A Mickey Mantle card sold for $486,100 on Sunday, setting the record for price paid at auction for a card of the Yankees slugger and the most paid for a card sold on eBay.
The near-mint 1952 Topps Mantle, dubbed by grading company PSA as an 8 out of 10, marks the third record set for the same grade of the card in the past 13 weeks.
"There's a supply-and-demand imbalance with this card," said Brent Huigens, who sold the card and said his eBay-based card business PWCC will gross about $22 million in sales this year. "What we've noticed is that people who are buying these cards now aren't buying them to collect them, they're buying them as a commodity, an investment."
Historical prices, Huigens said, suggest that a card like this can generate returns similar to or better than a good blue-chip stock "and they're a whole lot more fun."
In July, an auction for a Mantle PSA 8 sold for $382,400, and another version was bested a day later with a $400,950 winning bid. But Sunday's sale was even more significant because PWCC takes only a 6 percent buyer's premium versus the other traditional auction houses, which take 20 percent. That means the card sold Sunday netted $130,000 more than the previous high for the consignor, who was not revealed.
According to PSA's population report, which discloses how many cards were graded in which condition, PSA has graded only 32 of these cards with an 8, six have been graded a 9 and only 3 have been graded a 10.
"When we first started grading in 1991, we saw a lot of these cards coming in and then another wave when the Internet demanded that cards like this be graded to sell," said Joe Orlando, president of PSA. "But we now get in a Mantle card that we ultimately grade an 8 once every couple of years -- if that."
What's amazing is that cards like this were being given away in the late 1950s for less than a cent.
The Mantle was the first card in Topps 1952 high-number set, which was created after the chewing gum company experienced great success with the first set that year. But the product was released too late in the year, and fans had apparently moved on to football. Sy Berger, who ran the project for Topps, tried to give the cards away for seven years as they piled up in the company's warehouse.
"Around 1959 or so, I went around to carnivals and offered [the 1952 high-number cards] at a penny apiece," Berger, who died last year, told Sports Collectors Digest in 2010. "And it got so bad, I offered them at 10 for a penny. They would say, 'We don't want them.'" Needing more space in his warehouse, Berger then famously commissioned a barge to dump 300-500 cases of the set into the ocean, which decades later would result in a scarcity that helped drive up prices.
"Whoever thought that they would have the kind of value that they have?" Berger asked five years ago, when some of the best Mantles were still selling for less than $100,000.
While the T206 Honus Wagner card, which sold for a record $2.8 million in 2007, is considered the holy grail of card collecting, PSA's Orlando said he wouldn't be surprised if the 1952 Topps Mantle took over that title. A rumored $1 million private sale for the card is believed to be in the offing.
"This card is a piece of Americana," Orlando said. "Although the Wagner is seen as the Mona Lisa, the 1952 Mantle is what people really think of when they think of baseball cards. The picture on the card, the player, the great name and the team he played on."
There's a common thought that the Mantle card boom is because baby boomers, who idolized him, have more disposable income. But Orlando said, based on what he has gathered from knowing who has bought these high-end cards, there are younger buyers in the game.
Huigens said he wasn't free to disclose who purchased the Mantle card at the record price, but he did reveal it was a lifelong collector.
"But what might be more important for proving that this is bigger than card collecting," Huigens said, "is that I know that the guy who had the second-highest bid had never purchased a card before. The next buyers of this card will be people who just want a diversified investment to put next to their Stradivarius violin or their Faberge egg."