Question: would you have ever gotten your Ernie Banks rookie card signed by the legend himself? How about a more modern example, a 2011 Topps Mike Trout rookie card? Would you have that signed now?

Before the last few years, you’d be driven out of collectors circles, called crazy even, if answering “yes.” Rookie cards, especially those of generational talents, were not to be signed. Now we’re seeing a paradigm shift, and it’s translating into auction action. Professional Sports Authenticator even highlighted the trend in a recent video.

Collectors during the days of Mantle, Clemente, Banks and other upper echelon players during baseball’s golden age once scoffed at the idea of getting rookie cards signed by these transcendent legends. Recently, however, there’s a growing market for autographed vintage rookie cards. (I know, I know — Trout is a current, not vintage, player. But his current trajectory seems apt to place him in the same conversation as those aforementioned legends in 50 years.)

Let’s take a closer look at this shift, as well as some examples of autographed rookie cards once deemed off-limits.

If Rarity = Value, What Does That Make Autographed Cards?

While purists still consider the autograph to compromise revered cards, there’s an emerging class of collector that considers the autograph to actually raise the value of the card. And the latter group actually has a point: autographed cards only occupy a subset of the main population. For the hundreds to thousands of examples of any given card to circulate, autographed examples occupy only a small fraction of that population.

First, let’s look at rarity and the hobby. Over and over again, headline-making cards of extraordinary rarity, be it the cards themselves or the condition the cards are in, take auction blocks by storm. Once a card’s rarity comes into play, the desirability and subsequent value is heightened as well. Would the T206 Ty Cobb with Ty Cobb Back command hundreds of thousands of dollars if more than 22 were known to exist? Perhaps, but the rarity only helps the cards mystique and value.

Signed Griffey
Autographed 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr., image via www.pristineauction.com

But back to rarity and autographs. Take Ken Griffey Jr.’s famous 1989 Upper Deck rookie card, for instance. While there are literally thousands of examples that PSA has authenticated, there are only 150 signed examples, making the autographed version of this ubiquitous card innately rare — and many believe his signature will grow even more rare as he settles into his Hall of Fame years.

Due to the readily available nature of this particular card, it’s yet to catapult into the realm of mind-blowing value. But, autographed examples are far less available, and as the years pass since Griffey’s playing time — and he continues to avoid signings, as many expect — this will only perpetuate the rarity of autographed examples. Will this translate into heightened value? The current market seems to suggest it will.

The same can be said for many autographed cards — they are innately more rare than their unsigned counterparts.

On the other hand, the hobby historically rewards flawless cards. If placing pen to cardboard is considered marring the card, then technically that example has been “flawed,” but I doubt any collector, past or present, would balk at the prospect of having Mickey Mantle or Mike Trout sign their prized rookie card, given the opportunity.

Some Examples of Cards Once Deemed Untouchable By Pen Strokes 

As mentioned earlier, the following cards were once considered tarnished if autographed. Now collectors are buying them up, and the figures are only increasing.

1955 Topps Clemente: $16,730, image via PSAcard.com
1955 Topps Clemente: $16,730, image via PSAcard.com

The officially recognized rookie of Clemente always draws attention on the auction block. But this signed example, graded PSA VG 4, exceeded typical expectations for non-signed examples of the same grade.

1951 Bowman Mantle: $21,600, image via PSAcard.com
1951 Bowman Mantle: $21,600, image via PSAcard.com

Mantle’s official rookie card, and featuring the better picture, some would argue, this 1951 Bowman just sold for $21,600.

1952 Mantle: $97,200, image via Memory Lane Inc.
1952 Mantle: $97,200, image via Memory Lane Inc.

As is the trend, the 1952 Topps Mantle tops the list. Though not technically his rookie card, this card is undeniably the Mantle to own. This example set the record for autographed cards, fetching $97,200 at auction.

So, If I were to ask again, would you get that Trout signed? According to recent auctions, the innately rare nature of autographed examples of a given card, and the hot market in general, it might be a good idea.

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