What do we mean by “rare”?

“Rare.” It’s a word that gets tossed around often in vintage circles. Is rarity in the eye of the beholder? Is it set-dependent, or some kind of absolute? If only 10 known examples of a card exist, is it rare? How about 100? 1,000?

In this post, I’m not even pretending to care about the “manufactured scarcity” of 1/1 modern cards, or the sham label “eBay 1/1!” that people like to use. Instead, I’m trying to think though what we should mean in vintage circles when we call something “rare.” At the least, I think it is useful to circle the wagons around some potentially unethical uses of the term.

In other words, if we can’t agree on what rarity is, maybe we can at least agree on some aspects of what it’s not.

Rarity vs. Scarcity

For starters maybe it helps to think about the difference between rarity and scarcity. “Rarity” is more about supply. “Scarcity” is more about demand.

Example 1: a modern 1/1 of a no-name relief pitcher is rare (by design), but not really scarce. This player likely has multiple 1/1 cards to collect, and the disco-ball-candy-cane-orange-prizm-refractor is not necessarily of any more appeal than any other 1/1 for this player.

Example 2: Contrary to popular belief, a 1952 Topps Mantle is not a rare card–there are thousands of them graded (almost 3,000 in PSA’s pop report alone), and likely thousands more raw. But the card is scarce in that the demand obviously outpaces supply by a wide margin.

Valuable, yes. Rare, no.

Debatable Uses of “Rare”

There are many uses of the term “rare” I find to be questionable, or at least worthy of debate:

  • Referring to a card as “low pop” in a given grade for half grades. “Pop 1 7.5” is misleading if there are 1,000 8’s. Half grades just aren’t assigned as often.
  • “Pop 3 at CGC” (for example) is misleading because CGC has not been grading sports cards for long, and is not a prominent vintage grader anyway.
  • A card can have a low graded population just because no one cares to grade it in the first place.
  • “Rare–none for sale on eBay” can also be more about scarcity (i.e. no demand) than rarity. Ample supply but no market means few if any listings.

This Melky Mesa 1/1 sold for $17.

Rarity, Scarcity, and Value

The first example above is why rarity does not necessarily equate to value. As exemplified in case 2, value is more driven by scarcity which as a term better captures the supply / demand dynamic. There might be loads of ’52 Mantles, but there are many more buyers than sellers, and the market is never flooded with them because it is a “hold” card for many owners.

But let’s agree that a 1952 Mantle is not a rare card, however we decide to define the term. Go to the National and some dealers have 10 (or more). It’s nearly impossible to amass 10 examples of a truly rare card.

Value is driven more by scarcity. When a modern player bursts onto the scene (Elly De La Cruz last year for example), we all know that his First Bowman Chrome is not a rare card. But since everyone is flocking to his cards, even base cards can become momentarily scarce (like toilet paper during a pandemic, but maybe not quite as useful) (on second thought, base paper modern cards could probably be used as toilet paper in an emergency).

But the bottom line is that in order for rarity to also result in “value,” at least 2 people have to care. Rarity + demand = value. Rarity + obscurity = $17.

The damand side of the equation is why Topps flagship vintage, which is generally not rare, will always hold more value than most less common oddball, regional issues. Flagship is far from rare, but there is just much more demand. Side note: this is what makes collecting oddball stuff fun! You still have to hunt for it–but when you find it, you can afford the price tag.

The Power of Lore

The T206 Wagner is inarguably the most famous card in the hobby. But the famed T206 is not Wagner’s most rare card. As far as I know, that honor goes to the 1917 Silk Sox. Never heard of it? That’s where the power of lore comes in.

circa 1917 Honus Wagner Doherty Silk Sox card

Cards become valuable when they become famous. Typically, this is because of the status of the player (no doubt, Babe and Mick have status in the hobby because they were all-time greats). But a little lore doesn’t hurt. Would the T206 Wagner hold the same value without the “story” (probably false, and challenged least by later cards that show explicit tobacco use!) of Wagner being opposed to tobacco use? Would Babe carry the same premium without the alleged “called shot”? Or, would the ’52 Mantle hold the exact same appeal without the story (probably myth) of Topps dumping so many ’52’s into the river?

Why don’t we tell the “story” of the ’52 Mantle being a double-printed card? Because that’s no fun!

The hobby will likely never arrive on a singular definition of “rarity”–and that’s OK. But fun debates hopefully help us get closer to a common understanding of rarity. It is also important to understand when and how the term “rare” is being used to deceive or manipulate.

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