The increased interest in trading cards, especially since the onset of COVID-19, has affected the prices of nearly all unopened material. As an example, a factory-sealed case of 1986 Fleer Basketball recently sold at auction for just under $1.8 million. Why did it sell for so much? Boxes of ’86 Fleer Basketball commonly contain at least three #57 Michael Jordan rookie cards and a case holds 12 boxes. In other words, the case likely contains at least 36 Michael Jordan rookie cards as well as a similar haul of Jordan rookie insert stickers and other key rookies in the ‘86 Fleer set like Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Clyde Drexler and many others.
But purchasing expensive packs assuming they are concealing high-valued pulls can be a risky proposition. While counterfeit issues plague the high dollar card market, searched and re-sealed packs present a unique obstacle when purchasing high-dollar packs. Some shady individuals will attempt to deceive potential buyers by offering non-genuine “sealed” products. Typically, they assemble the pack using empty wrappers, sticks of gum (for those packs that had gum) and low value common cards. This makes purchasing non-authenticated packs online a tricky pursuit.
Another potential issue is the environment in which the product has been stored. Was it kept in a dry, dark area or has it been subjected to moisture, dirt or equally harsh elements?
“The worst thing for cardboard is water,” said Steve Hart of The Baseball Card Exchange whose company authenticated the aforementioned 1986 Fleer Basketball case. Hart is known as the hobby’s premier expert in unopened trading card products.
“Keep your unopened inventory as far away from moisture as possible. Water damage or even mildew damage is the worst thing for cards,” he continued. “For unopened cases, keep them directly off the concrete floor or away from concrete walls if your storing them in a garage or storage facility. Extreme heat sometimes causes damage too.”
Telltale signs of damaged unopened products include a smell of mildew for older wax packs and products, while newer foil packs often don’t show any external signs of damage and must be opened to spot any issues. The damage appears when the cards inside the pack stick together, which is known as “bricking.” Bricking can cause paper loss when the cards that are stuck together are pulled apart. It is a common issue with glossy cards from the 1990s.
So, what is a collector to do? Do you bust open that pack of cards with all of the above-mentioned risks in mind with hopes of pulling a perfectly centered, crisp card that could bring a small fortune? Or do you keep the pack sealed and intact? Hart believes it depends on the era of the product.
“I would definitely keep the pack unopened and not open it for card grading if it is vintage [pre-1975],” he said. “For modern stuff, if you’re feeling lucky, then you have a better chance of pulling a key card in high grade.”
There are essentially two roads to take when it comes to unopened products. You can press your luck by opening sealed packs and boxes in search of that key card or keep the items in their unopened state and preserve them through PSA’s unopened Pack Grading and Authentication Services option.
But chances are there are some collectors reading this who are anxious to spend a pretty penny on vintage unopened product with the hopes that they pull some classic high-dollar cardboard.
“If you are going to take the chance at opening older, vintage material to get nice, high-grade cards, always try to open rack packs first,” says Hart. “This will give you the best shot at getting nice clean cards. After that, I would consider vending boxes.”
For those under the age of 40, the term “rack packs” and “vending boxes” may sound completely foreign, but they were a hobby norm during the 20thcentury. Rack packs were packs that hung vertically from peg board hook racks in retail stores, consisting of three individual compartments filled with 10 or so cards each. Vending boxes were sold by manufacturers to stock retail vending machines, like the ones you see selling candies, stickers, and toys for 25 cents apiece. These 500-count boxes of randomly selected cards are known for preserving the condition of the cards beyond what is possible of their wax-pack counterparts, due to the absence of gum and sealing wax which may cause staining. Either way, beware of the potential for manufacturer flaws such as poor centering and print defects, which have nothing to do with how the cards were stored.
Much like a fine wine or cigar, preserving the product in the proper way is key when making a purchase in items that could deteriorate if stored improperly. Cards are made of paper, and paper is extremely susceptible to the effects of the environment it lives in. Keep the wise words of Steve Hart in mind the next time you look to buy unopened product. It may save you time, money, and potential heartbreak at the end of the day.