Why the term True Collector is dangerous to the hobby

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By Ryan Cracknell | Hobby Editor | Commentary

I see the term true collector thrown around the hobby regularly.

And while I get the sentiment most are getting at — I really do — it’s also a dangerous term for the modern hobby.

Who Are These True Collectors That You Speak Of?

Usually when I see someone talking about true collectors, they’re referring to end-users who buy for their enjoyment. These true collectors have little interest in selling or making money off their cards. It’s really about collecting in the purest sense. And there’s nothing wrong with that, right?

Absolutely not. I put myself in that boat. But how we present it can be problematic.

Often when I see someone say they’re a “true collector,” it’s in response to something they’re not a fan of. Intentional or not, it’s like they’re talking down to those who are selling cards or those who chase after the hot cards from premium brands.

Why should what we collect or how we collect determine whether or not we’re worthy?

The person who buys strictly for enjoyment is just as much a collector as the massive case breaker who shreds tons of product and ends up selling 99 percent of what they pull. Shop owners can be collectors too, even if they’re primary focus is maintaining and growing a business.

Why Semantics Matter

At it’s most literal, if you’re a living person who collects something, you’re a true collector. You’re real, not imaginary. Now if you were to tell me that Encyclopedia Brown wasn’t a true collector, I’d have to agree with you. He’s made up and, therefore, not real. Sorry, Encyclopedia Brown but you can’t be a true collector.

Few are going to argue that the world of sports cards has gotten smaller. There are fewer collectors, fewer shops and fewer manufacturers. It’s still big business, just not like it was 25 years ago. It’s more of a niche than a mass pastime. Sports cards have evolved and so have collectors and their motivations to collect.

More than even, we need to be accepting of each other. This doesn’t mean every collector need to put a bumper sticker on the back of the family car or huddle around a campfire and roast marshmallows together.

We collect in a time when there’s more choice than ever when it comes to the types of products. Exclusives have made the number of companies in any given sport smaller but all are making products targeting different groups. If you like building sets, each sport has at least a couple products. Like autographs? There’s no shortage of those. Prefer the heroes from the past versus today’s? That’s taken care of too. Want to try out some high-end set that’s limited and pricey? Consider it covered.

And here’s the catch — not every product is meant for you.

Accept it. Embrace it. Let others do the same.

Diversity Rules

Up until the early 1990s, it was possible to build master sets of every major release. Then inserts started coming into play more and it got more difficult. Product lines continued to expand while print runs shrunk. Technically, it still might be possible to collect every card out there. Realistically, it’s not. And I’m not sure why anyone would want to.

With evolving collecting styles and budgets, manufacturers responded. So now we have a couple of products that cost $1 a pack at release and others topping $500 or even $1,000. That’s a big difference.

The way we get our cards has changed even more. Fifty years ago, it was about heading to the corner store. Then a few card shows and mail-order ads started popping up. Dedicated shops followed. With the Internet, that evolution has grown into more auctions, online storefronts with international reach and the concept of group breaking.

Rather than looking down on one end of the hobby, we need to be more accepting of each other.

What I choose to collect or not collect is based on my interests, what’s out there and my budget. It’s personal. I suspect there are many out there who have similar preferences but wouldn’t expect anyone to have the same style.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

The amount of bickering and talking down I see in the hobby is one of the saddest things about the hobby. I’ve often thought that it’s going to be this sort of thing that might one day lead me to not want to collect cards anymore, not the products.

My guess is that there are plenty of people out there who have walked away because of the fighting. Even when you’re not involved in a dispute, to constantly seeing grown people accusing one another, jumping to conclusions or trying to take advantage of each other isn’t fun. It gets tiring fast. If collecting is a hobby for you, no matter the reasons, there needs to be some semblance of fun attached to it.

To me, the term true collector creates an “us and them” kind of atmosphere. It’s divisive and dismissive. The phrase makes a judgement call that some types of collecting are the right way and all others are wrong.

It’s important that we come together more as a community of collectors. That doesn’t mean overlook problems. That doesn’t mean changing the way you choose to collect or spend your money. It’s simply about accepting that different people collect for different reasons. They might like the team you loathe. They may sell a lot. Some out there are going to collect for different reasons than yourself. But if it’s not doing any harm, why shouldn’t we be happy for them?

No matter what you collect, how much you spend or how much you sell (or don’t sell), it’s important that collectors find ways to get along rather than drive each other away.

The products out there might be segmented but we don’t have to be. There’s enough room for all of us to be true collectors.

When you click on links to various merchants on this site, like eBay, and make a purchase, this can result in this site earning a commission.

Ryan Cracknell

A collector for much of his life, Ryan focuses primarily on building sets, Montreal Expos and interesting cards. He's also got one of the most comprehensive collections of John Jaha cards in existence (not that there are a lot of them). Got a question, story idea or want to get in touch? You can reach him by email and through Twitter @tradercracks.

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  1. Mike Pereira 5 October, 2015 at 18:01

    Very good heart felt article. I hope we have more articles about the hobby that are able to have both sides examined. I would love to hear from the manufactures side of the business about the hobby and reasoning behind their products and decisions from the past and future. I just think there are some real problems that are not discussed openly enough that I believe many collectors what answers to but are not able to get any.

    Here’s hoping beckett goes behind just advertising manufactures products and helps collectors find answers and insight into the hobby. I believe if I had a better understanding of the hobby and product’s pro and cons I would feel more comfortable. Sometimes I think collectors need someone other than a manufacture’s rep to tell us why a certain product is worth so or so much when compared to its other products or competition.

  2. Robert Braxton 5 October, 2015 at 18:28

    I enjoyed the article. That being said, … it’s (technically overkill, or over-analysis, whatever).

    A ‘true collector’ is an accurate phrase. Because it means just what it implies, i.e. ‘COLLECTOR’.
    If you could sell everything you own for a huge profit, but you still refuse to sell more than a handful (because let’s face it, 4 or fewer isn’t exactly a collection; I’ve got 4 pieces of lint in my pocket right now, that don’t mean I collect lint), then you are a genuine-bona-fide collector.

    No offense to the ‘flippers’, after all there is no denying the financial backbone is made up of largely these “collectors”. My only complaint (ever really) is listening to that group (which 90% of the post’ers here belong to) declare what the industry should do, and which products are best. !@#! You have no deep interest in holding on to ANY of your purchases permanently, and I’m supposed to lend you credence as an ‘authority’ on the subject? I don’t think so.

    • Ryan Cracknell 5 October, 2015 at 21:15

      Yes — anyone who collects is a “collector” and because they’re real “true collector.” However, I see the term tossed around in a way that is putting down other collectors who might buy different stuff or buy and sell. That’s the danger I was trying to get at — using the term to create division when we should be looking more at the opposite.

  3. Kerry Orton 5 October, 2015 at 20:57

    I am not sure what drove you to do this article: was it personal experience, watercooler talk, or just a feeling? No matter the motivation, I agree. This ‘bickering and finger-pointing’ society has crept into every crevice of our lives; even card collecting. I am particular about what I collect (to keep) but will nearly always offer any autographs I find in a box up for grabs in a trade. This is against the grain, but nobody has publicly made negative comments toward me for this ‘weirdness’. On the other hand, I often cringe when I see another trader with only cards in excess of $5 up for trade, because I like to collect sets (including inserts). So, whatever the differences between card collectors, I think respect and acceptance between athletes should be our example to follow.

  4. Ken 5 October, 2015 at 21:04

    While I don’t use the term “true collector,” I’d like to think I use “collector” is a positive sense when discussing the hobby. It’s usually after reading people rip a product for not having the right kinds of things that will sell or be popular (the right players, inserts, etc.). That’s when I say, “I will buy the product because I like the design, but then again, I’m a collector and not [necessarily] in it for the money.”

  5. David D 5 October, 2015 at 21:46

    I have 9.8million trading cards. I am a true collector! As an educator for 37 years, I have passed out thousands of trading cards to my students for getting their work in on time, getting an “A” on a test, or just showing improved effort. I can honestly say that I gave away dozens and dozens of Jordan rookie cards, because his hobby “value” was not felt at the time. But, that is ok, because many of my students became lifetime “collectors.”
    I always cringe when guys write in asking for a cards “value” or how much the card is “worth.” These are the “investors” in the hobby. So, I have to respectably disagree with you, Ryan. Collectors trade cards…investors sell cards……..

  6. Jim 6 October, 2015 at 08:23

    Its the people that dont collect at all. They have no collection at home. They are just flippers. They dont care about the cards, they dont care about keeping them, collecting them, etc. They are only in it for the money and not the cards. Those are the people that are not true collectors. All they see is dollar signs. Like a guy above said, less than 4 cards at home, you are not a collector. A lot of flippers flip coins, knives, comics, trinkets, cards, etc.

  7. I'MaCollector 6 October, 2015 at 09:25

    Very good article. As a collector, I had to come to grips with the fact that I couldn’t afford everything and couldn’t collect everything. I also keep in mind that this hobby was driven on the fact that these items are trading cards. I love trading what I don’t want in my collection for something that I do want. Also, I don’t look down on someone willing to pay high dollar for a box with four or five cards: It’s that collector’s choice, and if that’s what they want, more power to them. Maybe they will get a card of my team that they don’t want and they will trade it to me (or at the very least, sell it at a discount.) I guess I see more the “us and them” attitudes with collectors of different sports. I have a friend that collects baseball. I collect hockey and football. And we still find ways to trade cards. I look for any baseball I can find, he does the same for football and hockey, and we swap, stack for stack.

  8. Chris Harris 6 October, 2015 at 10:35

    Maybe I’m just not hep anymore. I don’t read any of the Hobby message boards (which, truth be told, aren’t worth reading much anymore), nor do I watch many video box breaks. But in my 36 years of collecting I have never once heard the term “True Collector,” even though the strawman-ish description of one in the third paragraph probably fits me to a tee.

    With that said, there are many things you can call one who “shreds tons of product and ends up selling 99 percent of what they pull.” One title you can not give them is, by definition, “Collector.”

  9. Paul Angilly 6 October, 2015 at 11:34

    I plead guilty. I’ve used the term “true collector” often here. It’s generally in response to people who say things like, “Why would anyone want to buy packs of Score? Those cards will never be worth anything.” I remember one time using the phrase in response to someone who questioned why anyone would ever open a Topps factory set, rather than saving it sealed. I suppose someone who saves sealed Topps factory sets can be seen as a collector of sorts with their own niche, but there are only two logical reasons I can see for doing that: 1) You like looking at the pretty boxes wrapped in plastic; or 2) you’re saving them with the intent of later reselling.

    I call myself a “true collector” because I don’t derive enjoyment from my cards based on what they’re worth. Some of my favorite cards are still the old Pro Set football and hockey issues from the early ’90s. I enjoy those a lot more than I enjoy the modern Topps Triple Threads brand. Now, if someone thinks Triple Threads are the greatest cards ever, I’m OK with that. Just don’t question, “Why would someone buy packs of worthless Score when Triple Threads offers such potentially valuable cards?” People who buy Triple Threads might well be “true collectors,” but people who love Score definitely are.

  10. Charlie 6 October, 2015 at 11:56

    I believe the heart of this article is in the right place, in that the sports card hobby would be more enjoyable for everyone if its different factions didn’t fight or condescend as much. So I 100% agree with the point:
    “The amount of bickering and talking down I see in the hobby is one of the saddest things about the hobby… and might one day lead me to not want to collect cards anymore, not the products.”

    That said, I have never once heard the word “true collector”. I do hear the term “true fan” all the time, so I understand what it would be taken to mean. And if someone who acquired and kept vintage Topps cards implied someone who acquired and kept lots of 2015 Bowman cards was not a “true collector” – they would be wrong. I agree with the article from this standpoint – not every product is made for everybody, and the Bowman collector is no more or less worthy of anything than the Topps collector.

    But a case breaker who rips packs and sells everything is not a collector. To be a collector, you have to, you know, COLLECT. It means the thing was KEPT, that it was held on to. I’m not saying the case breaker doesn’t have a place in the hobby – but to call that person/company a collector is not accurate in fact or in spirit.

  11. Cardboard Junkie 6 October, 2015 at 13:53

    Adding the word “true” in front of collector is an oxymoron IMHO as anyone who keeps most of their cards can be considered a collector regardless of their budget while anyone who sells most of their purchases is a dealer (now a dealer can also be a collector as they might collect just autographs and or memorabilia cards) but TBH there’s really no place for the word “true” to be anywhere near the word collector.

  12. Jay 6 October, 2015 at 14:56

    So what you are saying is that there is no difference between being a “true collector” and a “hobby enthusiast.” I disagree, although I do agree that there is no need to attach a negative connotation to the term “true collector.” They are what they are. But whatever your motives are, if you participate in the hobby you are a hobby enthusiast. And like it or not, collectors, dealers, case breakers, and flippers are all necessary and beneficial parts of the hobby. IMHO most of the vitriol that you see are the collectors (i.e. end-users who keep the cards for a longer period of time) angry at the flippers that “take their deal” and then try to sell for higher than they bought for. Usually much higher. And that only assumes that the collector and the flipper had equal access to the card, which many times is not the case. But if it was the case, then the collector just didn’t bid high enough, and that’s on them. And furthermore, is it not better that a flipper got the card as opposed to another collector? Because if the flipper got the card you still have a chance to get it. It might take longer and cost more, but it can be had. If another collector got it then good luck to you. Furthermore, as a collector I need the case rippers to spend the money on the outrageously priced products so I don’t have to. They break and then run to eBay where people like me buy the cards for a fraction of what they would cost me to obtain if I had to pull them myself.

    And as for “the amount of bickering and talking down in the hobby,” all I can say is “welcome to the Internet.” This is not unique to card collecting. The general lack of respect for fellow human beings in the online age is a growing problem in our society. But that’s a discussion for another day.

  13. Robert Morris 6 October, 2015 at 16:17

    So, I’m a Mark Teixeira True Super Collector? How someone chooses to label my collecting habits is really meaningless to me. I collect what I want based on whats available and at a price I am willing to spend. Some of it will be sold, some given away, some consigned, some trashed and some will become a problem for my wife and/or kids. To me it’s ALL ABOUT THE FUN, otherwise why bother?

    To me the FUN comes from finding and acquiring the items, more than the hoarding part. I fully realize to others the fun comes from the $ value earned, others completing set and still others collect a specific team or player. The driving factors are always loyalty, satisfaction, ego, greed or in some cases revenge. “True” collectors are those who are honest with why they collect and accept their limits. You collect for you not for someone else, so don’t worry about labels.

    BTW If you have a Teixeira 1/1 available let me know.

  14. Brad Wackerlin 8 October, 2015 at 14:19

    I love card collecting because there is a niche for everyone. Your collecting scope can be as wide or as narrow as you want it to be. There’s room for the rippers and flippers, the hoarders, the dabblers, the investors, and the kids. That being said, I do feel that there is a subset of “true collectors,” the one’s that buy cards to keep in a permanent collection, not to be sold or traded under most normal circumstances. I admire these men and women and their passionate pursuits of their collecting focus, be it a certain player, set, brand or insert. And I admit that I’d rather sell cards to these true collectors than a casual collector that has no real emotional attachment to the card. I go out of my way to help these types find cards they’ve been looking for, and have been known to send them cards free or sell at a discount to them, just for the joy of collecting. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but to me, there are distinctions among collectors, and a special place for the “true collectors” who display passion, knowledge, and vigilance for their deeply personal collections.

  15. Tom M 8 October, 2015 at 16:17

    Rather than “true” collector, I prefer just collector. Where I draw the line with this article is is those who “speculate”. For these people, it’s more about the hit and their ability to flip it and maximize their return on investment, which is a hobby unto itself….but that hobby has nothing to do with collecting. Different passions in my mind.

    I googled the definition of collecting – here’s what Wiki had to say:
    “The hobby of collecting includes seeking, locating, acquiring, organizing, cataloging, displaying, storing, and maintaining whatever items are of interest to the individual collector.”

    It’s interesting to note that there’s really in that definition nothing around investing or speculating for future gains. Going back to Wiki, it defines investing as time, energy, or matter spent in the hope of future benefits actualized within a specified date or time frame.

  16. Jeorge hibz 14 October, 2015 at 21:25

    I started buying cards at my local grocer back n 71 ( a few pks here n there a few yrs b4 , but I don’t think I knew what I was doing n 3rd grade) I snag a few pks a month at Target n probably spend around $100 or so a yr on line on present n past cards,, the prices can be eye brow raising but hey I accept. It, something for everyone, I don’t sell, as my collection will be pass down to my 3 sons w/on line buys to my grandson’s (8)collection recently started ( casual collector )

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