Throw the Gum Away and Hang Onto the Baseball Card

The growth of the sports autograph business is a spinoff of the baseball card boom.

Driven by increased interest in baseball and the influx of serious investors into the field, the value of baseball cards soared in the 1980s. Prices for complete annual sets have jumped 35% a year since 1981; a 1952 Topps set in top condition brings $35,000 to $40,000 and a single rare 1910 Honus Wagner card sold for $110,000. All this for what were once childhood icons that mothers routinely discarded.

Not anymore.

This decade, rookie cards--a player's highly valued first-year card--have outperformed all other comparable investments, including corporate bonds, common stocks, stamps and coins, according to an analysis by David S. Krause, an assistant finance professor at Marquette University, published last June in Money magazine. Hobbyists increasingly insure their cardboard collections and secure them in vaults.

Alan Rosen, an unabashedly self-promotional former insurance salesman from Montvale, N.J., reports that he sold $4.5 million in old baseball cards and memorabilia last year, netting $400,000. His moniker is "Mr. Mint," a reference to an unblemished, perfectly proportioned card--a collector's dream.

Last month, Rosen held his third annual nationwide telephone auction of 100 rare items, including an uncut Topps sheet of 50 stars in "mint" condition (which went for $4,750) and a 1910 Plough's candy card of Frank (Home Run) Baker ($1,200). After 1,000 calls, Rosen had sold all but six lots; his gross for the day: $272,000.

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