The ordinary brown brick building, tucked within a nondescript block on a street in Delaware, would probably not garner much attention if it weren’t for the razor wire and armed guards outside — hints that something important lay inside, possibly even precious.
Fort Knox it is not. But the stash of collectibles the building holds is undoubtedly worthy of guarding.
There’s a rare Pikachu card and a century-old one of baseball great Honus Wagner, which recently sold for $7.25 million in a private sale. In addition to the trading cards, there are baseball bats and basketball shoes, including a pair of sneakers worn and signed by the late NBA great Kobe Bryant.
AP Photo/Davidde Corran
Ross Hoffman, CEO of a division of industry giant Collectors Vault, shows a shoe worn and signed by NBA legend Kobe Bryant on Oct. 21, 2022, in Delaware. The footwear is among hundreds of items stored at Collectors Vault, a new venture that makes it easier for collectors to store and trade memorabilia.
In all, $200 million in collectibles are stored in two vaults inside the building, equipped with some of the latest technology to keep the valuable cache safe from harm or thieves.
“A lot of people don’t keep jewelry at their house. They keep it at a safety deposit box,” maybe at a secure bank, said Ross Hoffman, the chief executive officer of Goldin Co., a division of industry giant Collectors, which operates the vault, a high-security facility specializing in protecting collectibles.
The building has no signage, and the company asked that any hint of its location not be divulged. Inside is a technologically advanced facility with a guarded vault, equipped with seismic motion detectors that will sound the alarm should anyone try to jackhammer through walls.
To move from room to room, a security guard ushers you through a card-activated double door entry way, letting the first door close before passing through the next. There are surveillance cameras everywhere.
AP Photo/Davidde Corran
A security guard opens a steel door leading into a vault containing hundreds of collectibles at Collectors Vault, a new company that is making it easier for collectors to store and trade memorabilia, on Oct. 21, 2022, in Delaware. The door is nearly two feet thick and is meant to protect the valuables from harm and thieves.
Behind one of two 7,500-pound vault doors, each more than a foot thick, are rows of shelves that extend to the building’s rafters. Rows upon rows of boxes are filled with collectors’ items — including some with relatively little monetary worth but that represent sentimental value for their owners or that could someday be worth much more.
Hoffman called the facility a “pain killer.”
“There’s pain of things getting lost. There’s pain in the things getting stolen,” Hoffman said.
Interest in sports collectibles and memorabilia has boomed in recent years, not just high-ticket items but also for rediscovered pieces that had been tucked away in attics or basements. In August, a mint condition Mickey Mantle baseball card sold for $12.6 million, surpassing the $9.3 million paid for the jersey worn by Diego Maradona when he scored the contentious “Hand of God” goal in soccer’s 1986 World Cup.
“A lot of times people have collectibles for the bragging rights to show it to other people so they can go, ooh and ahh,” said Stephen Fishler, founder of ComicConnect, who has watched the growing rise — and profitability — of collectibles being traded across auction houses.
But some people don’t want the burden of being responsible for securing their property, which they view as investments akin to stocks, Fishler said. These storage facilities help better liquify collectibles by treating them as assets that can be more easily bought and sold.
Hoffman, whose parent company also runs one of the leading grading and authenticating services, said his newest venture is an acknowledgment of the big money now involved in collectibles.
Before the pandemic, the sports memorabilia market was estimated at more than $5.4 billion, according to a 2018 Forbes interview with David Yoken, the founder of Collectable.com.
By 2021, that market had grown to $26 billion, according to the research firm Market Decipher, which predicts the market will grow astronomically to $227 billion within a decade — partly fueled by the rise of so-called NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, which are digital collectibles with unique data-encrypted fingerprints.
While digitized NFTs don’t require vaults for safekeeping, the trade in physical collectibles is expected to remain busy and lucrative.
“For a lot of people that buy cards, they have an intention of selling it,” Hoffman said, “so to keep it liquid and safe is a great thing.”
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When the pandemic shut down stadiums across the country, sports cards gained a meteoric rise in popularity. Sports fans who were stuck at home with no new games to watch rediscovered their old trading card collections and started spending time with them again.
This rising interest fueled a boom in collecting, as sellers hoped their childhood cards would have some value. Buyers—many of whom are middle-aged millionaires looking for items to invest in—fueled auction sites, trading shows, and even harried Target into not selling cards in store as they hunted for elusive rare cards. This has also spurred a frenzy in auction prices: A one-off LeBron James card—part of a high-end card set known as 2020/21 Panini Flawless Basketball—was just sold at auction with a winning bid of $2.4 million.
If you're looking to cash in on that box of cards you have in the attic, there are some details to know when it comes to understanding that being old isn't necessarily the only element determining a card's worth.
Midwest Cards compiled this list of seven tips to provide help for potential sellers who want to assess the value of their sports cards. Sources include PSA and Boston.com. Read on to understand what the pros look for when determining card prices.
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The first step to understanding your cards' worth is to do a little research on their sales history. What a particular card has sold for in the past can give you a general estimate of the card's market value. Check out auction sites, marketplace sites, and resellers to see if your card is listed there and how it has sold over time.
Remember, card value can fluctuate—in the mid-1990s, the sports trading card market tanked, falling from $1 billion to about $200 million, and it's only been in recent years that sales have been rising again. A card's value is also impacted by the amount of discretionary income people have, so inflation and stock market fluctuations may also impact value.
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Supply and demand do play a factor in a card's value—due to the Scarcity Principle, rarer cards are more likely to be expensive. One of the reasons the sports trading card market tanked in the 1990s was that card companies overproduced, printing an estimated 81 billion cards annually. That means even a popular rookie card from that era could be worth next to nothing because there are likely many in existence.
The other element of the Scarcity Principle is that collectors actually want to have the card you're selling. If you have a card from a player who never made a mark in the sport, it's likely not going to be worth much, even if not many of them exist anymore.
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Did you keep your cards neatly in boxes, or did you fold them and attach them to your bike spokes? The wear on a trading card plays an important part in its value. The better condition a card is in, the higher price it can fetch.
Buyers look at four elements to determine a card's condition: Corners, edges, centering, and surfaces. In a perfect card, corners should be sharp and well-defined; edges should be straight and damage-free; the image should be centered; and the surface should be free of creases, dings, marks, and stains. Fading can also have a negative impact on the card's value.
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In the trading card world, grading helps determine a card's condition and authenticity. Trading card authenticators will examine a card and give it a rating on a predefined scale so that everyone can be on the same page when talking about condition—and, therefore, value. Non-graded cards may not be able to attract the same kind of value, simply because buyers can't have the same kind of certainty as they can with a graded card.
PSA, SGC, and Beckett are three independent trading card authenticators that have developed and published defined ranges for card condition. When you get a card graded, you send it to the authenticator, and they use a number of tools to examine the card to make sure it's not a counterfeit, it hasn't been doctored, and how close to perfect the card's condition is.
Collectors can have a preference for a particular authenticator. PSA has the most longevity in the industry, while SGC has expertise in 19th-century cards, and Beckett has expertise in cards from the "modern" era—from back to the 1980s.
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Just because it's old, doesn't mean it's valuable. The player depicted on a trading card is a primary element in how valuable the card can be. Popular players and those who are legends in the sport—think Mickey Mantle, Michael Jordan, or LeBron James—will usually have more expensive cards.
Many rookie cards of popular and transcendent players also create a lot of demand because these cards tend to be scarcer. Card companies will also sometimes limit production of rookie cards of promising players to drive up value, such as Upper Deck's 2003 singular rookie card of LeBron James, which is now worth millions.
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While today's sports cards can command value for their uniqueness or star power that you can still witness, older cards can be worth more than new cards in part due to their classic artwork and a low survival rate. The nostalgia factor also boosts the value of some older cards, as middle-aged collectors who typically have more disposable income look back to the cards of their youth.
Some collectors base their collections around when a card was published:
- Pre-war: Before World War II, which include many early baseball stars like Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio.
- Vintage: Post-World War II to the mid-1980s, which includes the classic 1952 Mickey Mantle card.
- Junk wax: Mid-1980s to early 1990s, when card companies overproduced and put too much supply in the market.
- Modern: Mid-1990s to 2017, with retired superstars like Wayne Gretzky or Michael Jordan, who still loom large in recent memory.
- Ultra-modern: 2017 to today, in which it can be difficult to assess a card's worth due to authenticators' backlogs in determining value simply because there are way more cards in many more sports today.
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Card companies release cards in annual sets, which they number to help collectors know how much of any given set they have and which cards they still need. Set position can have an influence on the value of a card. For example, Brooklyn Dodger Andy Pafko wasn't baseball's biggest star in the 1950s, but he was the first card in the 1952 Topps set.
Back then kids had a tendency to keep their cards in set order and hold them together with rubber bands, so Pafko's card—which was on top—took a bigger share of wear and tear. A lucky collector managed to find one in PSA Gem Mint 10 condition in an unopened pack of cards, selling it for nearly $84,000.
This story originally appeared on Midwest Cards and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.