Lessons from The Greatest Undocumented Investment Bubble in Modern History
Around the same time, every Saturday, I’d pocket my $1 weekly allowance (not a typo), and head down to the local ice cream parlor on my bike.
I’d throw down my crumpled up dollar on the counter and ask to buy two fresh wax packs of Topps, Fleer, or Donruss baseball cards. I’d promptly open them right then and there, throw the rock-hard bubble gum stick aside, and sift through the 15 or so cards as fast as I possibly could in the hopes of scoring a Ken Griffey Jr. or Frank Thomas rookie card. At the time, each were valued at anywhere from $4 – $8, according to various reputable pricing publications like Beckett Magazine. I would stock up. It became a bit of an obsession.
I wasn’t alone.
Anyone who was anyone pulled out their best cards and alphabetically placed them in to 9-slots-per-page plastic card holders in a gigantic 3-ring binder. The larger the binder, the more studly you were.
Once a week, or maybe it was per day, the neighborhood boys would get together and wheel and deal. Two Canseco’s for a Griffey? Gut-wrencher. Minutes after making a bad trade, trader’s regret could overwhelm your soul and lead to a brawl if the cards were not promptly traded back.
The year was 1989. And outside of your Nintendo collection (my parents didn’t get that nobody else had an Atari 7800, unfortunately), your social status amongst the boys in your neighborhood was only as good as how many Thomas, Griffey Jr., Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Gary Sheffield, Shaquille O’Neal, Larry Johnson (remember him?), and Michael Jordan cards you had.
At that age, buying baseball and basketball cards was not only good for your social status – it was good for your future! It was THE investment for anyone too young to buy a real investment.
Where else in the world could you get an immediate 10X return on your investment and even a bonus piece of bubble gum that would make any family dentist cower in fear? Why hadn’t older and supposedly wiser adults figured out this brilliant investment strategy? Apparently some had, and were stock-piling unopened boxes, with the genius plan of later flipping them in order to pay for their children’s college education. Baseball cards were deemed to be a wise and diversified part of an investment portfolio.
And, of course, we had all heard stories about the 1909 Honus Wagner card that auctioned for millions. Just imagine how much our impressive collections would be worth 25, 50, or even 75 years from now! How many future Honus Wagner instant lottery winners were we unearthing, each week, from the spirited confines of a local ice cream parlor, toy store, arcade, gas station, or grocery store?
History has proven a different story. Unaffectionately referred to as the “Junk Wax Era,” the period of 1987 to 1993 proved to be the ultimate bubble in sports card history. It has been estimated that tens (maybe hundreds) of billions of cards were produced annually (the private companies that produced them never released production figures) and sold so cheaply, that their value, 25 years after production, is worth absolutely nothing. Nobody will buy them. In fact, I had my collection listed on Craigslist for over a year and it, to this day, is the only item I have been unsuccessful in trying to sell on Craigslist.
Sadly, those pricing guides we all deemed trustworthy were happy co-conspirators in the fleecing. They were the authoritative stock price listing guide for the Junk Wax Era. The more the over-produced cards were deemed to be worth, the more legit the market was made out to be, and the more magazines they sold (Beckett’s monthly circulation passed 1 million at it’s height). The lack of scarcity that made older cards so valuable apparently didn’t apply on the flip side.
The result? The Junk Wax Era of sports cards could have been the most over-hyped, over-bought in history for any type of collectible or investment OF ANY KIND. Sure, it would pale in comparison to the tech crash or Great Recession in terms of actual money lost, but in terms of subsequent worth? The market was so flooded with supply that there is no demand and no value, even 25 years later. You cannot resell. The collection is actually worth more as fire tinder than as collectible items. And unlike previous stock market crashes – no amount of time will recover my initial “investment”. I got burned by the greatest undocumented investment bubble in modern history.
“Investors” in the junk wax era make Beanie Babies “investors” look like Warren Buffett, in comparison.
So… I have a choice.
I could hold on to the collection, with the pitiful hope that I might somehow outlast the tens of millions of others still holding on to theirs so that one day someone might actually have an interest in purchasing the cards.
Or… I cast the hundreds of allowances of decades past aside, further declutter my home, and acknowledge (at least to myself, if nobody else) what happens when you follow the herd.
I am going to burn my collection (minus a few Griffey Jr.’s).
Chris Sabo? Burn. David Justice? Toast. David Wells? A bit grizzly, but well done and crispy on the outside. Al Leiter? Burn in hell, you dirty rotten @%#$#%!!!
Yes, I’m going to eat my losses. But the hard lessons learned from the greatest undocumented investment bubble and crash in modern history? They’re priceless.
- Don’t follow the herd – with collectibles, in the stock market, or anywhere else.
- Collectibles are only valuable when scarce.
- Mass produced collectibles are never scarce.
- Chasing after collectibles is almost always a money losing proposition.
- Anything that comes with a stick of bubble gum should not be taken seriously.