Waxing Cynical

There’s a well known and often used quote from Oscar Wilde that goes as follows –

“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”

This was one of the first quotes that I ever read as a (much) younger man that actually got me thinking about what the author was trying to convey to the reader.

The notion of ‘price’ and ‘value’ are intrinsic to the universe of collectibles, and never more so than in the world of baseball card collecting. You see, ‘price’ and ‘value’ can mean very different things to a lot of different people. For some there is a clear distinction between the two ideas; some will see a slight overlap, while for others they are virtually interchangeable.

I’ve written a fair few pieces since I started this blog concerned with why we collect baseball cards and what means to be a collector. I’m fascinated by the ‘philosophy’ of collecting – what drives us to collect in the first place and what our collecting goals actually are, and one of the most interesting things about the Hobby over the last couple of decades is how there’s been a shift in emphasis in how we perceive the ‘value’ of the baseball cards that we all love!

Last week I read this really fascinating article by Rich Klein over at Sports Collectors Daily regarding our expectations around what we find when opening a box of baseball cards. Please give it a read by clicking on the link below and I’ll see you when you get back…

Rich’s Ramblings: Do Consumer’s Have a Right to Expect Secondary Market Value?

All done? Great stuff! So what did you think about some of the ideas that Rich plays around with there?

Personally I think he hits the nail on the head! As collectors we’ve become a group where the prospect of scoring that big ‘hit’ from a box of cards has become paramount. I wonder how many collectors out there bust open boxes wax and don’t even see the cards for what they are, instead they scour through each pack in eager anticipation of the treasures that lie within, with each card they come across automatically being given a $ value based upon past experience and anticipated secondary market value?

It reminds me of an old episode of 30 Rock called ‘Apollo, Apollo’ where we get to see the world through each character’s eyes. Tracy sees everyone as himself, Kenneth sees everyone as Muppets, while Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy sees everything with a price tag attached to it highlighting its monetary value.

Is this what collectors are becoming? Or maybe this is what they’ve already become? Sure we shell out a fair amount of money for a box of baseball cards in the first place, but if your main expectation is to get a solid return on your purchase then surely you’re opening that box for all the wrong reasons?!? I know that all collectors don’t fit this model but I get the impression that it is becoming more and more commonplace for collectors to behave this way.

Media such as Twitter doesn’t necessarily help as you will often see collectors showing off their ‘hits’ for everyone else to see, like some kind of badge of honour. In itself there’s nothing wrong with this and it’s great to share in other collector’s success stories. However no-one ever gets to see the ‘smaller’ cards as no-one is ever interested in that sort of thing. Personally I’d much rather see images of several cards of lesser stars that are going straight into someones lovingly built PC, as opposed to a single big hit like a BGS slabbed orange refractor autograph of the latest top prospect!

In fact I often feel that prospect collectors are among the worst culprits for this sort of thing. And before you say it, NO I don’t hate prospect collectors in the slightest. I’ve met some truly wonderful prospect collectors out there in Hobby-land, through either my ramblings on Twitter or through this very blog itself. Chasing prospects just isn’t a type of collecting that’s for me, however I feel lends itself perfectly to the point I’m trying to make!

I appreciate that we all have different ways of collecting, but whenever I see those high value prospect cards in their PSA, SGC or BGS slabs I can’t help but think of them as commodities rather than valued collectible pieces, and I often wonder if that’s how their owners view them as well. The simple fact that these cards are graded often speaks volumes as to how these cards are perceived by collectors. Lets face facts, the higher the grade the greater a cards potential value.

For me the true ‘value’ of a baseball card comes from the collector having a ‘connection’ to their card or their collection. Whether that connection is grounded in some sort of emotional context (the love of a team, the love of a specific player), or simply because the collector has an appreciation of a card itself (such as the its overall aesthetic, or perhaps its historical significance to the game or the Hobby), I can’t help but feel that a card or collection should mean something that goes beyond the perceived monetary value.

Has the hobby embraced the view that unless you somehow get a return on the initial cost of your box then the box itself and its contents are in some way judged to be a failure? For the Hobby to thrive collectors surely have to look beyond the notion of flipping their hits to make money. We’re all guilty of wanting the big ‘hit’ from our Hobby boxes and often I’m no better than anyone else in this respect, but it’s important to remember that there are probably somewhere between 200-300 other cards in a Hobby box that aren’t ‘hits’, and these cards are worthy of your love and attention just as much as the ‘hits’ are!

Of course I could well be totally off-base with this, but the more high-end products I see entering the market (the upcoming Topps Supreme or Topps Dynasty anyone?) the more desperate I feel. These types of products provide the perfect outlet for flipping cards for profit, propagating the notion of the ‘collector-as-a-dealer’ (or EADS as described by Rich in his article), for anyone who can afford to buy these often ridiculously priced products in the first place.

Have collectors become the type of cynics that Oscar Wilde wrote about all those years ago, knowing the ‘price’ of what they collect but failing to see any ‘value’ other than what it might be worth on the secondary market? Maybe one day soon we’ll see another shift in the Hobby, a shift away from this ‘collecting for profit’ mentality that seems to have emerged slowly over the last several years? Or maybe I’ve got it all wrong to begin with? Perhaps this type of  ‘collector’ is the norm now and the Hobby will grow and evolve around them.

Maybe it’s just me that’s being a little bit cynical?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the issue and any personal experiences you might want to share. My door’s always open and thanks for taking the time to read this!