The most specular sports card discovery of its kind in history lived up to its billing and then some. Mile High Card Company has sold a long-forgotten hoard of 13 unopened boxes containing hundreds of sealed packs of decades-old baseball, football, and basketball ball cards for a grand total of $885,622.
Seventy-four bids boosted the collection’s crown jewel, a near-full box containing 19 packs of 1948 Bowman baseball cards, to a staggering $521,183, well above Mile High’s pre-sale estimate of $500,000. “That’s the highest price ever paid for unopened material in a public auction,” Rich Mueller, the editor of Sports Collectors Daily notes.“The cost per pack was $27,430. They sold for a nickel in 1948. No unopened packs of 1948 Bowman had previously been known to exist.”
Meanwhile a 1961 full Fleer basketball unopened wax box and a 1961 full Topps football five-cent pack unopened wax box fetched, $108,089 and $119,977 respectively. All the boxes and packs from the consignment were examined and authenticated by Baseball Card Exchange.
A man recently unearthed this buried treasure in his 90-year-old aunt’s Tennessee attic where it was stored in an old Stroh’s beer box. Her husband, the late uncle of the current seller, owned a confectionary company that made card sets based on popular 1960s TV shows. The old sports cards had been bought for research and development. The tale of the rare find made national news, including a full-length story in The New York Times, the nation’s paper of record.
The burning question now is whether the winners will open the packs. ”To most baseball card collectors, nothing is more exciting than an unopened pack of cards,” writes Diane Carter, also in Sports Collectors Daily. “The mystery of what is inside can be overwhelming. Will you draw a card worth a good amount of money? Unopened baseball cards generate excitement and anticipation. On the fun scale, opening a pack of cards is a definite 10 out of 10.”
All that fun carries a risk. “There’s a lot of value to the packs being unopened in addition to the value of the card,” Brian Drent, Mile High’s president told me. “More often than not they stay unopened.”
Adds Carter, “Every time someone cracks open a box of previously unopened baseball cards, there is one less unopened box available in the marketplace and the value of all the other unopened cards increases.”
Many years ago, Steve Gadziala, co-owner of Champion Sports Cards, took a flyer on a 1959, 10-card cello pack for $200. The best cards were a Jim Gilliam and Don Demeter, which isn’t saying much. He ended up breaking even because these two cards graded eights, or near mint.
Herein lies the rub. You can’t assume that the cards you pull will be perfect. Quality control before the late 1980s was almost nonexistent. Some are printed out of focus; others with dots or lines. A lot are way off-center. Then there are pesky stains from the gum and adhesive from the wrappers.
At the 2007 National Sports Collectors Convention, Joe Orlando, the president of PSA, the top grading company, opened a $1000 1952 Topps pack at the behest of its owner. It was bad enough that each of the five cards was a not-so-great like Ferris Fain and Wayne Terwilliger.
On top of that, “all [of them] had varying degrees of corner pulls, which is very common for those who risk opening original packs.” Orlando wrote. Apparently, the cards slide around in their packs.
Pity the poor “pack-breaker,” to use the popular term. The mediocre cards, many stained with gum, were probably worth about $50. On the other hand, several years earlier, a lucky riverboat gambler opened a 1952 Topps pack and pulled out the world’s only–then and to this day–gem mint 10 Andy Pafko,.
The card is notoriously hard to locate in top condition because it is number one in the set and in the old days kids wrapped rubber bands around their stacks., usually arranged in numerical order. The top card, #1, tended to suffer from bent corners and creases, as well as notches from the rubber bands. Today that Pafko would fetch several hundred thousand dollars!
“The guy who keeps the pack sealed who is an investor and the guy who opens the pack is a collector,” J. Ross Greene, the recent seller of a $609,294 Honus Wagner told me.
Two bigwigs can afford to be both. Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees principal owner, and Ken Kendricks, the Diamondback’s managing general partner, love buying and opening valuable, vintage packs, an informed source tells me. Neither has come forward. But if they are the winners, I have a fantasy of being in the room as either of them tears open that half-million dollar baseball box like school kids on a sugar-high from too much bubble gum.
Since the 1948 Bowman set has only 48 cards and nine are Hall of Famers— including the Yogi Berra, Stan Musial, and Ralph Kiner rookies— the new owner will enjoy almost a 20 percent chance of striking gold; assuming Bowman put an equal quantity inside. Last month, in a Memory Lane auction,just three gem mint (PSA 10) cards of Musial, Berra, and Bob Feller sold for a combined $564,000.
Let ‘er rip.