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Frozen Fire

Set Collecting - My Story & Advice

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As most of you know I started out here on Sports Card Forum as a player collector, with Marian Gaborik as my main focus. I was starting to gather up some really nice high-end pieces, but I found myself devoting too much time and energy to one player when deep down I wanted to collect all my favorite players. I made the decision to drop the Gaborik collection and take up autograph collecting. Since then I haven't looked back.

I started picking up autographs for my collection, but in particular I was drawn to the 2007/08 Sweet Shot Puck Signings set. The cards feature bright colors and beautiful autographs signed in silver ink on top of a black puck surface. Some of the first cards I picked up from the set were big name players like Bobby Orr, Sidney Crosby, and Gordie Howe. After seeing how great these cards looked together and already having some of the bigger names I decided, with some pushing from a buddy of mine, to attempt completing the huge 80+ card set.

At first the set looked very daunting, with a checklist weighing in at 82 cards from the Upper Deck website. I also took a look at a Beckett issue to get an idea of some of the card values, when I noticed some of them were not priced due to scarcity. Okay, I thought, some of these are going to be pretty tough.

I began hauling in cards at a hectic pace, at one point pulling in 23 cards in a two-week span. In the meantime I was routinely searching eBay for the "short-printed" cards and started to realize how scarce they really were. I already had the Marian Gaborik short-print card from my player collecting days so that was a bit of a head start, but I had a long way to go.

It was also around this point I started to notice there were cards appearing that were not on the Upper Deck checklist. This made the task even tougher, because without a dependable list to go by how could I really know how many cards were out there?

What Upper Deck was doing was leaking out unlisted cards as redemption replacements, most likely because the players got their autographs in late and didn't make the pack-out deadline or final checklist. Normally these cards are packed out in the form of redemptions, but being as the only redemption card in the set was Sidney Crosby I began to suspect they seeded his redemptions out to help sell the product and left the other late arrivals out to be seeded out later. This product has been out for almost a year, and to this day Upper Deck continues to release unlisted cards into the market.

Tony Esposito
An unlisted short-print not seeded into packs.

To make matters worse this set is not serial-numbered, so there is no way of knowing exactly how many copies of a given card are out there. This puts a lot of pressure on set collectors, myself included, to grab these rare cards while you can just in case you don't get the opportunity again down the road. Upper Deck is very tight-lipped about print run information sometimes, and I was not able to get any numbers out of them or even confirm if certain cards existed or not.

As if the short-print chase wasn't frustrating enough, the Upper Deck silence stressed me out even more. There are two cards rumored to exist, Dickie Moore and Jean Beliveau, and although I have never seen either of them I can not get anybody at Upper Deck to confirm their existence for me. This frustrates me to no end, a simple yes or no answer is all I need to determine whether or not I need to be chasing these cards or not and they won't even give me that much. Anyway, this is a rant for another day...

I continued to steadily acquire more and more cards for my set, mostly common but a few tough ones here and there. I was lucky enough to track down and acquire short-printed or unlisted cards at opportune times and week by week my list kept getting shorter and shorter.

Out of the blue I was contacted by a member on another trading site who had the Wayne Gretzky autograph available and he offered me the chance to deal for it before it hit eBay. As is the case the majority of the time, Wayne Gretzky is usually the most expensive and one of the toughest cards to find in any set. When I was approached by this member I made the best of my opportunity and we were able to reach a part-trade/part-cash deal which saw me add a major addition to not only my set but my collection in general.

Wayne Gretzky
The cornerstone of my collection.

The closer you get to completing a set the more determined you should get. You need to keep pushing, keep searching, and take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. But no matter how determined you are, sometimes you need help.

I wouldn't have been able to come anywhere near as close to completing the set as I am without help from many great traders scattered all over the internet. A handful of my short-print acquisitions are the result of collectors opening up their personal collections and helping me out, for which I am very grateful.

As it stands right now I have 84 cards in hand and I am missing two known cards to complete my set, and I will continue to hunt them to the far reaches of the internet to put this set to bed. If you would like to see my set progress and scans of each card, check out my user page here.

Being somewhat new to collecting in general, I have especially learned a lot about set collecting during the time I have been working on this set. Here are several things to consider for anybody who is thinking about attempting an autograph set for the first time:

1) How Many Cards Are In The Set?
Some autograph sets may contain around thirty cards, while others could have as many as ninety or more on the checklist. Obviously the larger the set the tougher it will be to get all the cards, but on the positive side many of them will most likely be lower-tier players used to round out the checklist and thus should be easier and more affordable to acquire.

2) How Strong Is The Checklist?
Every set is bound to have superstar players on the checklist, but some may have more than others so make sure to review the list and decide if you would like to attempt a top-heavy set or maybe go for something more balanced. You need to like the players you are about to collect, so don't take on a set just for a handful of players.

3) Is The Set Serial-Numbered?
This is a strong factor to consider, and will make a big difference as to how you go about collecting your set. Sets that are not serial numbered usually have varying print runs, and there is no way of knowing how many of each card exist unless you are lucky enough to get numbers from the manufacturer. Some may be very common, and others extremely limited, so be prepared to chase down cards with very few copies in circulation. If you do choose a serial-numbered set you can pace yourself, knowing that there should be a given number of cards out there and you are bound to come across more as the set progresses. Some sets may be numbered to 100 copies or more, some may be a bit more limited, but make sure to choose one with a fair number of cards so you know there will be plenty of options.

4) Stay Within Your Budget
High-end products often result in high-end prices and more limited print runs, so don't take on such sets if you are not willing to spend the money needed to get the cards. Do some market research beforehand and find out which sets fit your price range.

5) Is The Set From An Established Product?
Flagship sets like SP Authentic Sign of The Times and Ultimate Signatures tend to attract a larger following then more obscure sets. You will have competition for mostly any set, but make sure you know what you are getting into if you decide to do a set that has a reputation for being popular.

6) Start Early
If you know a product is about to be released with a set you would really like to attempt it is best to start collecting it early while the initial rush is on. Dealers will break large amounts of new products and you will see the market flooded with new cards, give it a couple of weeks to let prices level out then start picking up as many as you can. Waiting too late can come back to bite you especially once people realize what the short-print cards are and by then it's too late to find them.

7) Know Your Checklist
When a product launches there is a large saturation of cards on the market, and it's easy for unlisted cards to slip through the cracks. If a checklist is available before release get to know it, the more you know about the cards in the set the more likely it is you will pick out any unlisted ones and get them for lower prices.

8) Know Your Short-Prints
This isn't always easy to do, especially if you start collecting the set soon after it's release. Sometimes the company will volunteer short-print information, other times it will not. The best thing to do when no short-print information is available is to keep a very close eye on the market and flag any cards that seem less common then others. If you see a dozen copies of many cards and only one of another then it could potentially be a short-print and may be wise to grab while you can. The common ones can wait, you may not have a chance at many others for a long time after the rush is over. By the time price guides release their listings and you realize some cards are too scarce to be priced it may be too late and other collectors will be on to it too. You can also use recent history as a means to guess which cards are short-prints. If a player doesn't sign much to begin with or is a short-print in other sets it stands to reason he may be a short-print in your set as well. Young players tend to sign as many cards as they can because the extra money is tempting to them, but veteran or retired players who have already made their livings may not feel it is worth it to sit down and sign hundreds of cards or stickers. As a general rule of thumb it is best to assume that retired, veteran, or superstar players will have signed less cards then young or current stars.

9) Cooperation Goes A Long Way
It never hurts to form some alliances when collecting in any form, set collecting is no different. Find other people who collect the same set as you and get to know them, you could be surprised how much you could help each other. Collectors working together can make life a whole lot easier, and also save both sides money by avoiding bidding wars when you both want the same card. Offer to take turns picking up cards, and help each other find cards the other still needs. I have acquired many big additions for my set thanks to this type of approach, and I am a firm believer in teamwork when it comes to collecting. Taking a cutthroat approach to collecting can help you make enemies and also cost you more money in the long run.

10) Keep Looking!
You need to spend a fair amount of time searching for the cards you need, especially when it comes to eBay. You never know when a card you need may appear and be snatched up by someone else without you ever knowing. Do advanced searches, search item title and description, search by player name, search by set name, basically search for anything related to your set as some listings may not be as clearly defined as others. For example, when searching for my Puck Signings I will do a search for "puck auto", this could (and has) turned up vague listings that I would not have found by simply searching "Sweet Shot Puck Signings". The broader you search the more likely it is you'll catch hidden listings, and you'll also have the advantage of limited exposure for competitors as well. Besides searching eBay you can also do Photobucket searches, which is a good way of finding other people with cards available that may not be on eBay. The downside to searching Photobucket is you can not contact the account holders directly, so unless the username on the account matches a member on a site like Sports Card Forum or an eBay member you may not be able to reach that person. It also doesn't hurt to continuously call out for the cards you need on as many trade sites as you can find, to reach as many collectors as possible. Look around, ask questions, and talk to other collectors about the set and whether or not they have seen certain cards to gather the most information you can.

11) Use Snipes
I strongly recommend signing up for an eBay sniping service such as SmartSnipe.com. Basically what these services do is use your eBay account to bid on your behalf seconds before a listing ends. The benefit to bidding so close to the end of the auction is the fact that other bidders don't have time to react and counter-bid. Say there is a card listed and somebody bids $5, you are willing to pay up to $15 for the card so you set your sniping service to bid $15 for you right before the auction ends. Since you didn't place a bid during the auction the other bidder thinks he may be the only one after the card so he would be less inclined to raise his bid. By the time he sees your last-second bid of $15 it is too late for him to outbid you. While this method still depends on your bid being the highest, you have the element of surprise working in your favor. By bidding often throughout the duration of an auction you are only raising the price further and further. Additionally, the more time bidders have to think about what they want to spend the more likely they are to raise their max bids and make it tougher and more expensive to win. There is nothing illegal about sniping, and it is no different then you putting the bid in yourself at the last second except you can have the service do it for you in the event you are away from the computer when the auction is due to end. What I sometimes do is set my snipe for the maximum price I am willing to pay, then place an early bid on the auction for below half of that price. If the other bidder outbids me, and I don't bid again, then he may think he has beaten me and becomes more comfortable with his bid. My snipe then comes in to save the day in the end. It is not a perfect system, and you can still lose auctions if you don't bid or snipe high enough, but every advantage counts when using eBay.

I hope these tips will help any aspiring set collectors out there as much as they've helped me. I thought I was crazy taking on the Puck Signings set after the initial hype had died down and less singles were on the market, but using these strategies got my set to where it is today and I'm very happy with what I've been able to accomplish in roughly six months.

If anybody would like to chat about set collecting or tell me stories about their projects feel free to drop me a line!

Scotty Bowman
My newest short-print, after a long hunt.


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