Identifying the Most Valuable Sports Cards

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Quickly Examine the Condition of the Cards

john c. powers card
Nick Tylwalk

When identifying the most valuable sports cards, you might find that some of the cards aren't in good shape. If that's the case, you can probably skip right past the rest of these steps. Vintage cards (loosely defined as pre-1980) can be held to a lower standard, but if you're seeing a lot of creases, bent corners and the like, you're not looking at something worth much money. Even the most desirable cards of the hottest players are no good if they're in poor condition.

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Check the Age of the Cards

patrick willis card
Nick Tylwalk

Age matters. Many of the sports cards that can be found floating around yard sales and the like are from the late 1980s and 1990s when the card companies were cranking out tons of cards. Today, most cards from that era aren't worth much.

What you want to look for are cards that are older (especially if they are pre-1980) or current (say, five years old or less). To check, look for a year somewhere on the card fronts or go to the card backs and look for a copyright date. Even common cards from some vintage sets can bring some money, so be sure to keep an eye out for older cards.

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Look for Recent Autographs

daniel gibson card
Nick Tylwalk

There's a market out there for all but the most obscure players' signatures, though that doesn't mean you're going to break the bank with most of them. Still, if the cards you find are from about 2000 on, it doesn't hurt to check to see if any of them are autographed.

Authentic autographed cards certified by the card companies are a relatively recent development, so be wary if you find older signed cards. Chances are that these autographs, even if they are legitimate, won't be worth much to most collectors because there is no way to know for sure if they are real without using a third-party authenticator - which can be expensive and still may not end the debate.

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Look for Older or Multi-Color Memorabilia Cards

reggie bush card
Nick Tylwalk

Memorabilia cards with pieces of jerseys or equipment worn by athletes are great, but it's a mistake to think they are automatically valuable. Products released in the past few years have flooded the hobby with single color jersey swatch cards, many of which are a tough sell.

Jersey cards from 1999-2000 have held some value because they were still a new phenomenon back then. For newer memorabilia cards, you want to look for swatches with several colors of material visible - often called patch or prime swatch cards. Collectors are sometimes willing to pay a premium for especially intricate or unique multi-color swatches.

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Locate Possible Rookie Cards

kevin durant card
Nick Tylwalk

Rookie cards are the foundation of the hobby, and their popularity has withstood the test of time. The trick is to identify them without a price guide, and it's not always easy since some cards that say rookie card on them actually aren't.

Your sports knowledge can sometimes help, as in a lot of cases (especially in football and basketball), a player's rookie card is from his rookie playing season. When in doubt, assume the card is a rookie and look it up later to find out for sure.

Also, late-blooming athletes can have rookie cards that increase dramatically in value. More than any other kind of card discussed in this article, rookie cards are worth holding onto in the hopes that they may be worth something extra down the road.

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Find Any Cards With Low Print Runs

sidney rice card
Nick Tylwalk

As with most collectibles, low supply can equal increased demand, and therefore value. With that in mind, check to see if any of the seemingly innocent looking base cards might secretly be rarer parallels. You probably won't be able to identify cards which are simply short-printed unless you're very familiar with the set they're from, but serial-numbered cards have their print runs stamped right on them.

Print runs of 25 or less can be considered a loose cut-off for turning otherwise uninteresting cards into items with some value. Always hold on to any 1-of-1 cards you come across. They aren't the automatic jackpot they once were thanks to their widespread proliferation, but they will draw some interest when putting up for sale more often than not.

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Hold on to Cards of the Biggest Stars

michael jordan card
Nick Tylwalk

Stars shine in almost all circumstances. Base cards and garden variety inserts can sometimes be worth something if the right person's picture is on the front. Expect cards of sports' biggest stars - think Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth level here - to interest a collector somewhere in most cases.