However, the standards at each firm DO differ, and much to the chagrin of far too many collectors, a card deemed Gem Mint by PSA might not necessarily grade Gem Mint by SGC or BGS, and vice versa. The primary difference between the firms, however, is that PSA’s grading scale tops out at Gem Mint, while the scales at both SGC and BGS top out at Pristine, a full notch above Gem Mint. So, what does that mean?

jordan psa 10Simply put, a BGS 10 Pristine is a perfect card, and it is far scarcer and far more valuable than a Gem Mint card from any grading company. Let’s look at the famous 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan Rookie Card (RC) as an example. A PSA 10 Gem Mint specimen is currently worth about $8,000 to $10,000. According to PSA’s free pop report for the 1986 Fleer Basketball issue, there are currently 155 PSA 10s of this iconic Jordan card in circulation from a sizable sample pool of 13,324 submissions to the Newport Beach-based grading firm, while estimates of the total print run for Fleer’s famous 1986 Basketball set range from 60,00 to 100,000 of each card in the short 132-card set, a small fraction of the print runs for most other products distributed in the 80s. One of our favorite websites, vintagecardprices.com, tracked 25 different sales of these PSA 10 Gem Mint Jordan RCs in 2012, with a high of $11,800 and a low of $7,000 and a mean average around $8,700. That’s a nice price for a so-called “modern card,” which we generally define as anything produced after 1980, but let us not forget that “His Heirness” was also the greatest and most popular player in the history of the hardwood.

The picture is much different at BGS. According to their population report, BGS has graded a total of 6,481 copies of Mike’s iconic Rookie Card and awarded 288 Gem Mint 9.5s, which sold last year for as high as $20,000 and as low as $3,483. Vintagecardprices.com was able to track 88 of these sales in 2012, with a mean average around $4,500. However, and we’re finally getting to the important point here, if you look at the BGS population report, which is also free but requires a log-in, you will notice that they have also graded four examples of the famed Jordan RC in the pinnacle Pristine 10 grade. There are no sales records for three of these fabled four Pristine 10 Jordan RCs, probably because they are locked away in safety deposit boxes somewhere, but the first one ever realized sold on eBay in August 2009 for a whopping $82,000, and that same card later sold in June 2011 for $100,000. Now that’s some serious coin for a card produced not 30 years ago.

Before concluding, let’s turn down the volume on the value dial and explore the impact that the BGS Pristine 10 grade has on cards of lesser significance than the Michael Jordan RC. Most dealers and collectors of this sort of ultra high-grade material would agree that the BGS 10 Pristine grade tends to increase the value of a BGS 9.5 Gem Mint or PSA 10 Gem Mint card by an average multiplier of anywhere from 5 to 10 times, if not significantly higher in certain cases. For many years, the mere sighting of a BGS 10 on eBay or at a card show was a rare phenomenon, but they are more abundant now as a result of increased production standards at contemporary card manufacturers—cards nowadays often emerge from packs in Gem Mint if not Pristine condition—and also the sheer volume of submissions to BGS. Small Traditions is one of the hobby’s leading sellers of BGS 10 Pristines, and there are always dozens available in our popular Monthly Auctions, which always start on the middle Wednesday of every month and end 15 days later on the final Thursday of every month. Click here to be taken directly to a list of BGS 10 Pristines selling in the current month’s auction, and click here if you’d like to register to bid. Here are just a few examples of the premium prices collectors pay for BGS 10 Pristines:

Card PSA 10 Sale Date BGS 10 Sale Date
1982 Fleer #603 Lee Smith RC $62 eBay Dec 27 $600 eBay Feb 11
1983 Fleer #179 Wade Boggs RC $36 eBay Jan 19 $355 STs Nov 2012
1985 Donruss #273 Roger Clemens $69 eBay Jan 10 $293 STs Nov 2012
1987 Donruss #502 David Cone RC $15 eBay Dec 06 $380 eBay Mar 18
1989 Topps #49 Craig Biggio RC $25 eBay Dec 27 $316 STs Oct 2012
1989 Topps #647 Randy Johnson RC $25 eBay Jan 10 $384 STs Oct 2012
1989 Upper Deck #1 Ken Griffey RC $240 eBay Jan 26 $1,249 eBay Oct 29
1990 Leaf #300 Frank Thomas RC $69 eBay Jan 10 $921 eBay Nov 21
1990 Topps #692 Sammy Sosa RC $10 eBay Jan 11 $261 STs Oct 2012
1996 Score #240 Derek Jeter RC $12 eBay Jan 09 $355 STs Nov 2012
1999 TSC Triumvirate Derek Jeter $36 eBay Nov 28 $575 STs Nov 2012
2011 BP #BP1 Bryce Harper RC $270 eBay Jan 19 $1,200 eBay Nov 29

In addition to creating higher prices, the BGS 10 Pristine grade has another impact on the hobby that is important to mention before concluding. As Beckett rolls out its online Set Registry system over the coming months, the BGS 10 Pristine grade will have a significant impact on Set Registry collections. As collectors scramble to assemble the highest-graded Registry of sets like 1952 Topps, 1984 Donruss, or 1986 Fleer Basketball, to name just a few, demand for even common players in the BGS 10 Pristine grade will increase. Moreover, when it comes to Player Set Registries, expect to see increased demand for players’ cards beyond their rookie years. For an informative read on the Set Registry idea, please my first Explain It To Me Post: Pop 1, Pop 2, Pop What? – Understanding The Set Registry Concept.

In answering a few important questions about the economics of the ultra high-grade card market, we’ve opened the door to several more questions, with which I will leave you here but hopefully return to answer in subsequent posts. First, how can the prices for a PSA 10 Jordan RC, or any other card in the same grade for that matter, range by nearly $5,000, and how can the prices for a BGS 9.5 or BGS 10 Jordan RC range by as much as $20,000? Second, who’s to say what’s Mint or Gem Mint or Pristine, especially when the answer can create $100,000 of value? After all, isn’t grading an essentially subjective process? Third, why doesn’t PSA have a Pristine or Perfect grade like other grading companies? And last, are there other cards that will approach six figures because of the Pristine 10 grade, and will there ever be a seven figure Pristine 10? Forget Honus Wagner and “Shoeless Joe” Jackson cards, will there ever be a million dollar modern card? Thanks to the BGS 10 Pristine grade, I’m confident that the answer is yes, but I won’t tell you exactly what that is right now, because I’m still out there looking for it.

Thanks for reading, and happy hunting,

Dave Thorn

EXPLAIN IT TO ME: Pop 1, Pop 2, Pop What? – Understanding The Set Registry Concept

9194a_lgIf 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.

wagner psa 8So-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.

stallcupHere’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.

Happy collecting,

Dave Thorn