While there are millions of people who collect for fun, trading cards can also be a valuable asset and some do make money by investing in basketball cards.
Graded cards are where the money is. While card companies today create the idea of scarcity by numbering them, the numbers of old basketball cards in top grade are limited due to the lower production runs at the time and how the cards were produced, treated by collectors (mostly youngsters) and the rudimentary storage methods. Those high-grade scarcities are also due to less rigid printing guidelines that often created a photo that was off-center.
Importance of Condition
Prior to the 1980s, kids would often chew the gum and then do something fun with the cards, like putting them in their bicycle wheels or making cardboard towers. If you were a trader, your cards were often transported with a rubber band around them.
Vintage sports cards are similar to old stamps, currency and other collectibles in that condition is a huge part of their value, and third party grading helps establish exactly what that is. Graded cards go for the highest prices because their condition and authenticity have been evaluated, as there is a much bigger risk of buying a counterfeit, recolored or trimmed card if it is ungraded. There is only one PSA 10 George Mikan Bowman rookie card. The difference between that one and an ungraded Mikan in rough condition is around $402,500.
Investing in the best graded card that a basketball card collector can afford can often be a sound strategy. There can be a vast difference between grades for prices, and auction results for Mikan's 1948 Bowman #69 provide an example. Considered one of the most iconic rookie cards of all-time, graded VG-EX condition cards typically sell on eBay for around $2,000. A PSA 7 changed hands at around $13,000 while a PSA 8 was $23,000. People want to have the best and will pay a premium for it, so buying a high grade now will mean securing an asset that is few in number and in the future will continue to be rare and valuable.
One way to possibly get a large return on a basketball card investment is to purchase ungraded cards and then send them away for grading. If they come back with a high grade, their value will increase significantly. Finding the high-quality cards to have graded in the first place is the hard part of the equation, but buying single cards or unopened boxes and packs can uncover the mint superstar. Buying graded vintage packs isn’t cheap but if you’re a willing gambler, they can sometimes reveal mint stars worth big money.
Rookies, Hall of Famers Rule Investing in Vintage Basketball Cards
When investing in vintage basketball cards, it’s best to select the cards of the game’s most popular stars. George Mikan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pete Maravich, Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and, of course, Michael Jordan will always have value and always be in demand. That isn't to say a PSA 10 rookie card of a champion like K.C. Jones would not be a good investment, as there would be someone out there looking to assemble a complete set from that year with the best grades and Celtics fans would also be interested, but there are many more collectors and investors looking for the best cards of the NBA's iconic players.
Something else that makes rookie cards more valuable, especially for vintage cards compared to those of today, is that when they were originally released few people wanted them or looked after them. The "rookie card" concept really hadn't been born and the cards were treated like any others.
While the player on the card is very important, there are some vintage sets that have much more value than many others. Basketball cards from the late 1970s have little appeal, while the Topps sets from the start of that decade have much higher prices. The cards might have looked better then and there were more superstar players too, but the number of cards that were produced and also how many have survived in great condition are just as important for setting values. There is only one PSA 10 Lew Alcindor from 1970-71 Topps. There are 16 PSA 10 Kareems from 1978-79 Topps. 213 PSA 9 cards compared to only 31 from 1970-71. He changed his name along the way, and card collecting started to change too.
Popular Vintage Basketball Card Sets
The best vintage basketball sets are 1948 Bowman, 1957-58 and 1969-70 Topps, 1961-62 and 1986-87 Fleer. Of course, there are select cards from other sets that are popular, too. Michael Jordan's first NBA card is in 1984-85 Star Company. There are many great cards in other Topps sets of the early 1970s, such as the 1972-73 Dr. J rookie card and the Bird/Magic rookie combo in 1980-81.
Investing in the more famous sets can be worth it as there are always collectors looking to build complete sets of the best graded cards. Money can still be made on all card sets, large or small, and a sale of a 1950-1951 Scott's Potato Chips Mikan for $7,100 shows how a card that is rare and from an obscure set can also be a great investment item.
There are thousands of cards to consider when looking at vintage NBA cards but the best idea, and it applies to all sports, is that rookie cards are always the most sought-after. Exactly why rookie cards are the gold standard for sports card collecting is up for debate, but it is an undeniable fact. They are always the oldest card for the player, marking his first appearance. The picture is often how fans remember them as a young and exciting player.
Things to Keep in Mind
Some people invest in vintage cards for a quick profit, while others hold onto them much longer with an expectation that as more of the limited number of cards find homes it will leave those still on the market to command higher prices. Nothing is ever guaranteed but there are plenty of investors who have made money while also enjoying the vintage basketball card hobby.
As always, it’s best to buy the best card in the best condition you can afford. Don’t be afraid to compare prices of sold cards to ensure you’re buying in the same ballpark for the same grade. It’s always best to buy PSA or perhaps SGC or Beckett-graded cards when buying valuable cards.
Best Vintage Basketball Card Investments
Here’s a look at the cards generally regarded as the top 10 vintage basketball cards to invest in (click the title to see them on eBay). High-grade Hall of Famers (these and other stars) are often much less pricey in higher grades and can also provide growth opportunities.