By Reid Creager
In a hobby of unpredictable trends, here’s one for the books: The hottest cards these days are the ones you’ve never seen.
Unopened wax packs, rack packs, wax/vending boxes and cases are realizing record prices, with vintage product leading the surge. Collectors are finding that certain high-grade cards of superstars, semi-stars and commons are becoming more elusive as they end up in private collections and set registries – leaving unopened product as the only way to unearth pristine examples. With the recession over, investment-minded types are seizing upon that fact to hoard unopened material, which adds to scarcity and often results in frenzied bidding wars when these prizes do surface for public sale.
“Tough-to-get, high-grade singles are soaring in price – commons, stars, everything,” says Steven Bloedow, director of auctions at Collect Auctions. “The only way you’re going to find more of that is through unopened product.
“I know plenty of people who are busting (boxes), often set builders and PSA Registry people. They’re having really good success and coming back.”
George Kruk, owner of Kruk Cards in Rochester, Mich., says, “The product that has a better chance of getting PSA 10s are really going crazy. Regular rack packs will go higher than grocery racks because the regular racks are not as tight and the cards are in better shape.”
A $33,000 wax box
Sometimes, the bidding for unopened material reaches stratospheric levels even when it’s not centered around a low-population PSA 10. As of the last week of October, 221 1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan rookie cards had been graded Gem Mint 10 by PSA alone – with another 2,346 rating a PSA 9. Still, PSA 10 and BGS 10 Jordan rookies are selling in the $10,000 range, with prices as high as $17,000.
So this abundance hasn’t quenched the thirst for unopened 1986-87 Fleer, not by a court-long shot. On Aug. 6, an unopened wax box that was on display at this year’s National Convention sold for $33,065, including the buyer’s premium. Bloedow says he’s fairly certain that’s a Collect Auctions record for a wax box.
He adds that the box easily could have sold for more, because no one knows what the winner’s ceiling bid was.
“This price ($27,786 before the 19 percent buyer’s premium) was reached with about a week-and-a-half left. What happens is, people bid on it right away to get in on it. It’s a strategic thing where if that guy bidding on it wants to put a price that he doesn’t think anyone will go over, he’ll put in a ceiling bid early that nobody can go over.
“This is pretty much full retail for it. One (10 percent) increment higher would have been way beyond what full retail was. It was a good strategy by the buyer to come in early with that ceiling bid, because other bidders have to be worried about bidding beyond their means because they don’t know how high the ceiling is.”
That contributed to the box drawing only seven bids – but more than 2,000 online views, as collectors watched to see how high the price would go. Bloedow speculates that the 36-pack box would likely yield three Jordan rookies, generally perceived as the average.
“All of those Fleer early boxes are kind of going nuts,” he says, “including second-year Fleer Basketball (1987-88), which sold for $4,075 in that auction. Third year went for $1,025.”
A 1973 Topps Baseball Series 4 box sold for $4,483 with the premium; a 1972-’73 Topps Basketball wax box hit the same number. A 1991 Topps Desert Shield box sold for $5,969.
Bloedow says more top-flight unopened product is available in his company’s Dec. 3 auction that will start Nov. 16, including “arguably the most comprehensive wax offerings I’ve ever had.” Among the wax boxes confirmed early are 1974 Topps Football, ’74-’75 Topps Hockey and 1977 Topps Mexican Football.
Trust and what’s hot
The escalating prices show a strong degree of buyer confidence, Bloedow says. “One of the big factors for my auctions turning out such crazy prices is authentication” – often from Steve Hart at Baseball Card Exchange, or another extremely reputable source Bloedow would not name. (“That source bought it directly from Topps back in the day, so that’s rock-solid.”)
Kruk says buyers haven’t always had this level of trust.
“What helps bring money into the business is the fact that people know what they’re buying is truly unopened stuff,” Kruk said. “Steve Hart has a great reputation. When he wraps boxes, people know and have faith that the stuff is unopened and are willing to spend money for it.”
Hart attributes the unopened trend to a fresh influx of deep-pocketed investors.
“The last couple years, there’s been a lot of new money, a lot of new customers coming into the hobby,” he says. “They just started hoarding and investing some of the unopened.”
When asked to name the hottest unopened material, his response underscores the wide range of interest among collectors and investors: “Pre-’78 baseball, football pretty much anything pre-’88, basketball almost anything pre-‘90. Football seems to be the most popular unopened ’80s product, and, of course, basketball (led by the Magic-Bird rookie card in 1980-’81 Topps).”
Kruk says, “You’re seeing crazy prices in your late-’70s, early ’80s wax boxes … going up 200 and 300 percent over the last year, year-and-a-half. That’s baseball, and football might be 300 to 400 percent in some cases. And the O-Pee-Chee Hockey wax is even hotter.
“Even the 1987 to 1991-92 era stuff, you can get good money versus what you could get a year or two ago. There’s a nice batch of Hall of Famers in those years.”
As for packs, Hart says, “’71 Baseball is probably the one everyone wants from ’70 on up. That’s the one everyone needs to fill their holes,” as some people start building yearly pack collections. A 1971 Topps Baseball 1st Series wax pack in a PSA 8 sold for $2,656 in an Oct. 15 Mile High auction.
Hart says he sold a 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee Hockey box (48 packs, possible Wayne Gretzky rookie) for $30,000 since the National. He’s quick to remind that older O-Pee-Chee Hockey has a hot cousin.
“Over the past couple of years as unopened got hot, older O-Pee-Chee Baseball got just as hot and in some areas exponentially more than Topps, as people have finally figured out that the print run on O-Pee-Chee Baseball is minuscule compared to Topps (thought to be 1/10 of Topps’ production). And nobody basically bought it when it came out, so it’s not really out there that much.”
Although many collectors clamor for unopened material to pull low-pop cards in high grade, Hart notes that these packs, boxes and cases are rarities unto themselves – which is why certain wrappers, empty boxes and empty cases can attract strong interest. As that scarcity gains emphasis, full boxes (obviously more difficult to come by than packs) are especially desirable.
“Take a 36-pack wax vintage box,” Hart says. “If packs are $200, you would think the box would be $7,200. But lately there’s been a strong push for the whole box, so now that box goes for $10,000.
“People want the whole box from the rarity standpoint. You can try to buy the individual packs to fill a box to save some money, but they’re going to look a little different; they’re going to stack differently.”
Ungraded sells well
As with the cards themselves, grading is king when it comes to maximizing pack value. PSA has taken a foothold in the graded unopened market that used to be strictly GAI territory, though the latter maintains a strong reputation with pack collectors. A 1957 Topps Baseball GAI 7 pack sold for $1,912 on eBay on Sept. 10.
But the unopened trend extends to ungraded packs as well. Whether in the form of the vintage “Christmas rack packs” that were repackaged by an independent supplier in the 1980s – with the content often falling short of pack-fresh – or older packs that sat in collectors’ homes for decades, sales and interest are usually strong.
These prices almost always trail that of their graded counterparts due to doubts about authenticity. Although there are certainly many ungraded packs for sale that haven’t been tampered with, the trick is determining which ones – and even hobby veterans can be fooled. Buyers are always encouraged to seek as much information as possible about the origin of these packs, especially as pack re-sealing by unscrupulous types becomes increasingly prevalent in the face of rising demand for unopened material.
Just as he ticked off his hot unopened list, Hart lists the product that’s most often prey to resealers: “’86 Fleer Basketball, ’79 Topps Hockey, ’84 Topps Football, ’80-81 Basketball.
“I’ve seen a plethora of ’77-’79 Topps Baseball resealed. Part of the reason is there are uncut rolls of wrappers everywhere. Plus, the prices of those cards are creeping up.”
He recommends collectors leave determinations about resealing to the experts. But he says you can minimize the risk of being victimized by inspecting the wax roller lines on the backs that were used to seal the packs. “If they don’t line up perfectly on both sides of the flap, the pack has been opened and resealed,” he says.
Funny-looking corner folds can also be a dead giveaway, among other signs. One is when the pack is sealed too tightly, “or the corner folds don’t even exist anymore.
“Maybe the wrappers are too shiny or perfect, or the gum on the top hasn’t made an impression on the top of the pack. If something’s been sitting on top under a wrapper for 40 years, there’s going to be an impression on the wrapper where the gum is – not only in that pack, but on the bottom of the pack above it.”
New product still strong
Though the biggest money is in vintage unopened, newer product featuring rookie cards of popular players remains popular.
Ted Straka of Montvale, N.J., had a booth at the National with stacks upon stacks of the newest product. “Anything with Mike Trout or Bryce Harper rookies is red-hot,” he said – with Bowman Sterling producing the hottest breaks.
Hart says, “Anything with LeBron in ’03-’04, anything with Aaron Rodgers in 2005, anything in 2014 with Kris Bryant” is also popular. Some of the newer releases sell well at BBCE’s retail store, part of an ongoing phenomenon that Hart and Kruk refer to as “like legalized gambling – people paying $100 a pack in hopes of getting a $1,000 card or paying $500 a pack to get a $5,000 card,” Kruk says.
Case in point: Larry Franco, co-owner of livecasebreak.com, said at the National that “2012 Panini National Treasures Football (one pack per box, eight cards per pack) is the ’86 Fleer Basketball of today’s world,” with chances to pull Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson autograph patch rookie cards that sell for several thousands of dollars. Although it’s rare for one of these hobby boxes to be put up for straight auction on eBay, one sold at a Buy it Now price of $999.95 on Aug. 8.
Whether vintage, newer or brand-new material, Kruk relishes the unopened explosion.
“It’s fun when the market is taking off like this,” he says. “It’s kind of like it used to be 10 to 15 years ago. It’s breathed excitement into the hobby.”
Reid Creager is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.