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Non-sports Cards: The Next Big Thing?

ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM WAITO

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Non-sports Cards: The Next Big Thing?
Will Levith

Recent trading card activity has caused nothing short of a feeding frenzy for all types of cards, whether they be from the priciest sets available or, ironically, the most overproduced ones of the past (the same ones that helped sink the card market in the ’90s). 

In recent months, collectors have begun to turn their eyes towards non-sports cards, a massive cross-section of the card collecting universe that has long been viewed as the sports card market’s red-headed stepchild. 

For those in the know, the non-sports market has always held incredible value. It has crossover interest from presidential and historical memorabilia collectors and is enjoying a major renaissance right now. In fact, non-sports cards have never been more valuable. 

Below, find a short breakdown on some of the most sought-after non-sports cards of all time:


1879 Marquis of Lorne

Ask any expert what the non-sport “Holy Grail” is, and you’ll be introduced to the N519 1879 Marquis of Lorne, which holds the distinction of being the first tobacco card ever. It’s also notable for featuring a man on it – instead of birds, horses, cars or other non-human subjects like many non-sports cards. Incredibly, just four of the cards exist in the world, two of which are owned by private collectors. The others are sitting in the permanent collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and British Museum.

This card is leaps and bounds rarer than baseball’s famed T206 Wagner, but because the marquis is a historical figure and not a sports star, it holds much less value on the secondary market. When one of the four examples last came up for auction in 2009, it sold for a little over $15,000, but don’t be surprised if that number sees a big increase the next time one of these cards sells.

Image by Robert Edwards Auctions

1932 U.S. Caramel Presidents McKinley

Just 10-15 copies exist of the 1932 U.S. Caramel Presidents William McKinley card, making it more than three times as rare as the T206 Wagner (fewer than 60 known to exist). Most McKinleys on the market come in poor shape—and the president himself hasn’t proven the most popular among collectors or Americans throughout the years (he was assassinated, by the way). 

Regardless, that didn’t stop a copy, graded SGC 60, from selling for just under $100,000 in 2014, clearly hopscotching the Marquis of Lorne card in terms of value. A lot has happened in seven years, though. This could be the year of the McKinley!

 

Image by Robert Edwards Auctions
Image by Robert Edwards Auctions

1938 Gum, Inc. Horrors of War

Not to be outdone by marquises and presidents, one of the single most desirable non-sports card sets in history is the R69 1938 Horrors of War set, which is basically 288 pieces of miniature war porn, complete with mangled bodies, severed limbs and lots of the red stuff. It was a highly controversial set at the time of its production, as Gum was a candy company marketing to young, impressionable boys, and the company pushed the envelope even further when it released a 48-card second series depicting Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. 

The set’s key cards include its first, “Marco Polo Bridge,” which is difficult to find in condition (a near-mint mint PSA 8 copy sold for just under $9,000 in 2019), while the handful of cards that depict Hitler often run at a premium as well ($3,000-$5,000 or higher, depending on grade). Back in 2018, 12 unopened packs, in various PSA grades, sold for more than $50,000 at auction. Maybe somebody will do a live break at some point?

Image by PSA

1990 Topps George H.W. Bush

In 1989, Topps decided to produce a short run of cards for then-President George H.W. Bush, who had been the captain of the Yale University baseball team in 1948. That December, Topps chairman Arthur Shorin ventured to the White House and presented Bush with his card in the classic 1990 Topps design, which features the president in a Yale uniform. 

There are said to be around 175 or more in existence, with two versions floating around: One with the normal coating on the front, the other with a glossy coating à la Topps’ Tiffany parallels from the ’80s and ’90s (the shinier-coated versions being the ones that the president got in a Topps binder). The existence of both was confirmed by the unlikeliest of sources: John H. Sununu, former Bush White House Chief of Staff, who is also a major baseball card collector. A BGS 9 of the glossy sold in 2019 for $25,000, and with each passing year, presidential collectibles have become hotter and hotter. Keep your eye on this one.

Image by The Cardboard Connection


Marvel/Impel Boxes and PSA High-Grades

Chances are you’ve nerded out to at least one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbusters in the last decade or so. Take Iron Man, for example. Long before the film, the superhero was the subject of a rare, desirable comic book: 1959’s Tales of Suspense #39 (a CGC 9.6 sold in 2017 for $276K). He eventually got his own standalone series (Iron Man #1 in ’68; a CGC 9.8 went for $19K+ in 2017). 

But cards have been a different story. Save for some obscure one-offs throughout the decades, the full lineup of Marvel characters rarely found their way into an official trading card set until 1990. Near the height of the first card craze, Marvel cut a deal to produce a licensed card series, featuring painted portraits of its most popular superheroes and villains, while also inserting several harder-to-find hologram cards into packs to keep collectors ripping. After a successful first run, a second series followed in ’91, and a third in ’92. 

In recent months the first three Marvel card series have been seeing major traction on the secondary market. The value seems to be in sealed boxes—a single box of Series 1 sold on eBay in February for a staggering $6,000—while complete sets have been running in the $800-$1,000 range. There’s also a growing interest in mint or higher PSA graded versions of the singles, many of which feature the first issue—dare we say “rookie card”—of superheroes such as the aforementioned Iron Man, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Captain America and others. Now might be a good time to use your card-hunting (or wallet’s) superpowers.

Image by The Cardboard Connection


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