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Prewar issues now hotter than ever before

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The set registry phenomenon appears to have ignited vintage football. While we reported earlier this year that 1960s and 1970s football commons and stars are heating up as collectors grade them in earnest for the first time, the grading and set-collecting mania fueling demand for the newer cards has made prewar (WWII) football cards – along with their baseball cousins – white hot.

Two recent eBay auctions point to a prewar vintage card market exploding in value like never before: l First, a 1911 D304 Brunners Bread Cy Young, SGC 80, closed at $9,999.

l Then, a week later, a full 1935 National Chicle Football set nabbed the No. 3 spot in the top 10 at $8,600.

A couple interesting points about these auctions: Remember, they were on eBay, where sellers often get less money in closing bids than a large gavel-and-podium live auctioneer might get.

Secondly, while the Brunners card was a rare card in extraordinary condition – you don’t see a lot of Brunners cards on eBay in general – the National Chicle set wasn’t. Some of those cards graded SGC 20 or 30. Yet they blew the doors of prices for the set listed in SCD’s Standard Catalog of Football Cards for its condition.

All this points to an emerging trend: Graded prewar cards are hotter than ever. Even football cards – in the past a weak sister to the grand dame of vintage baseball – are showing strength, says Brian Wentz of BMW Sportscards in Madison, Wis., the seller of the National Chicle set.

“In general, all vintage football (pre-1980) is strong right now; anyone who deals in vintage cards will tell you it’s as strong as it’s ever been,” Wentz says. “All vintage material is strong . . . but prewar in all sports is super hot.”

PSA president Joe Orlando echoes that sentiment.

“Prewar is hot in general, very hot, in virtually all grades, but specifically 5s to 7s,” he said.

Backing up that contention is a spot check of items popping up in the Online Auctioneer top 10 through August, as a stack of venerable old cards in slabs displaced other cards that had previously been popular through the summer and knocked them out of the top 10: Hot new baseball rookies, newly issued memorabilia cards with cut signatures from deceased Hall of Famers like Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, and even prime-graded cards from early 1950s baseball.

The short list of the top prewar eBay closings in August:

l 1933 Goudey No. 144 Ruth, PSA 7, $7,995 l 1909 Philadelphia Caramel E95 Honus Wagner, PSA 5, $6,205 l 1939 Play Ball Ted Williams, PSA 8, $6,705 l 1934 Goudey No. 61 Lou Gehrig, PSA 8, $8,322 l 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth No. 181 SCD 8, $5,905 l 1914 Cracker Jack Ty Cobb, PSA 5, $8,202 l 1915 Sporting News Babe Ruth, $6,544 l 1909-11 T206 Walter Johnson, portrait variation, PSA 7, $5,211

The National Chicle set reveals some interesting details about the vintage market. Wentz purchased the set from an Upstate New York collector, whose grandfather had put it together, along with several hundred other cards including some non-sport cards from the era.

The VG to EX set (SGC 20 to 80, the Rockne and Nagurski both graded 50), Wentz decided, should be graded, even though all the cards in that condition typically don’t warrant such treatment.

He figured that collectors would want to see the whole thing in slabs even if they were SGC 20s and 30s because of the authentication aspect grading brings. Even though some of the cards were pretty beat, the slab shows that a third-party authenticator says they are real.

Wentz said he also sees the price for graded commons in the vintage niche growing at auctions, a phenomenon driven by set registries. So he went through the motions of grading the entire set, even though some of the slabs came back with 20s. His instincts were right.

“There are some cards, regardless of condition, they’re going to sell for quite a bit money,” Wentz said. “The other thing is that a lot of people are looking for a complete set but they don’t want to do it card by card.”

Wentz wasn’t the only one having success on eBay with this series. Other top 1935 National Chicle football auctions in August and early September on eBay included the following:

l Cliff Montgomery, PSA 8, $1,550 l Mike Mikulak, PSA 8, $665 l Dutch Clark, PRO 7.5, $380 l Pack wrapper, ungraded, $231 l Cliff Battles, PSA 4, $229

Why is prewar so hot? Certainly set registries have stoked some long-dormant enthusiasm for old cards and given collectors a new way to buy, sell and trade. Furthermore, with fluidity in the modern card market from companies going out of business and fiascos such as the recent Terrell Owens saga, collectors are again looking at vintage.

As in, Bronko Nagurski isn’t going to rise from his grave and throw down a television cameraman and get charged with assault. Or tell his team he’s holding out until he renegotiates his recently signed five-year contract.

“Whenever you have any kind of problem with football – you have a Terrell Owens situation or whatever – people always harken back to the pure era of sports when players played more for the enjoyment than the big, fat contracts and the endorsements,” Wentz said.