Sports collectors are about to see a new record set when it comes to vintage baseball cards and memorabilia. Most of us would assume it’s an upcoming auction for a Honus Wagner card from the famed T206 tobacco set, or perhaps one of the more obscure “rookie” pre-1920 Babe Ruth cards. The new world record for the price of a single baseball card is likely to go to one of the finest known samples of the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle baseball card.
Whether this is being viewed by collectors or investors, the 1952 Topps Mantle would arguably be the face of vintage baseball card collecting. It is without argument the most expensive and most famous post-war sports card of them all. As of mid-afternoon on April 3, 2018, the 1952 Topps Mantle auction was already at $1.9 million — or $2.28 million if you include the buyer’s premium.
Heritage Auctions listed the guide value or estimate for this card as $3,500,000 or higher. If that level gets hit, it would beat the prior two record card sales, both of which are the famed T206 Honus Wagner tobacco card. The prior record of $2.8 million was broken with a sale price of $3.12 million for the Wagner tobacco card.
Heritage’s auction site states that it has recorded two world records for high-grade specimens in the past 12 months. One sample fetched $660,000 for a NM-MT 8 grade and another grade of NM-MT+ 8.5 fetched $1,135,250. Other auctions (see below) have also delivered jaw-dropping sums.
What may drive the focus here for “the most expensive card ever” status is that it has been more than a decade since a PSA Mint 9 example of the 1952 Topps Mantle card has sold at auction.
One thing that is so interesting about the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card itself is that the number of actual cards is not so limited that the card is all that rare. Still, this card was issued very late in the year as a high number series (#311 of 407 cards in total) versus the earlier low-number cards and was not distributed all around America like so many of the other cards in the 1952 Topps series. And the actual position of the Mantle card being at the top left of the uncut sheet of the series makes finding the 1952 Topps Mantle in stellar condition and with good centering all that much more difficult.
Many of the high-grade 1952 Topps Mantle cards and other high-end cards were not even bought by kids. Some were saved by former Topps employees and contractors or distributors from being destroyed and were later sold to collectors and dealers after new “finds.”
The grading service PSA lists that there are only six “PSA 9” and then just three “PSA 10” samples. Vintage collectors know that cards in these grades for 65 years old are almost impossible to find. The PSA population report for all graded Mickey Mantle cards of the 1952 Topps set is 1,281 straight-grade cards before getting into the “+” grades and other qualifier grades. And a competing grading service, Sportscard Guaranty (SGC), has a total of 481 total graded 1952 Topps Mantles — with just four cards above the 90/100 grade.
Another interesting quirk about this “rookie Mantle card” is that it’s not actually the “real rookie card.” That real rookie card status belongs to the 1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle baseball card, and the price of identical grades of 1951 Bowman and 1952 Topps card can be exponentially higher for the Topps Mantle. To prove the point, a 1951 Bowman Mantle card graded PSA 9 sold in a Memory Lane auction for $220,150 back in August of 2013. This Heritage PSA 9 Mantle is already 10-times that figure, if you include the buyer’s premium.
The Heritage auction site showed just how rare a sample with this sort of grade really is:
Of more than 1,500 submissions for PSA assessment, only six 1952 Topps Mantle cards have earned a Mint 9 rating, with just three rising higher, to a perfect Gem Mint 10 assessment. Heritage has recorded two world records for high-grade specimens in the past twelve months: $660,000 for a NM-MT 8 example, and $1,135,250 for a NM-MT+ 8.5.