If you are anything like me, as soon as you get your hands on a product, you want to rip the hell out of it. But some collectors and investors are into unopened sports card wax. So they sit on it, collect, and even grade it.
But there are many collectors out there who prefer the unopened stuff. To understand this phenomenon and how to collect unopened products, we talked to world-renowned wax expert Steve Hart of the Baseball Card Exchange. Steve has been selling cards since 1976 and has become a leading expert on unopened wax in the last few years.
Maybe you have heard of the Schrödinger’s cat experiment? If so, by all means, skip this paragraph. But if you don’t: it is a thought experiment developed by a particularly sadistic Austrian mathematician. Imagine a closed box with a cat in it. As if that wasn’t bad enough, now imagine there is a small flask of poison in it. Obviously, there is a good chance the cat will end up dead. However, until we open the box, we don’t know. So as Schrödinger, for all practical purposes, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead.
What does this have to do with unopened wax? An unopened product can be more valuable than its contents until it is opened. According to the Schrödinger approach, it contains all and none of the potential cards in the set. So, if you are lucky enough to get a pack of 1986 Fleer, you are paying for the Michael Jordan rookie.
But as we all know, in most cases, you do not recoup the value of the ripped packs. That is because the most expensive cards’ potential value pushes the pack price to levels most rips can’t cover.
If you have ever bought a pack of cards, you may have noticed that they are not made of wax. The name comes from the traditional sports card packages. Of course, these weren’t made of wax either, but that old-school paper had a waxy feel to it. If you open any vintage, you know the feeling.
While at first the term was used to differentiate wax paper from other forms of packaging (such as cellos), it has since come to mean any type of unopened sports card package.
Quite often, collecting unopened wax is a form of nostalgia. That is why people usually collect the unopened product they associate with their youth.
We asked Steve what the allure of the unopened pack is? He said that “I want one of every pack. To me, it is about what the wrapper looks like. Whether there are breaks on the corners and whether any cards are showing.” He admitted that he is curious what cards are in there, but not enough to rip it.
For example, one user on Blowout Forums says, “I have been thinking about changing the direction of my collecting and focusing on unopened packs, boxes, and cases. I’m not talking about the latest releases, but stuff I remember opening as a kid. I can remember my dad bringing packs home on Fridays if I had done everything I was supposed to that week. I can remember sitting down with him and opening packs of 1990 Donruss, 1991 Fleer, 1991 Topps, and many others.”
An increasingly large number of collectors are interested in the unopened wax rather than the cards inside. As the PSA website puts it, “there is a growing number of collectors who choose to preserve the cards and the packaging, opting instead to leave the packs unopened and the cards undisturbed.”
The company uses the same grading standards
That is why PSA established a service for the authentication and grading of unopened wax. However, you should note that PSA does not grade every type of unopened card product. Here is a list of products the company grades:
Meanwhile, they do not grade:
Grading wax is handy for the authentication of wax. If the authenticators do their job right, they should guarantee that the pack has never been opened. However, it is a far more hazardous process than grading cards.
While it is not uncommon for PSA to damage cards during the grading process, it happens a good deal more with packs. Steve knows what he is talking about because he has worked as PSA’s only pack authenticator PSA has ever had.
But he has a good deal of criticism towards grading and PSA in particular. While it is not uncommon for PSA to damage cards during the grading process, it happens a good deal more with packs. Steve says, “I’m not into grading. I’ve never been into grading. In many cases, grading ruins the appeal of the packs. Even though the packs are graded a 9-10, by shoving them into the pack, it turns into a 3 or 4. The pack looked gorgeous in the front and was torn an inch or an inch and a quarter.”
I asked Steve what he thought the problem was with PSA’s process. He said he doesn’t know exactly what is going on there. However, he believes that packs are coming out looking far worse than their grades because they are being damaged after the grading. Steve believes, “the person who graded the pack handed it over to someone else. It’s not the grader but rather the person who puts it into the slab.” But he believes that the new holders PSA has been using for the last two years are an improvement and PSA customers should see less pack tearing as a result.
So beware when sending your wax to be graded. We also suggest giving a thorough eye test to any pack you buy, no matter what the grade, because a PSA 8 with an ugly tear in the back will not fetch the same price as a PSA 8 that passes the eye test.
Steve’s Baseball Exchange store offers an authentication service. If you want to make sure that a wax, cello and rack pack has not been tampered with, you can send them to the store and they will examine them. If certified as authentic by Steve, that means he believes them to be in their original packaging and that they have never been opened.
However, don’t send your 2020 National Treasures hobby box to the Baseball Card Exchange. Steve told us that they only authenticate pre-1992 boxes. Take a look at the services they offer here.
We have already discussed some of the scams and tampering that can occur when you buy unopened product. But it is worth recapping some of the dangers of purchasing unopened products, especially from untrustworthy sources (such as strangers on eBay or Facebook).
Most scams involve opening the sealed product and removing the ‘hits’ before resealing the pack with the dud cards and selling the package at a premium. This is an unscrupulous but intelligent way to take advantage of Schrödinger’s cat paradox.
We asked Steve how common the problem is. He said that while he doesn’t know, “I would bet over 50% of the non-graded cards have been tampered with. Especially something like 1986-1987 Fleer pack or 1979 Topps hockey. The temptation to do something is simply too high.” Therefore, Steve says he only buys vintage packs off eBay if they have been graded.
One last hazard is hoarding! One Blowout Forum user says collecting unopened wax took him down a dark road: “I started buying wax boxes, then got cello and rack boxes, next thing I know I was buying cases as some were super cheap. All of a sudden, I had a room full of these case boxes and realized that it wasn’t really fun to look at sealed cases.”
You need to look at vintage wax and junk wax as very different products in this regard. There are plenty of unopened packs from the junk wax era available. But, in addition, they are not worth enough for anyone to go out of their way opening and resealing.
Therefore, it is nostalgic junk wax or a more recent low to mid-end product you seek; social media and eBay are a decent bet. For example, I have seen some great deals on this Facebook group. Additionally, some collectors have reported success in posting local ads for the more common stuff. Keep in mind that the cheaper the product, the better it is to buy locally. After all, the shipping costs can amount to more than the overall worth of junk stuff.
I asked Steve where he gets his stuff, but he says he gets it all from one source that he is unwilling to divulge. Hart says, “Most of what I bought comes from the same source. Their father passed away and sold them to me little by little.” I asked how he knows the product is legitimate, and Steve answered, “do I know that they are 100% legitimate? No. But, they look pretty good to me.”
You can even get junk wax stuff in retail products. For example, the World’s Greatest Card Chase boxes include unopened wax. However, due to the inflation in prices, they become worse deals every year. For example, they used to have 14 packs in a retail box and now only sell 6 per package. However, you can still get the 14 pack versions for 30$.
For more high-end stuff, as we have seen, it can be a bit complicated and dangerous. But luckily there are some solutions.
Nothing is a 100% guarantee. Fakes and tampered products will always slip through any set of controls. The problem is arguably worse with sealed products. And as we discussed, grading presents its own set of problems.
However, we put together the best tips for avoiding getting scammed.
Steve says that sometimes when he looks at a pack, there is a general sense that something is wrong. “Pay attention to anything that sends up a red flare.” But, he says, you should not be afraid to walk away when you get a bad feeling about a pack.
It is not too hard to imagine unopened products from the junk wax era surviving till now. But how about the ancient stuff? Some unopened stuff has been sitting around for 70-80 years. So how does it turn up unopened?
We asked Steve, and he has an interesting answer: “I’ve gone to shows and had people walk in, in the Boston show; about seven years ago, a guy walked in and showed me pictures of unopened boxes of 1956 and one was 1957. It was in a barn where they stored things. They kept getting pushed farther and farther back and were forgotten.”
Hart says there are still vintage finds out there. But, he explained, “Things are still in attics, and things are still in barns. Older collectors and people are dying off, and then they show up for the first time in years when they sell off their estates.”
While usually, our staff picks out the best investments, we bow to Steve’s expertise on this one. I asked him for a good investment for high-end investors and low-end ones.
If you have a lot of funds to invest, Steve does not hesitate for a moment. “Get vintage basketball. It is way hotter than baseball, football, and certainly hockey.” Which packs? “1948 Bowman, 1957 Topps. More add and affordable is anything from 1961 Fleer and up. The 1970’s pack are affordable. Even though it’s gone up quite a bit.”
For investors with less liquidity, Steve recommends investing in junk wax. He says, “1980 and up, I would look for vending cases and wax cases from that period that you can pick up and throw up in the attic and forget about as an investment. Fleer basketball in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Those sets have great rookies. A box of, let’s say, 1990-91 Fleer was junk wax has probably gone up to 100$-150$. People are very interested in that. There are a lot of rookies in a lot of those cases.”
Sealed wax maintains a high price because it potentially has the best cards in the set. Therefore, it can be worth collecting and present a good investment. However, it offers its own unique set of challenges in terms of authentication and grading. Keep in mind that while everyone seems to have unopened Select 2020, no one is making new, unopened vintage products, and there are fewer every year.