A lot of times things like baseball cards and stamps become worth a great deal of money, not because of their intrinsic value but because of accidental scarcity. Consider Mickey Mantle’s 1952 Topps baseball card that is estimated to be worth around $30,000 today.
There is a good chance that you’ve heard of Mickey Mantle even if you are a baseball novice. He was more than just an athlete; he was and still is a defining part of American culture. The reason this flimsy 2-3/4” x 3-5/8” piece of colored cardboard fetches 5 figures has less to do with his home run power and matinee idol looks and it has more to do with luck.
In 1952 The Topps Company (which, to this day, still makes sports cards) released a set of 407 baseball cards in installments over the course of the baseball season. Mantle’s card was in the last lot of cards released and by the time it came out late in the season, people were more focused on football and other fall sports. The higher-ups at Topps found themselves with tons of merchandise and no one to buy it. So what did they do with all the cards no one wanted? They dumped them into the Atlantic Ocean, thus accidentally creating an instant rarity.
Here’s the only problem with this story and those like it: collector’s items can rarely be consciously created, most of the time they have to emerge organically. Lots of companies try to sell us their junk by saying like “Only 100 made!” or “Available for a Limited Time Only!” but most of the time these “rare” items end up in dollar store discount bins and in neglected eBay auctions
It happened in the baseball card industry. Once greed set in, collecting cards went from a hobby to a business. Everyone was trying to find, or for that matter create, the next 1952 Mantle. By the late 1980’s the card companies realized that they could make a mint from what had previously been a children’s toy and flooded the market with pre-packaged, limited-run, “collectibles.” As more companies jumped into the business (Fleer, Donruss, Upper Deck, etc.) merchandise began to clog shelves. By the late 1990s the whole business went bust and many of us were left with closets filled with worthless memorabilia.
The moral to this story is two fold. First, things gain worth for more than just the obvious reasons. Mickey Mantle is an American legend and Hall of Fame baseball player, but his most expensive card got that way because of a twist of fate. Second, you can’t always create “worth” and if you actively try to it will often have the opposite effect. Things (and people) gain worth through an organic process that combines quality, need, patience, and, more often than not, a little bit of dumb luck.
Picture Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum