Insider Trading – Autographed Cards

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Friday, January 9th – There’s a question I get asked quite often: Does an artist’s autograph raise or lower the value of a card? The answer is more complicated than you might think! To find out my answer, read this week’s edition of Insider Trading!

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Insider Trading! In today’s column, I’m going to answer some questions pertaining to autographed cards. Let’s start out with a question that I get pretty frequently from customers:

I have a card signed by the artist. Does that raise or lower the value of my card?
I get asked this question constantly, and the answer is no and yes. How’s that for evasive? The short answer is that there are circumstances where an autographed card raises the value of that card, but the majority of the time, it can hurt that card’s value. Let me explain each side thoroughly!

How an artist’s autograph can hurt the value of a card:
Chalk this one up to experience. Once upon a time, a young Ben Bleiweiss was in charge of taking care of customer exchanges at this here StarCityGames.com. The most common complaint I received? Someone had ordered a Near Mint version of a card, but received a signed copy of that card, and didn’t consider that card to be Near Mint. Often the person would not realize it was a signature (some artists have a pretty sloppy signature) and thought that their cards were just scribbled on.

I would explain that the writing was the artist’s signature, and offer to exchange the card for a non-signed copy if the customer still didn’t want a signed copy. More often than not, they would end up exchanging the card. We stopped selling signed cards through the website for a while, because the customer complaints were becoming more-than-weekly occurrences.

Eventually, we decided that artist-signed cards would start as Slightly Played condition cards; if the card was signed and Near Mint or Slightly Played, we classified it as Slightly Played. If it was signed and Heavily Played, we’d put it in our Heavily Played inventory, of course. This cleared up a ton of the customer issues, though to this day we still have some customers who are unhappy if they receive autographed cards, so we’ve yet to completely solve the problem.

But wait! Artists are popular! I’ve seen signed cards sell for more than non-signed copies of the same card. What gives?
It’s true; Artists are a draw (pun intended) for any well-run event. If you put two identical events side-by-side, with the only difference being that one event has an artist in attendance and the other does not, the one with the artist will bring in more people. Exactly how many people I wouldn’t really be able to say, but it’s enough that it makes a slight difference.

It’s also true that from time-to-time, signed versions of a card will be worth more than non-signed versions. However, this is not a rule, nor an exception; it’s the golden rule of collectibles in general:

A collectible is worth as much or as little as someone is willing to pay for it.

This applies to almost anything in life, because a capitalist system is subject to the laws of supply and demand. There are factors absent in the price of a semi-rare collectible. For instance, the value of a car is partly determined by the cost to manufacture; the cost of the actual materials involved in physically making the car (metal, electronics, plastics, fabrics). Without factoring in labor costs (design, manufacture, advertising), a car should at least be worth the sum of its base components. A Magic card? Not so much – objectively, Black Lotus and Pearled Unicorn cost the same to manufacture, but obviously Supply and Demand (outside of the value of the physical materials used to construct a Black Lotus – paper, ink, a thin sheet of anti-counterfeiting metal in the center of the card) kick in, and Black Lotus has value.

There might be someone out there who is just dying, dying to get a signed copy of 9th Edition Sea’s Claim. Who knows why? Maybe this person is putting together a signed set of 9th Edition and this is the last card they need to finish that set. Maybe the person likes artist Thomas Gianni and this is the last Thomas Gianni card missing from their collection. For whatever reason, this person has been looking and looking for that Gianni-signed 9th Edition Sea’s Claim.

Let’s say, for arguments sake, that we get an e-mail from this person, asking if we have a signed copy of 9th Edition Sea’s Claim. Let’s say, again for arguments sake, that we do in fact have this card.

So what is this card worth?

Well, to 99.9999% of Magic Players, I’d venture in the range of $0.01 to $0.10 – they’d view a 9th Edition Sea’s Claim as a bulk common, and not a great one at that. If a particular player needed a Sea’s Claim, they wouldn’t particularly care if it were signed or not; in fact, more people are probably looking to put together NM sets of 9th who wouldn’t want a signed Sea’s Claim than those who want the card to actually play with.

But to this one person, mystery person X who so desperately wanted a signed Sea’s Claim, it’s worth a lot more than $0.10. What would I charge for this card? $1? $5? $10? Would they easily be able to obtain another signed copy of Sea’s Claim in the future (maybe make a friend who would be at a Thomas Gianni-attended tournament?) If we were to carry random signed Commons that are unlikely to have an audience, would our processing costs (acquiring the card, sorting a bevy of autographed cards by set, alphabetizing them) give us justification for a higher price tag?

There isn’t a hard-and-fast answer to this question, but the general answer would be the golden rule – this signed 9th Edition Sea’s Claim is worth whatever this person wants to pay for it. If they felt that $5 would make them happy, great! If they felt like $1, sure, but remember; the lower the price, the less worth it is for us (as a business) to hold onto this type of card, and the less likely we’ll have it when somebody is looking for it.

Are you saying that I shouldn’t get my cards signed?
Generally, if you’re concerned about the value of your cards above and beyond any other consideration, then no, you should not get your cards signed. You especially should not get your card signed if you’re thinking about getting a card professionally graded, as this will significantly hurt the value of your card to other people.

The key here, though, is the value to other people. Getting an autographed signed is often an intensely personal experience; you travel to an event, you meet an artist, maybe swap a story or two, have some banter while your cards are getting signed. It’s a happening; neither you nor the artist is an automation – you are both human beings living the human experience. The autograph, in this case, becomes a bond between you and that artist.

If you plan on keeping the card for yourself, then an autograph can be invaluable. It’s hard to distinguish any one copy of a card from any other copy; the majority of Sarkhan Vols look just like every other Sarkhan Vol. Getting that Sarkhan Vol autographed, though, adds personal value to the card. You can show them off to your friends, and relive the experience of attending the event where you got the card signed, maybe bring up other memories associated with that signed card.

So yes, you should absolutely get your card signed! One of the main attractions of Magic is the social interaction. I never made much money playing on the Pro Tour. But despite the lack of a financial gain, the life experience I took away from being on the Tour, travelling the World, meeting people who will be with me the rest of my life; priceless.

As a quick aside before I conclude my article for this week – artist altered cards are an entirely different subject. These tend to pull in money beyond the baseline value of a card, when done well. However, most artists charge some sort of fee to alter cards on-site (or through the mail), so you are likely going to have to invest some money if you’re looking to turn around an altered card for a profit. I’ll be talking about artist-altered cards in the future column, but the topic bore mentioning since we’re talking about artists and cards!

That’s all the time I have for this week! Join me next week when I tackle a highly-controversial topic that is sure to bring a good amount of debate. Until then, may you live the life of Magic!

Ben Bleiweiss