What is the value of a memory? What is the price of history? Does owning a part of history enable us to actually experience of a special event? These may be little more than hypothetical questions, but recent events in the news have helped to stir such thinking.
The front page headline at the top of the newspaper last week said it all: “Baseball Cards Found in Attic May be Worth Millions”.
This teaser drew readers to a story written by John Seewer of the Associated Press about a “soot-covered cardboard box” found by Karl Kissner and his cousin in the attic of their late grandfather’s home in Defiance, Ohio – a small town not far from the city of Toledo, and also the hometown of Indy 500 winner/NASCAR driver Sam Hornish, Jr.
Kissner was put in charge of handling his grandfather’s estate following the death of his aunt, who had lived in the family homestead until her passing last October. According to Seewer’s AP story:
His [Kissner’s] aunt was a pack rat, and the house was filled with three generations of stuff. They [Kissner and his cousin, Karla] found calendars… turn-of-the-century dresses, a steamer trunk from Germany and a dresser with [their] Grandma’s clothes neatly folded in the drawers. Months went by before they even got to the attic. On February 29… Karla Hench pulled out the dirty green box with metal clips at the corners and lifted the lid. (from the July 10, 2012 article)
Inside, Hench and Kissner found about 700 baseball cards dating back to the early years of the 20th century. What makes them even more valuable than their age is the fact that the cards were protected in such a way – bound with twine inside a cardboard box, albeit merely by chance – that their colors and edges stayed crisp and clean. Throw in the fact that the near-perfect cards were part of an especially rare production run (known as “the E98 Series”), and their discovery became part of sports memorabilia history.
As Karl Kissner put it, “It’s like finding the Mona Lisa in the attic.”
While this Ohio discovery is all well-and-good for baseball memorabilia, it doesn’t offer much by way of hope for NASCAR collectables. Simply put: NASCAR is “too young” of a sport to enjoy such ancient and esteemed artifacts. My thinking, however, goes a bit further; I’m thinking that NASCAR memorabilia will never achieve such a level of value and appreciation because there’s just too much of it available.
Consider the number of race teams competing across NASCAR Nation. Each team has a driver, a car number, several (if they’re lucky) sponsors, and a connection to a manufacturer. Each of these subcategories of one team can produce, market, and distribute any variety of relevant collectibles. Simply put, the sheer volume of available NASCAR souvenirs creates a flooded market that reduces the overall value of anything and everything related to the sport. When there’s no limit to what constitutes “a collectible”, there’s no reason to assume that one set of objects is more valuable than another.
Part of the problem stems from the condition of NASCAR collectables.
While a few items remain in their original packaging and get squirreled-away in dark, dry closets, the majority of NASCAR souvenirs (especially the swag often handed out at races or show car appearances) are exposed to contact and use. This difference in behavior is an ongoing debate within the world of collecting – does the artifact deserve to be used (because that’s what it was created for), or does the object need to be protected, preserved, and “saved” for future generations?
Take antique or custom cars. Do you lovingly (or maddeningly) restore an old car so as to keep it in your garage and only take it out on nice days, or do you drive the restored classic to shows, parades, and the grocery store because it’s “just” a car – a machine designed, constructed, and intended to carry passengers and goods from place-to-place? I’ve heard this complaint from friends with classic motorcycles who bristle at the thought of a collector towing his restored Harley-Davidson to an event. Does the item in question mean more if it’s shared with a curious audience?
Maybe it all depends on the anticipated financial value of the object. In the case of Karl Kissner and his family, the baseball cards they found will eventually be sold at special auctions in order to control their effect on the market and maximize their selling prices. As Kissner said to John Seewer of the AP, “These cards need to be with those people who appreciate and enjoy them”.
That’s code for “Those people capable of spending the most cash on what I have to sell.”
Apparently, the Ohio cards were part of a premium promotion given out by a candy company. As such, Kissner and his family obviously see the collection as having more extrinsic than intrinsic value, which is a huge distinction to make when dealing with collectibles.
When we study material culture (and collecting memorabilia of all kinds falls under that topic), we say that artifacts possess two types of value. One type of value is extrinsic, meaning that the item has external value – often financial – to a larger, more general audience. The other type of value is intrinsic, meaning that the item has internal value – often personal – to an individual. That’s why people collect things in the first place; we tend to collect materials that mean something special to us at an individual level. Financial value may be there, but the primary motivation for collecting is because we truly like the objects we gather and save.
I grew up during an era when baseball cards were part of a much-larger cardboard collectable culture. My schoolmates and I would often trade baseball cards during recess, but we were also prone to collecting cards from other sports and activities. During my childhood, I had cards from professional baseball, football, and ice hockey. I had a pretty extensive collection of manned space exploration cards, too, although I was often troubled by the prospect of wheeling-and-dealing with such precious items (“I’ll trade you two Apollo 8 mission logos for one Buzz Aldrin lunar bootprint…”). When NASCAR trading cards became available some years later, I eventually wound up with a small number of those, as well.
The thing about sports cards that I learned in school was that they possessed value according to the owner’s personal preferences. We used to “flip” cards in a game of competing for each other’s inventories, but you only flipped the cards that you didn’t mind losing. In that situation, the cards had value, but only the value we determined based upon our personal likes or dislikes; if a player wasn’t performing in games, and if you felt he wasn’t worthy of being in your collection, his card was likely selected to “flip” against a classmate. In some cases, my classmates would decide to flip the same player as I did – for all the same judgmental, lack-luster performance reasons.
But sports cards also had overall quality value, as well. A truly unusual or rare baseball card was just that because it was agreed that everyone saw the object in the same way. The implied value was based on the obvious quality shared by the greatest number of aficionados.
Consider the recent Ohio discovery and what makes those particular baseball cards so valuable. According to John Seewer’s AP story, the cards were authenticated by a reputable agency. This firm declared that the cards from Defiance “were the finest examples from the E98 series the company had ever seen”.
As Seewer explained it: “The company [Professional Sports Authenticator] grades cards on a 1-to-10 scale based of their condition. Up to now, the highest grade it had ever given a Ty Cobb card from the E98 series was a 7. Sixteen Cobbs found in the Ohio attic were graded a 9 — almost perfect. A Honus Wagner was judged a 10, a first for the series”.
This is where NASCAR collectables like diecast cars can run into problems. A diecast car is all-too-tempting to remove from its packaging, and it’s equally too tempting to play with – even when done gently. Toss in a child or two (or three), and the collectable can go from rare to wrecked in short order.
I amassed (he admitted, with great shame) a full set of Days of Thunder diecast Chevrolets that were being given out/sold at Exxon gasoline stations back in 1990. The film was what it was – a point covered in recent weeks by my Frontstretch brethren – but the cars seemed unique in that they featured different sponsors that either were (or could become) part of NASCAR competition. I kept the movie cars wrapped and protected amongst my assorted racing collectables.
Soon after completing the set, my then-wife “borrowed” all the cars for a Sunday school gathering, thinking the kids would enjoy seeing them. This crowd had apparently seen the film because they smashed, banged, and rolled each car to the point where the front ends were dented, the paint was chipped, and the axles were bent. To me, the cars were potentially valuable. To the kids, the cars were just like the Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars they played with at home (only my cars carried graphics from brands they recognized like Mello-Yello and Hardee’s).
Value was in the mind of the beholder; not that such implied “value” can’t be misconstrued.
For Christmas one year, I was given a one-gallon ice cream bucket that a well-meaning relative had fished out of a dumpster because it was a 1992 Richard Petty “Fan Appreciation Tour” promotion. The assumption was that because it featured Richard Petty, and because 1992 was such a significant year for Petty Enterprises, the old pail would be worth something to me, and that I would want to possess such a valuable object. As stated earlier: value is in the eye of the beholder, and I wasn’t crazy to beholden an ice cream bucket pulled out of the trash behind Piggly Wiggly.
Special events and historic occasions often generate valuable objects which add to the material clutter of NASCAR collectibles. My daughter went to the movies two weeks ago and bought a soda in a “limited-edition” Batman cup promoting The Dark Knight Rises. The cup featured a huge Diet Mountain Dew logo (even though she purchased Sprite) and an image from the film – all this about a week after Dale Earnhardt, Jr. carried these same names on his car at Michigan. With one savvy swoop of marketing, the soda, the film, Hendrick Motorsports, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. all reached material critical mass – each brand riding the tidal wave of attention garnered by the No. 88’s popular victory at MIS, with each corporate cup easily available to moviegoers all across the country.
Large production runs of race/sponsor tie-ins and assorted memorabilia do little more than dilute the extrinsic value of the objects in circulation. “Supply and demand” may be an essential concept for the companies involved, but it damages the collectability of items created for that exact reason.
This is why NASCAR will never have an “Ohio attic” moment worth multiple millions of dollars. It’s all-too-likely that a treasure trove of rare artifacts will be plagued by an overabundance of like items distributed as part of an international production run. A “Holy Grail” of NASCAR collectibles is probably out there, but whether or not it’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime discovery will have to be determined by the person who’s lucky enough to find it.
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