In hindsight, the Junk Wax Era was both a low point and a high point for the hobby. The general population was convinced of the investment potential of sports cards, demand increased, and manufacturers went into overdrive to capitalize on it. Upper Deck, Topps, Fleer, and other card producers of the time heavily overproduced cards.
These cards were so massively overproduced that when Collectors Edge published production numbers for their 1992 football set, they did so to show how rare their cards were compared to other cards. The numbers? 100,000 of each card and 25 million cards in the set. During the junk wax era, those were “rare” numbers, as Donruss put out about 1.13 billion cards in its 1992 Donruss series.
This continued until about 1994, when the companies realized that flooding the market with more cards than people was not a good idea. Asides from flooding the market with cards, the quality of the cards dropped drastically in a rush to put out as many series as possible.
Naturally, most cards released during the junk wax era were worthless. However, not every series released was ‘junk.’ Few series stand out that have held their value admirably. At the top of that very short list is the 1991 Topps Desert Shield set. It’s one of the more prized baseball sets, and collectors still pay a premium for complete sets several decades later.
This article shall review what makes this set special and why it has held its value so well.
The 1991 Topps Desert Shield set was produced by Topps exclusively for military personnel deployed to fight the Gulf War in the Middle East. The set was Topps’ way of honoring our troops and giving them a tiny piece of home. Several million packs of football cards had been distributed to the soldiers by Pro Set had, and Topps was not to be left out.
Each service member was to receive a 15-card pack. The 1991 Topps Desert Shield baseball set was identical to the 1991 Topps baseball but for the gold foil Desert Shield emblem (a palm tree and shield) on the front player section of the cards.
It was similar to Topp’s 1991 set because Topps rushed the production and shipping of the cards. As a result, they didn’t have the time to create new designs for a truly distinct set. According to Ken Liss, a Topps spokesperson, Topps produced the cards quickly with a short shipping timeframe. Hence Topps decided to convert a set already in production.
Several boxes didn’t reach their Middle East destination as they were left in military bases in the United States. Unlike several sets released in the junk wax era, cards in this set were understandably hard to find. Several decades later, this set has continued generating collectors’ interest.
The 1991 Topps Desert Shield set is extremely popular, and complete sets are selling for a premium. It has stood out from the pack for a set that is part of the junk wax era and performs admirably well with other baseball sets.
The reason for this popularity and increased value is threefold.
Made exclusively for troops stationed in the Middle East, Topps didn’t produce many Desert Shield cards. Experts estimate that Topps produced only about 6313 of each card. While these numbers are not “rare” today, companies made cards in the hundreds of thousands during the junk wax era.
Additionally, released in support of troops fighting in the Gulf War, the 1991 Topps Desert Shield holds significant historical importance. Complete sets were not issued, and the cards were never sold in the retail market. To have a full set, you’d have to hunt down the cards individually. This adds to the scarcity and cost of complete sets.
Indeed, most of these cards never made their way to the Middle East. They were put back into circulation after seemingly sitting in a military base warehouse for a while. However, most of these cards did make it to the troops fighting the Gulf War. Most of the soldiers weren’t collectors and swiftly discarded their cards. There are reports of soldiers tossing their cards into the fire for warmth. As expected, the majority of these cards did not make it into the market.
The few soldiers who were collectors were short on supplies to properly store the cards over their campaign. The cards were shoved in duffle bags and pockets rather than top loaders or trading card boxes. As a result, most cards that did make it into circulation were not in decent condition.
These factors help explain why a set from the junk was era is one of the more prized baseball sets to date.
Value of the series in comparison to other releases from the time
The 1991 Topps Desert Shield Baseball cards are rare compared to other junk-era releases. This rarity and the factors listed above ensure that this set stands clear of other 1991 series. A raw ungraded set sold for $3,000 last year, while a PSA 10 set sold for $106,000 in 2018. An unopened box of 36 packs fetched $30,000 in 2020.
However, how well does the set perform compared to other Topps 1991 series? Let’s see.
|Set||Complete base set||Top card|
|1991 Topps base set||$19||Chipper Jones Rookie Card PSA 10 ($76)|
|1991 Topps Traded||$6||Ivan Rodriquez Rookie Card PSA 10 ($25)|
|1991 Topps Tiffany||$1,000||Chipper Jones Rookie Card PSA 9|
|1991 Topps Desert Shield||$11,500||Chipper Jones Rookie Card PSA 10|
The value of Topps Desert Shield outperforms all other Topps releases of 1991, including its premium Topps Tiffany series. Topps Tiffany was Topps high-end series, and it had an even smaller print run than Desert Shield. It advertised a 4,000 print run compared to Desert Shields 7000. The price comparison shows just how valuable the Topps Desert Shield set is.
Asides from Chipper Jones, the most sought-after rookie, various Desert Shield cards command incredible value while their counterparts from other series are worthless. Some examples are Steve Avery, Jose Mesa, and Alejandro Pena, all commons which have sold for over $1,000.
Chipper Jones’s most sought-after rookie card is the only key rookie in the 1991 Topps Desert Shield set. Throughout his 19-year career, Chipper Jones piled up the awards, and it’s easy to see why his rookie cards are in such high demand.
The face of the entire set, collectors looking to purchase his cards would require pretty deep pockets. PSA 10s sells for above $10,000, with the last going for $21k last year. Even PSA 9s and 8s can easily fetch above $1,000.
Cal Ripken is a baseball legend and one of the game’s most respected players. His leadership, hard work, and outstanding skills made him one of the best shortstops ever to play baseball. His cards are amongst the hobby most collected cards.
While his Desert Shield card prices do not hold a candle to his most expensive cards, they’re still quite valuable. A PSA 10 of this card costs about $1,300. Lower grades are much more affordable as PSA 9s are valued at $300.
Amongst the top cards in this set is the Nolan Ryan “1990 Record Breaker” card. Ryan had broken CY Young’s record to become the oldest pitcher to throw a no-hitter. At 43 years and 4 months, this was no easy feat, and Topps 1991 Desert Shield card paid tribute to Ryan.
Griffey Jr. has two cards on this Desert Shield list, but his #790 dwarfs the other in value. Griffey Jr. was easily amongst the top three most famous athletes globally, and every collector wanted his cards.
An easy Hall Of Fame inductee, Griffey Jr. effortlessly crushed home runs and was loved by fans of the sport. His cards command a premium, and his Desert Shield card is no different. PSA 9s cost $1,200, and a PSA 10 would cost you nothing less than $10,000.
Kirby Puckett was, without a doubt, one of the best players of his era. A Hall of Famer, Puckett played with joy, passion and was a joy to watch. As a result of this, fans loved him, which translated to the value of his cards.
Greg Maddux was the 1900s premier pitcher and won more games than any of the games other players during the decade. He became a fan’s favorite when he helped Atlanta Braves win their first World Series since their move to Georgia.
Amongst the game’s hottest players, Mark McGwire excited fans with his constant display of incredible power. He hit 49 home runs and drove in 118 runs in his 1987 season.
His cards have held value exceedingly well, and a PSA 10 of his Desert Shield is valued at $850.
Ozzie Smith rounds up our list of top cards in the Desert Shield series. Smith was an absolute defensive master and had a fantastic range.
He got rid of the ball with lightning speed and was considered one of the game’s best shortstops. You can get a PSA 10 for $200.
However, be on the lookout for fakes in your quest for a Desert Shield card. 1991 Desert Shield is notorious for counterfeits and considered by many to be the most forged set in baseball. Here are a few ways to spot a fake Desert Shield card.
|Authentic Desert Shield Cards||Fake Desert Shield Cards|
|The bottom of the shield is slightly rounded or flat||The bottom of the shield is more pointed|
|The palm leaf bottom tip point between the "R & A" in "OPERATION"||The word "OPERATION" is slightly to the left does not align with the palm leaf|
|The leaves of the palm tree do not touch the border of the shield||The palm tree leaves touch the border of the shield|
|Coconuts are distinct||Coconuts are not distinct|
|The logo may appear to be silver or gold||Very shiny gold logos|
|Red ink on the card back glows under UV light||Red ink does not glow under UV light|
A quick review of recent sales on eBay and other online retailers shows several Desert Shield cards being bought daily. This points to one thing; the 1991 Topps Desert Shield is still popular and incredibly valuable more than 30 years after its release.
The best part? We expect this value to keep rising, especially for the undervalued top cards. While the prices of the top cards are pretty high and not affordable for most collectors, there’s another way to own a Desert Shield card. We recommend buying PSA 10s of other stars as we expect the value of Desert Shield cards to keep rising.