The article also pointed back to a 2009 interview with author Pete Williams, who profiled Upper Deck's early history and explosive business influence in the book "Card Sharks." This question from Mario (and Pete's answer) caught my eye.
Q: If given just one choice, which card would you invest in and why: a 2001 Bowman Chrome Albert Pujols autograph or a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle?
A: I would never, ever invest or even talk about investing in sports cards or memorabilia. The notion of sports memorabilia as investment is a huge misnomer and everyone who perpetrates it should be ashamed of themselves. If someone offered me one of these two cards, I’d take the Mantle. Any value the Pujols card has is manufactured by the perceived scarcity of Pujols’ signature. Last I checked, Albert is still with us and signing on a daily basis. Admittedly, Mantle appears to have signed quite a bit since his death in 1995.
In the modern age of collecting, whether you start with Fleer and Donruss in 1981 or Upper Deck in 1989, card values appear to swing with the economy or performance of individual players. Unfortunately, most don't actually swing; instead, they start at their highest point and drop, fast. Cards hidden in an unopened pack, which will be mostly "commons," are worth significantly more before you tear the foil. Most become giveaways the moment light hits them. As a buyer, you pay a premium for the fun of discovering what's unknown.
One encouraging side effect of dropping values is that most vintage cards cost much less than you think they would. Even seemingly big-time "investments" from a generation ago, like the 1975 rookie cards of George Brett or Robin Yount, now qualify as cheap. According to a search of eBay's completed auctions, most Yount RCs sell for under $15 shipped, less than a new blaster box at Target. You can also build or buy many 1970s sets for under $100, less than many new hobby boxes.
This isn't a call to flip the card market, despite my own focus on vintage stuff. After all, I could simply amass scans of old cards for free from Google Image Search and eBay. Rather, it's to frame how Topps, Upper Deck, and MLB's licensing wing promote their products as right-now investments, when history shows they have little direct influence over what will be popular another generation from now.