The Real Card Price Guide
Seven Simple Steps to Value any Card or Collectible
By Adam McFarland, Founder of SportsLizard
Growing up in the 1980's, prior to the inception and rise of the internet, card and autograph collectors like myself relied heavily on print price guides like Tuff Stuff and Beckett for valuing our collections. Collectors only really interacted with other collectors at local and regional card shows, where cards were priced based upon those price guide values. As the hobby took off and buying, selling, and trading increased, so did the demand for price guides as collectors needed a way to "value" what they were about to buy, sell, or trade.
We were told that pricing was determined by data collected from hobby shop transactions across the country. Most collectors generally believed the values to be true, partially because we didn't have any other means, but primarily because we trusted that the data used to determine "book value" (BV) was accurate. We really didn't have any reason to think otherwise.
Over time, the evolution of the hobby and the influx of the internet into our lives brought price guides in to question. Two big things happened. The first was eBay. The second was the plethora of user groups, message boards, and blogs that formed around the hobby. The former has led to an increase in chatter about the validity of "book value" on the latter, and it's had a huge impact on the hobby.
A pandora's box of questions arose. What does value really mean? If a card is listed in Beckett for $120 but sold on eBay yesterday for $75, isn't it really worth $75? The largest marketplace in the world - one in which all collectors monitor on a daily basis - is surely the better way to determine value...isn' it? But if the card sells a week later for $90, which one is the true value? Isn't every transaction completely unique based upon current marketing conditions, shipping/payment options, the condition of the card, the transaction requirements, the photographs of the card, and many other factors?
Smart collectors are beginning to realize that "value" isn't as simple as a number printed in a magazine, that the market changes on a daily basis and each transaction has it's own unique set of circumstances that impacts the value. While this revelation is very important, it can also be very confusing. It is much easier to simply look up a number in a magazine and believe it. Collectors no longer agree on "value" - some still buy, sell, and trade based upon BV while others have moved on and begun to determine "value" on their own.
As a cards/collectibles site owner, business owner, web developer and lifetime collector, the process below is what I believe to be a foolproof process for determining what every card, collectible, or autograph is "worth". It is fair, data driven, and easy to learn, and I hope that it will enhance the enjoyment that you get from your collecting experience.
For simplicity I'm using baseball cards in this example. All of the data I have from SportsLizard suggests that baseball cards are still far and away the most popular type of card/collectible, so it seems like the logical place to start. (please note – this example is adopted from a blog post I wrote in November of 2007 entitled Baseball Card Values and Prices - What’s it Worth?)
- Define Value - what does "value" really mean? A card is only worth what someone will pay for it, and the only way to "value" your card is to find sales data for the same card as yours. What are people asking for it, and what are they receiving. The more data, the more certain we can be of our price. We also need to consider market conditions, grading, and the overall physical condition of the card.
- Figure out what card you have. This might sound obvious, but I've seen several instances where the sole cause of confusion over pricing is a misunderstanding of what card the collector has. For example, I had someone email me thoroughly confused over the value of their 1986 Mark McGwire Donruss Rated Rookie Card. They couldn't get a price from anywhere except our Price Guide Tool, but the data seemed wrong. That's because McGwire's Donruss Rated Rookie was from 1987 (see image here)! The best way to confirm that you're looking up the correct card is to find a few pictures of it online and make sure you're using the same verbiage to describe it. Premium SportsLizard Price Guide subscribers have images display right in the items tab of their results, but an eBay search or Google Image Search works equally as well.
- Find out what it's being sold for right now. How much could you buy the item for right now if you tried? This is where SportsLizard's Price Guide really shines. Type in the name of the card and hit "Price it". You now have data for every active eBay auction and SportsLizard listing, and usually (depending on availability) listings from Beckett, SportsBuy (formerly NAXCOM), CheckOutMyCards, and many more. For our McGwire Rookie Card, I searched "1987 Mark McGwire Donruss Rookie" with "don't include" words "lot, set, pack, box". It returned 114 cards and gave it a value of $10.77. In looking at the data, it seems to be in the $5-$8 range without being graded. Graded cards were less common, but seem to go in the $15-$30 range depending on how high the grade is.
- Find some recently completed eBay auctions. How much are people buying the item for right now? The search function on eBay's Completed Listings provides this. You can view any auctions that have closed recently. This data is important because it really lets you know how hot or cold a collectible is at this very moment. In most cases, this data will align with everything else you'll find. However, if a player is really popular right now (see Adrian Peterson at the beginning of the 2007 NFL season) you'll be able to spot the trend in this data. In our McGwire example, a quick scan of the data shows auctions closing in the $5-$10 range with not too many bids. He's not in the news right now so we'd expect his cards to be relatively stable with minimal bidding.
- Look it up in Beckett Baseball and Tuff Stuff. Both Beckett and Tuff Stuff employ people whose sole job it is to determine the values of collectibles. While their methods can certainly be questioned, they still provide you with a data point that can be useful in validating the data from the prior two steps, especially if these values support what you've already found. Tuff Stuff also makes the majority of their prices available for free in PDF format on their website. Our McGwire card was priced at $4 in a recent issue of Beckett, and $6 in the latest Tuff Stuff. Again, pretty much in line with our other data.
- Use other tools, if necessary. Depending on the rarity of the card, you might not get a lot of data points from steps 2-4. If that's the case, you can try the Auction Database on Sports Collectors Digest or a yearly guide like the Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards or the Beckett Almanac of Baseball Cards.
- Determine a range of prices. Now that you've gathered all of your data, the value of the card should be pretty obvious. For our McGwire, it's become pretty clear that an ungraded card in mint/near mint condition will probably sell for around $5, plus or minus a few bucks. At this point I also try to factor in any market trends and special circumstances. If McGwire comes clean about steroids and you live in Oakland or St. Louis, how does that now impact the value of the card? Use your common sense here.
If you stick with this seven-step process, you'll almost ALWAYS have several sources of prices that will enable you to come up with an accurate, data-driven price in less than 15 minutes, usually without spending a penny. In my opinion, anyone looking for a single "magic" way to figure out the value of a card doesn't understand what it means to determine what something is worth.
Finally, I challenge you to ask yourself why you collect. If you collect for shear enjoyment – as I'd say 99% of collectors do – then you probably do not need to spend a lot of time valuing your collection. The only time you really need to value a card is if you're about to sell or trade it, and the information collected using the process above is more than enough to determine fair value.
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