On Tangibility

You’d think that at a time when so many people are losing their wealth, their jobs, and even their homes due to investors overvaluing all sorts of intangible investments, people would want to invest in something they can see. That they can touch. That, above all else, is characterized by some sort of certainty. You’d be wrong:

Many avid collectors spend a lifetime — and a fortune — in pursuit of the rare find: an undiscovered manuscript, a rare painting or storied artifact. But some hobbyists in the world of sports memorabilia pay thousands of dollars for a collectible they have never seen — or might not even possess.

In this niche field, collectors snap up unopened cartons and packages of sports trading cards. Then, they leave their purchases unopened, the contents forever a mystery. An unnamed bidder paid $13,000 at a July auction for 17 packs of unopened Topps baseball cards from 1953 to 1969. The packages could contain a valuable Ted Williams card. Or maybe not . . .

. . . In October, an unopened wax pack of 1955 Topps baseball cards sold for $1,891 at auction. Yet for all that money, the world may never know if the pack contained rookie cards of Roberto Clemente.

I spent a lot of time collecting baseball cards between, oh, 1977 and 1987. Unlike some, I never found divinity or the answers to the universe’s questions in my collection. But I did get a lot of enjoyment out of them. I sorted them. I admired them. I loved them. I laughed at them. Most of all I handled them. I guess that cost me a boatload of money.

This is nothing new, of course, as just about every guy my age figured out at some point in the mid-to-late 80s that cards were a bigger business than we first realized. It doesn’t make it any less sad, however, that the very thing that made these cards valuable to me — that I could sort, handle, and otherwise mess with them — is the very thing that renders them worthless today.

(Thanks to Pete Toms for the link)

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  1. Mark Schick said...

    How are baseball card packs not “tangible objects”?

    These packs are not being bought and sold for the promise of having a specific card in them. They’re bought and sold because it’s damn hard to find sealed packs of baseball cards from that era. They themselves are the asset, not what is contained inside. The value of the sealed pack is only somewhat tied to the value of the cards (possibly) contained therein.

  2. Ethan Stock said...

    Two thoughts here:

    1)  Guys who collect Lionel trains do the same thing.  The highest and most ideal form of those awesome old two-foot-long steam locomotives from the 1930s and 1940s is unopened, in a cardboard box that is entirely opaque.  These things go for thousands of dollars, and they literally X-ray them to prove that it’s in there. 

    2)  First editions of books.  I buy a lot of nice books (old and new) that will have collectible value.  I always read each book at least once, for exactly the reason you mention – I would feel like I was committing some crime akin to self-love when Nicole Kidman was available to buy these wonderful books and shelve them, unopened, while I read a paperback instead.

  3. Craig Calcaterra said...

    “The value of the sealed pack is only somewhat tied to the value of the cards (possibly) contained therein.”

    At the risk of entering entering esoterica, I have to disagree.  Unopened boxes of soap from the 1950s are probably pretty rare too, but they don’t go for these prices. The key is that the packs contain baseball cards.  Certainly rare ones and hopefully valuable ones.  I’m guessing that a 1969 pack is worth more than a 1970 pack, not because it itself is any rarer, but because the 69 pack has the potential of a Nolan Ryan rookie and the 1970 pack doesn’t.

    Which is fine.  I just don’t really get it, nor do I think I ever will.

  4. Mark Schick said...

    Well, yeah, obviously the item in question has to be in the realm of collectibles in order to have value. Random sealed item from the 50’s isn’t going to inherently have value because it’s rare.

    But these packs are never going to be opened (provided their children keep their grubby hands off them), so the cards that may or may not be inside are basically irrelevant. In my experience with baseball cards and trading card games, the price of sealed packs are more reliant on the supply than anything. Generally speaking, if the set is more rare, the sealed pack will be more rare and therefore more valuable.

    There’s a set of Magic: The Gathering (dork alert!) called Arabian Nights whose booster packs sell for like half the price of the most valuable possible card (and you can only get one of them per pack). It’s obvious that opening packs would cost you money, overall, so it’s pretty clear that the prices of these things aren’t really tied to the potential that lies within. Some people just like unopened stuff, I guess. (Maybe the 40 year old virgin bought those packs?)


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