Last year, Super Bowl champion Evan Mathis, sold a mint PSA 9 (on a scale of one to ten) 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle for $2.9 million in a Heritage auction. If one of the three existing gem mint PSA 10s came up for sale, it would command $10 million.
“In terms of price point, the 1952 Topps Mantle is king and will remain king for a long time,” Brent Huigens, the CEO of PWCC, the largest seller of investment trading cards, told me.
Mantle’s 1952 Topps marks his first appearance in the most popular post-war set. But, of course, his true rookie is his 1951 Bowman. Since the dawn of the hobby in the 1970s, collectors have wondered whether the Bowman is a good buy.
Huigens says absolutely yes. In fact, he believes the Bowman is now a better choice than the Topps.
I reached out to him because PWCC has sold the five most expensive 1951 Bowman Mantles on eBay since February, ranging from PSA 7 ($31,400) to a PSA 4.5 ($10,870). It has also sold three of the six most valuable 1952 Mantle Topps, ranging from a PSA 5 ($52,100) to a PSA 3.5 ($30,100) over that time span.
Besides its aura, the Topps has everything going for it. “This is in part due to momentum, but also availability; it’s a much rarer card on the market,” Huigens says.
In fact, the combined population reports of PSA and SGC, the other top grading company, show that there are 3,313 Mantle Bowmans, 701 more than Mantle Topps.
But, adds Huigens,
“In terms of ROI, the 51 Bowman has largely outpaced the 1952 Topps. For the most true base market we like to look at EX [excellent] PSA 5 prices. Over that last 2 years, the values have largely doubled while the 1952 Topps has largely held its position.
I personally consider the 1951 Bowman Mantle to be among the most majestic and beautiful cards ever made. Considering it’s the true rookie of arguable the most desired post-war figure, I conclude that the ’51 Bowman rookie is among the most undervalued trial bluechips in the entire market.
Take nothing away from the 1952 Topps. It will be refocused upon and hotly pursued by advanced investors, especially as the market continues to mature. But in the near term, I would expect the ROI on the Bowman to continue to outpace the Topps.”
The 1951 Bowman has almost always been a stepchild of the 1952, the prototype of the modern card set. “At 407 cards, the Topps set was 61 percent bigger than Bowman’s 252 cards,” wrote baseball card historian Bob Lemke. “And the physical dimensions of the Topps cards were bigger as well. Compared to Bowman’s format, the Topps card was a whopping 50 percent bigger overall.”
Plus the 1952 Topps Mantle is the stuff of legend. Much of the high, late-season series in which it appeared was dumped in the Atlantic when the cards were clogging Topps’ Brooklyn factory. And then there was the magical find in 1986 by Alan Rosen of 30 pristine jewels in the Boston area. Finally, the Topps brand is still going strong while Bowman ceased production in 1955 after Topps bought it out.
But I agree with Huigens that the Bowman is beautiful. The fresh-faced 20-year-old phenom stands in a classic batting pose, with the clear blue sky and cumulous clouds overhead. And as PWCC noted in a YouTube video about the high-end PSA 5 above, “it’s the most important post-war rookie card.”
If you’re a buyer, be extra cautious. “This incredibly important card is subject to numerous condition obstacles,” notes PSA “As with most high-numbered cards in the set, this card often suffers from print lines, wax stains along the reverse and poor centering.” My experience from seeing dozens of Bowman’s in person at shows is that centering is the biggest issue.
An example in fair, PSA 1.5 presentable condition still costs less than $3,000, almost a quarter of the Topps in this condition. The last PSA 9 mint sold for $750,000 in 2018, up from $220,000 in 2013. It has plenty of room to grow to reach $2.9 million.