There are those times when large farces meet great performances. One of those unique events occurred a few days ago at Sothebys, the New York City auction house. A 1910 Honus Wagner baseball card in multicolor, mint condition was auctioned for a record $451,000. For those of you who collected baseball cards years ago, put some on the spokes of your bicycle wheels and then let your parents throw them out during an attic cleaning after you lost interest in them, the sales price needs repeating — yes $451,000!!
The buyers were hockey star, Wayne Gretzky and his boss, Bruce McNall, owner of the Los Angeles Kings. In inflated adjusted dollars, this Honus Wagner baseball card, with the Piedmont cigarette advertisement on the reverse side, sold for five times the year’s salary that this great Pittsburgh shortstop, Hall of Famer earned at his peak performance.
Once worth just a few cents, this card is considered a rarity because Wagner, who opposed smoking asked that his name be taken off the card.
The same Sotheby’s auction sold a 1952 Mickey Mantle Topps baseball card for $49,500. The auctioneer expected to get no more than $15,000, but the bidding became very active and competitive. A complete set of 1952 Topps cards went for about $60,000.
Clearly, the market for baseball sports memorabilia is going into orbit. One baseball, autographed in 1939 by 12 famous players, sold for $20,900. There are price guides, weekend sales and 10,000 baseball card shops, up from about 200 such outlets tens years ago.
Just as clearly, the value of these memorabilia is entirely in the speculative expectation level of the traders. There is no artistic or aesthetic appeal and certainly no utilitarian value.
What determines price is not only supply — the number of similar baseball cards in existence or a famous players baseball bat in the final world series game. There are 19th century baseball cards that have few buyers, for example.
Rather, the market is determined in ever so micro focus. The Honus Wagner cards, for instance, are their own market, just as a rare stamp becomes its own craved and envied market.
When an athlete, such as Wayne Gretzky (and his partner), can pay for one baseball card with dollars that amount to five times the peak annual salary of the baseball player who picture is on the card, not only creative economists but also perceptive psychologists need to be called upon for their analysis.
These collectors’ markets do need to be studied in order to see whether the same kind of micro demand and active trading can be developed for civic activity. Imagine civic memorabilia becoming a staple of Sotheby’s and other venerable auction houses.
The auction room setting would be tense, filled with aficionados of various legendary civic struggles and victories in American history. The chairs upon which sat the 6 women in an upstate New York farmhouse in 1046 to start the successful drive for women’s right to vote could be auctioned. The bus in Montgomery, Alabama, that Rosa Parks refused to go to the rear of prior to her arrest that sparked the civil rights movement might go for a tidy sum.
Other potential items come to mind. Rachel Carson’s typewriter out of which came her celebrated book, “Silent Spring,” which launched the modern environmental movement. A few weeks ago, 100 year old, George Seldes, gave away his lifelong typewriter to a neighbor along with its memories of his pioneering weekly, In Fact which critiqued the press during the nineteen forties. There was no market for this superproductive typewriter that had traveled the world with Seldes, not even in a Museum.
How about the poster notices of the sit-down strikers in the automobile plants of Michigan during the nineteen thirties that launched the United Auto Workers. Wouldn’t they be worth the venue of some low-priced baseball cards? And imagine the interest that could be directed toward those internal company memoranda by whistleblowers exposing consumer product defects or industrial hazards. Some of them must be in mint condition.
Well don’t hold your breath for a Sotheby’s auction of civic memorabilia anytime soon. But it is worth keeping in mind someday when a few collectors’ micro markets start moving from farce to performance.