"Three hundred...three-fifty...four hundred dollars." The auctioneer's chant becomes a kind of elegy for the kid next door who buys packs of bubblegum cards with pocket change. "Thirty thousand...thirty-five thousand.... Do I hear forty thousand dollars?" Unless the kid next door happens to be Malcolm Forbes.
On this August afternoon Guernsey's, a Manhattan auction house, is selling the archives of Topps, the Brooklyn-based confectioner that is best known for selling baseball cards with its gum. On the block is everything from color transparencies of baseball-card photos to a drawing used for a Felix Mantilla rub-on baseball tattoo, from canceled checks to bound volumes of hockey cards, from Wacky Packages sticker art to original sketches for Bazooka Joe comic strips ("Herman and Mort Discuss Food," "Pesty Questions Life," etc.).
"We had 35 years of terrific one-of-a-kind stuff in our files that the public had never seen," says Norman Liss, a Topps spokesman. "Rather than let it disintegrate, we decided to offer it to collectors."
The memorabilia has drawn several thousand to the Hunter College gym during the two exhibition days before the auction. A few hundred turn out to be serious bidders. They don't seem to be driven much by nostalgia.
"It's like an archaeological dig." says Keith Olbermann, a Los Angeles TV executive whose collection of baseball cards runs to about 50,000. "I'm buying things I've only heard whispers about."
He winds up spending $12,000, mostly for uncut proof sheets that contain cards with felicitous errors and such never-issued gems as the 1977 card of Gary Matthews in a Giants uniform (he signed with the Braves as a free agent that year) and the '80 card of Andy Messersmith wearing an Angels uniform (if you don't remember what happened to Messersmith, you can look it up).
A painting of Sammy Baugh for a 1952 Bowman football card—Bowman was a chewing-gum and sports trading-card manufacturer that Topps bought out in 1955—fetches $6,000. A letter from Carl Yastrzemski's father, in which he turned down a contract with Topps until his son made the majors, goes for a relatively down-to-earth $605. Mickey Mantle's first exclusive contract with Topps brings $17,600; one of his number 7 jerseys is apparently worth $33,000. Two canceled checks signed by Mantle are sold for $2,475, and his 1960 Topps contract extension hauls in another $1,045.
"In terms of lunacy, Mantle collectors are slightly ahead of Rotisserie Leaguers," says Olbermann. "You mention the Mick and their hearts pump double-time as they reach for their wallets."
The big-ticket items from the cache are six three-by five-inch paintings of Willie Mays, Bob Feller, Roy Campanella, Whitey Ford. Jackie Robinson and Mantle, used for Topps's baseball cards in 1953, the only year paintings were used instead of photos. The glossy 196-page catalog prices them from $2,000 to $10,000. But auction buzz puts their true worth at only slightly less than van Gogh's Sunflowers, even though they are unsigned. (The portraits were painted by a number of artists, and Topps has no record of who painted which ballplayer.)
"My buddy's going to buy Mantle," says the friend of a Marlboro, Mass., coin dealer.