Interview with Mile High Card Company President, Brian Drent.
Conducted by Collectable’s Senior Editor, David Seideman.
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Since founding Mile High Card Company in 1996, the 53-year-old Brian Drent has been a leader of the high-grade sports card market, buying and selling many of the rarest and most prized sports cards and memorabilia. Some of his most spectacular finds, such as a 1915 Cracker Jack baseball card advertising poster found in a Wisconsin barn and a near complete box of 1948 Bowman unopened wax packs, have made national news. At the National Sports Collectors Convention in 2019 he created a sensation when he sold a collection of boldly signed Goudey Babe Ruths that sold in minutes.
David: Tell us about your long history in the hobby.
Brian: I grew up in Michigan where I started setting up at local shows in 1983 when I was 15. By 17, some friends and I drove to the East Coast National at the old White Plains County Center in New York to set up at the show and sell cards. I continued when I was 18,19, and 20. We were down in the basement in the corner. We sure weren’t dealing with the kinds of money kids are dealing with today.
I will never forget it. We were eating at an Italian restaurant in New York City and John Gotti and Sammy the Bull walked in. It was unreal. In 1986 Gotti was on the cover of Time.
David: Wow! You have certainly come a long way since basement shows at a county center. In your current auction running from October 25 to November 11, your first lot is marquis piece: a 1916 M101-4 Sporting News #151 Babe Ruth Blank Back PSA 7 NM. Well-respected grader Mike Baker has given it “gold diamond” status that indicates it’s of the highest quality of known examples in the marketplace for the grade. Your pre-sale estimate is $3.5-$3.6 million.
Brian: Yes, we’re very excited. If you want to break it down to its nth degree, the all-time clubhouse leaders would be Ruth and Mantle– far away. It’s the rookie card of the greatest player in the history of the game and the greatest name. PSA has graded three eights four sevens. One this high hasn’t come up in years.
And it’s not just a seven. The card is notoriously off-centered and this is fairly well centered. I’d say its near mint to mint and could easily pass off as an eight. It’s normally found with print lines in the background of the image. There are one, two, or three print lines. There are none here. This is at the top of the sevens. It’s nicer than one or the two or three eights.
Now if you look up population reports, the card is special. PSA has graded 64 with any type of the backs. That means Sporting News, Standard Biscuits, and Gimbels. On the other hand, they have graded 33 Honus Wagners. I didn’t think it would be that close: 64 versus 33. That also shows Ruth is a great rarity.
David: How did you arrive at the estimate? Is it high?
Brian: I don’t think it’s aggressive. In July, Memory Lane sold a PSA 6 for $1.5 million. $3.5 million doesn’t seem that far fetched. Last summer Robert Edward Auction sold an SGC 3 Wagner for $6.6 million.
For all cards, Ruth is easily the preeminent player on a rookie card. Further looking at the table, you can make a case that of all of the modern cards, you would rather have a Babe Ruth PSA 7. I can’t tell you one way or the other how it will turn out, but value aside, I’d rather have this Ruth rookie card over several of the cards on that list.
David: I’m glad you brought up modern. Besides a ton of great vintage you have two of the most significant modern cards: a 1993 SP Foil #279 Derek Jeter PSA 10 GEM MINT and a 2017 National Treasures Holo Silver #161 Patrick Mahomes II Rookie Jersey Patch Auto (RPA) 20/25 BGS 9 MINT AUTO 10.
Brian: We have a lot of modern stuff which isn’t the total norm for us. Everyone else is getting into it. Whether we sell a $40,000 LeBron it’s the same as selling as a Babe Ruth for that amount. It’s not as enjoyable to me, but it is profitable. Our customer base is looking for that material; a portion at least. We’re here to satisfy the masses.
David: What are astute people collecting these days?
Astute high net worth types are collecting cards just like these extraordinary high end examples that are prized pieces that cannot be found. Cards that gravitate to the top.
Our hobby and business has become one of showmanship. At cocktail parties a guy is boasting that he just bought a Sandy Koufax game used jersey or game used Ruth bat. Maybe an 8.5 Clemente. Another guy at the party is driving home discussing with his wife the $750,000 cost: “Wait, I have more money than that!”
The average collector can’t get his hands on a Wagner or a Ruth rookie. These items are going into strong hands. The only way to pry it loose is to pay even more money.
David: What’s moving markets?
Brian: This is more fun than crypto or NFTs because sports is what our whole country revolves around.
David: What makes something rare and collectible?
Brian: Desirability. Attainability. If you have had something that is absurdly desirable, you know it’s going to be valuable. Something that is good becomes great.
David: What do you look for?
Brian: That’s what we are looking for. And condition, obviously. It’s always condition. High grade defines availability.
David: Is fraud increasing in this booming market?
I haven’t seen any more. I haven’t seen any less. When items become incredibly valuable there is always going to be fraud. Take a Louis Vuitton bag. A knock off bag goes for a lot less. The same with Hermes purses and Rolex watches. Or autographs. There is always going to be some form of fraud. Someone is always going to make something from nothing.
David: What sort of memorabilia is hot?
It’s starting to get hot, particularly game used bats. Specifically, Ruth, Gehrig, and Cobb. I’m referring to the very highest caliber and the very highest quality. We have seen these prices when it comes to the cards. I foresee the price of bats as the next thing to go high. A Ruth card is worth $3.5 million. A PSA 9 Babe Ruth bat is $282,000, a fraction of what his high grade cards cost. Even if it’s $500,000-$600,000, it’s still a bargain. Hunt just sold for a little over a million dollars a home run bat with Ruth’s eight notches he carved for home runs. If you think about it, here’s a rookie card that Ruth never touched in his life. I could buy a bat that he held in his hands and he notched. It’s a third of what the card sells for.
Cards are the foundation. Most people don’t start in memorabilia even as kids. Then we develop a taste for memorabilia. Cards are a truer market. They are trading every day. It’s easier to chart the prices— upticks or downticks. For the most part, it’s easier to say this is a 7,8, or a 9. With memorabilia, it’s left to the imagination. What’s a Ruth bat with home run notches worth?
David: Is game-worn finally getting its attention?
Brian: The rise is even more to come for high-end game used jerseys. Mantle, Mays, Clemente, Koufax, and, God forbid, Ruth.
David: With bats and jerseys prices going up, I’ve been following game used caps.
Brian: If you have caps with real great provenance, I think that is great value. They are a pittance, outside of Ruth and Gehrig. In some instances they are every bit as prominent as jerseys. It just stands to reason that caps will increase in value.
David: At July’s National Sports Collectors Convention, I asked you to pick three items worth investing in. Here were your answers.
Brian: “Any high-grade Ruth cards. His Sporting News rookie, Goudeys and Sports Kings. They will go even higher.”
“Game-used Ruth bats. Prices have not escalated like his cards. I could not be more bullish on them.”
“I’m also bullish on unopened ‘50s and ‘60s baseball wax packs. I like boxes when you can find them. Those are outstanding finds. Prices have gone crazy, but they are still undervalued.”
David: How have your picks held up?
Brian: I am still bullish, especially with unopened packs. Companies like Leighton Sheldon’s Vintage Breaks are breaking a lot. There’s not enough. Every day it’s diminishing.
David: What will the market look like in three to five years?
I think it’s going to mature at just as fast a rate if even faster than the last two years. There will be more need for material for the market. There will be a lot more fractionalization. The value will be greater. Old school card shows are returning. There are more want list services and card trackers on the Internet. Sports collectibles headlined by high grades will become liquid and more like assets and commodities. Values will increase.
David: The infusion of younger collectors/investors spells good news.
Brian: At shows, I see guys in their 20s wearing polo shirts and Gucci loafers, They can have $500,000 to a million dollars.
And there are younger kids from 16 to 19 years-old asking for high end cards. These kids are trading NFTs.
They start small, then make one deal after the next. I have seen savvy kids with a million dollars. They are trading this Mahomes for that Kobe Bryant. It can be done. There are even young guys with two million dollars. They know it’s cards, but they don’t view it as cards. They view it as the hustle. They are just hustling. I think it’s great. It’s fantastic!