The 42nd National Sports Collectors Convention took place this past weekend at the Atlantic City Convention Center, and drew tens of thousands of trading card, autograph and memorabilia enthusiasts. While the bulk of those in attendance were there to buy, sell or trade, the opportunity to see some of the most coveted items in the hobby in person drew others to South Jersey. Game-worn Air Jordans from each of the Bulls’ six title-clinching NBA Finals games were on display, as was a rare 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie card that was projected to possibly fetch as much as $10 million.
The most valuable asset showcased at the 2022 NSCC was the Diamondbacks Collection, a curation of 50 of the most sought-after and highly valued vintage cards. Collectors displayed the cards at its booth. The company’s CEO, Nat Turner, could not definitively say it is the single most valuable collection of its kind. But he said it is no worse than second or third, based on just a few of the high-end cards in the Diamondback deck. “If all it [included] was the Mantle 10, it would be on that list. But he has the Hank Aaron 10. He has the Honus Wagner. He has the ’48 Leaf Jackie Robinson. He has the Babe Ruth Sporting News. And he’s got the highest grade in all of these cards. I don’t really know how you can top it.”
JWS’ Take: The “he” being referred to is Ken Kendrick, the owner of the Diamondbacks Collection, as well as the Arizona Diamondbacks’ principal owner and managing general partner. Kendrick is also among the owners of Collector.
Around 20 of the cards in the Diamondback Collection are one-of-one, the single highest graded copy of that particular card. That includes the Wagner. Kendrick’s card is graded as an eight. None of the other 30 or so known to exist are graded higher than five. Turner said it is particularly uncommon for a collector to have “the highest grade or close to the highest grade on every single one of [the cards]. That’s just crazy.”
Every card in the Diamondbacks Collection is worth six figures. Some are worth seven or eight. The aforementioned Wagner, considered the most prominent trading card in the hobby, and a gem mint 10 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle rookie card (RC) are the two most valuable cards within the Collection. Only two other Mantles with that grade are known to exist. The Mantle displayed at the NSCC, which was expected to sell for eight figures, carries a grade of 9.5.
While heavy on baseball cards, the Diamondback Collection includes one football card and two basketball cards: a 1935 National Chicle #34 Bronko Nagurski, a 1948 Bowman George Mikan and the 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan, the newest card in the set.
Kendrick bought all 50 of the cards in the Collection over the last 20 or so years. While he said the cards were expensive to acquire, they are much more valuable now. For example, the Arizona Republic reported that Kendrick paid $2.8 million for the Wagner in 2007. Last August, a lower quality Wagner T-206 sold for $6.6 million. The Diamondbacks owner said the “return on the investment I’ve made in these cards based on their current value is way better than anything I’ve ever done in the stock market.”
The collection is believed to be worth nine figures. But card prices are a moving target and are largely dependent on what a prospective buyer is willing to pay at a given time, particularly when dealing with one-of-one cards. So their value is hard to know precisely. “There are no comps,” Turner said. “They don’t trade, ever.”
Don’t expect to see the cards in Kendrick’s collection hitting the auction block, either. Kendrick said he wouldn’t even consider selling them. He intends to pass the Diamondbacks Collection down to his son.
Kendrick started collecting cards as an 8-year-old in West Virginia. He bought his first five cards for a quarter. He likes to joke that he “had the best mom of all, because she kept all my cards, and my friends’ mothers threw their cards away.”
But none of the cards Kendrick acquired during his childhood are included in the Diamondbacks Collection. “There are players whose cards I had, but not at the quality of the highest grade,” he said.
Over the last two decades, Kendrick has upgraded many of his childhood cards, creating a nationally recognized collection in the process. His love of baseball, and for the individual players, drove him to pick up the hobby again. “These were my heroes,” he said. “Many of these players are people that I’ve known personally. I’ve revered them. I’ve honored them. I wanted to have something to identify with these players. And if I was going to do it, I wanted the best of the best. Like anything, the best of the best has more value.”
The value of the Diamondbacks Collection has grown exponentially in recent years as trading card and collectibles prices have soared. But since March of this year, “cards, along with everything else, have declined; just to be 100% honest with ourselves,” Turner said.
That is certainly the case with modern cards. But rare, high-grade, vintage cards of hall of famers have historically held up better. Kendrick pointed out that while the economy was bleeding in the late 2000s, his cards “did not decline in value.”
Indeed, Kendrick’s card portfolio is almost certainly far more valuable today than it was pre-pandemic. “If you compare it to 18 months ago or pre-COVID, [prices] are still in most cases multiples higher,” Turner said. For example, he points to Mickey Mantle cards (PSA 8 RCs) that currently sell for around $2 million. Pre-COVID they were commanding “$500,000 or $600,000.”
The Diamondbacks Collection exhibit at the NSCC was done in coordination with a book release on Kendrick’s collection. PSA Collectors Club members in attendance were given signed copies of the coffee table book, which features high-resolution photos of the cards, stories about the players and the collector. Kendrick’s portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book will go to his foundation.