When I'm doing research on possible investment grade antiques, I come across a lot of marginal antiques. In this situation a particular class of antiques comes very close to being investment grade, only to lack one or two vital attributes. An item's investment grade status is generally determined by five distinct elements: portability, quality of materials and construction, durability, scarcity and stylistic zeitgeist. In a marginal class of antiques, one or more of these qualities is absent or inadequate. This delineates items that are merely collectibles from true investment grade pieces.
Vintage baseball cards are a great example of this phenomenon. For a long time I looked into these early to mid 20th century mementos of the great American pastime. They have a lot going for them. First and foremost, they celebrate that quintessentially American sport - baseball. This gives them major cultural or zeitgeist points, especially considering that the antique market is awash in goods that are total anachronisms in the current age. Copper coal scuttles and brass tea strainers are not only unnecessary in the modern world, but also lack any significant stylistic mojo. In contrast, baseball cards are still culturally relevant. That is a major win.
However, a class of antiques cannot be declared investment grade based solely on scoring well in one of the five aspects of investability. And while baseball cards do well in two of the other categories (portability and scarcity: both good enough) they fall flat in the final two elements. Quality and durability are the investment Achilles heel of baseball cards.
Originally used as cheap prizes that were packaged with cigarettes or candy, vintage baseball cards are made out of cardboard…and not high quality cardboard either. Intended to be abused, lost and damaged, they were throwaway items. Baseball cards were meant for hyperactive, grubby kids to trade amongst themselves and put in the spokes of bicycle wheels. They were never meant to be treasures and were, consequently, never manufactured to stand the test of time.
This cheap fabrication was reflected in their mass printing and distribution. In the 1920s through the 1960s every candy shop and corner store in the U.S. sold baseball cards (and candy or gum with them) for a few pennies each. They were the antithesis of luxury goods. Unfortunately, in my opinion, this is fatal to any aspirations baseball cards may have to become legitimate investment vehicles. After all, when accidentally nicking the flimsy edge of an iconic 1932 U.S. Caramel Babe Ruth card instantaneously drops its market value by 25% or more, the importance of durability in investment grade antiques becomes obvious.
Another major factor that eliminates vintage baseball cards from contention for investment grade status is the fact that professional baseball is a largely U.S. (and Canadian) sport. This severely limits the possible collector base, a fatal coup de grace when coupled with their less than durable cardboard construction. Most investment grade antiques have strong international demand, reducing dependence on any one geographical area.
Of course, baseball is also big in Japan, but that doesn't fundamentally change matters much. It is unlikely that most Japanese baseball card collectors would be scouting for vintage U.S. cards anyway. Instead, they would probably just stick to vintage Japanese baseball cards. Baseball is a major sport in a few other Central and South American countries, but they are too small to impact demand in the U.S. card market significantly.
Now I don't want anyone reading this to get the wrong idea. I don't dislike vintage baseball cards or think they are "bad". I don't even have an opinion on their future return potential, which may or may not be good. What I do know is that according to the five attributes of investability, vintage baseball cards come up short on two. It doesn't mean they can't appreciate in the future, but it does mean that I can't predict that possible appreciation with any certainty. When investing my own money, I would prefer to stick with a surer thing.