How many budding millionaires were thwarted when their parents threw out their old baseball cards? Nobody really knows — but occasionally people unearth old baseball cards or other memorabilia from an attic or storage chest from bygone days. Should you be so fortunate, what is the highest price you could possibly charge for your find — in other words, what are the highest prices ever paid for pieces of baseball memorabilia?
Don’t expect seven figures for your lucky break, but million-dollar memorabilia have been sold at auctions in recent years. Babe Ruth collectables lead the list of high-priced items, including the top auction price of $4,415,658 for the earliest known New York Yankees jersey owned by The Bambino — estimated to be from the 1920 season.
The highest-priced bat is also a Babe Ruth piece, from 1923. It sold for $1.265 million. That’s an expensive piece of ash!
The Babe made only $5,000 to play baseball for the Red Sox in 1918, but the signed contract itself sold for $1.02 million in 2014, making it the highest price ever paid for a sports contract.
That edged out a document that makes BoSox fans weep: the contract that sold the Babe to the hated Yankees had fetched $996,000 in 2005. Another of the Hall of Famer’s jerseys has sold for $940,000, while a home run ball signed by the Babe went for $805,000.
More recent high-priced memorabilia has questionable current value since they are record home-run balls from the tainted "steroid era." Mark McGwire's 70th home run ball sold at auction for $3 million in 1998, and Barry Bonds' 756th home run ball sold for over $752,000.Would you believe the owner actually had an asterisk engraved on Bonds’ ball?
The most famous baseball card of all, a T206 Honus Wagner card in a stunning near-mint condition, was sold to Hockey star Wayne Gretzky at an auction for $451,000 in 1991. It repeatedly sold at auction for ever-increasing values, reaching a peak of $2.8 million in 2011 before an auction house dealer admitted to trimming the card's frayed edges to improve its value. Approximately 57 T-206 Wagner cards exist, with virtually all selling for at least six figures, regardless of condition.
Even the most famous memorabilia can drop in value and/or be exposed as fraudulent. Scrutiny is intense for signed memorabilia and there is no single standard of authentication — so expect skepticism if you pull that pristine Mickey Mantle rookie card out of your parents' attic or try to peddle a Babe Ruth jersey sized extra-small.
What do you do if you find baseball memorabilia in your attic and have no idea of its worth? There are still a few baseball card and memorabilia shops around the country that can appraise your find for you, but there are a few steps you should take first.
- Do Online Research – You can get some idea of the value from the many online price guides. Beckett is the most respected, but charges for their online guides — however, it may be worth the investment if you have a lot of items to investigate. Check eBay and other auction sites for similar items. Most cards, signed baseballs and bats, and other memorabilia including everything from programs to remnants of demolished stadiums, have traded hands at least once. Look at the eventual sale price, not the asking price.
Age is not necessarily an indicator of value. For example, most baseball cards that are 25-30 years old have little value due to overproduction.
- Assess the Condition – Baseball memorabilia is very sensitive to environmental factors. Cards, old programs, World Series ticket stubs, etc. do not often survive the conditions of an attic or storage locker. Between temperature, bugs, and other sources of harm, it is rare to find them in mint condition.
Fortunately, many online guides have descriptions or even visual representations to help you determine grades from mint/near mint to poor condition. You probably cannot make a professional assessment, but you can gain enough insight to assess the bid of a potential buyer.
- Seek Multiple Quotes – If you do decide to sell, get multiple quotes. Check trade magazines at your local bookstore for ads of potential buyers, as well as checking the Internet for respected sources. Given enough value, an intrigued collector will come to you to verify the worth.
- Look For Authenticity – Signed memorabilia (bats, balls, or straight-up autographs) are very difficult to price without some measure of authenticity. You can find signature references, but you will probably have to depend on a trained professional to determine a piece's legitimacy.
Do not get too worked up about anything you find in the attic, but do take the time to check out its value. You may not be able to send the kids to college based on what you find, but you may get a few good dinners or maybe even a new TV out of the deal — and you will have a cleaner attic to boot.