Is it a Card or Art? How About Both?

Investigation into Art and Sports Cards

Contributor: John Dudley

Recent sales of Wander Franco’s Topps Project 100 (P100) card sparked renewed interest in art cards. Art cards are cards that are clearly designed and developed to function both as trading cards and as pieces of art. They are a growing segment of the hobby and one it can pay to be aware of.

The intersection of art and cards has produced some gems from the start of the hobby. Check out the 1888 Goodwin Champions card to see for yourselves. Other cards, such as the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, are sought as both collectibles and as works of art. Cards have even been featured in art museums and galleries and are a permanent part of the M.O.M.A. collection. A few sets over the years have been artist-focused. Donruss Diamond kings with Dick Perez art and Upper Deck’s Ioos collection were early attempts to garner buzz by using popular artists. Other products have included sketch cards which are tiny one-of-a-kind pieces of art.

While the idea of cards as art is hardly novel, Topps upped the game with Project 2020 (P2020) by making the artist as important, if not more so, as the subject of their cards. Recruiting an eclectic mix of artists and designers to recreate 20 iconic Topps rookie cards yielded a massive set that, for a brief time, dominated the hobby. Early issues from the set sold at one point for $2000 and up, but the boom times were short-lived. It’s rare that one can pinpoint a precise moment a market collapsed, but the market came crashing down with the release of Keith Shore’s Ken Griffey Jr. card which had a print run of almost 100,000 compared to runs of 1000-2000 for the earlier sought-after issues. The market cratered, seemingly overnight, as collectors balked at that print run and eBay saw massive numbers of returns of P2020 cards.

Luckily, this boom and bust did not kill the production of art cards. Instead, Topps realized it had a smaller, but very strong market of fans that wanted art cards and Topps happily obliged them. Print runs now run in the 1000-2000 range again, but at $20 a card, they are still profitable for Topps to produce. Topps followed up P2020 with Project 70 (P70) and now again with P100. Sure, the value of these cards is not doubling daily as it did during the heady P2020 boom times, but there are still some that have done very well.

Later-issued P2020 cards and P70 introduced parallels or chase cards to the art card program. These have proven immensely popular with chase cards of popular artists like Alex Pardee commanding over $1000. In addition to parallels direct from Topps, most artists offer special limited signed and sometimes hand-embellished cards directly. Many make companion cards that go with their official Topps release that go complement the card in some way. Signed editions and limited companion cards are both attractive propositions for fans of art cards.

Volumes can be written about the development of the art card market, but before becoming too verbose here’s a quick look at five art cards that are doing well or of interest. It should be noted that while these have done well, most of the Topps art cards can be regularly found for $5 to $10. It should also be noted that the cards below are all regular issued cards and not parallels.

5 Big Selling Art Cards

1.  Mike Trout’s Ermsy card from P2020 is the first card of the set and the card that got most swept up in the P2020 gold rush. While it is no longer a 4-figure card that sells out in seconds when put up for sale, it still trades for $300-$350 which is none too shabby for a $20 card issued a couple of years ago.

2. Cal Ripken’s P2020 card by Fucci has one of the smallest print runs of the early P2020 cards and quickly developed into a must-have during the initial P2020 frenzy. The card still sells well with copies going for $300-$350.

3. Alex Pardee cards are hot in general, but his Mookie Betts card from P70 is doing very well selling for $65 even with a print run close to 5000. Pardee has a 90s aesthetic and morphs players into monsters that would’ve been at home on a 90s-era trapper keeper or folder. Collectors can not get enough of Pardee and his P70 issues have become the most popular of all the artists.

4. Ronald Acuna’s Pardee card from P70 was the world’s introduction to Pardee and arguably might be the most recognizable of all the art cards. It sells for $50 to $60. While Acuna is a star, this card is a great example of deriving value from the artist as well as the subject.

5. Wander Franco’s first P100 card by Malik Roberts is moving briskly at $40 which is amazing for a card that is not even in hand yet. While the card is doing well, don’t expect a print run bump on his next issue as Topps has capped the print runs at 3999 for P100.

Wrap Up

Is it art? The answer to that question ultimately rests with the one asking the question, but Topps has certainly made a valiant attempt to bring the art world and the card world together. Even if you find most of the issues garish, or not for you, check them out from time to time and one random one will likely speak to you. These cards, and the parallels especially, have some potential in the card market but find their way onto a lot of collectors’ favorite cards of the year list. The intersection of art and cards is a large topic that touches on myriad pertinent subjects in the hobby. Look for more on how art is revolutionizing the card world in the near future.

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