The 1991 Topps Desert Shield set was a special run of 1991 Topps cards (identical but for a gold foil Desert Shield logo) made for military members deployed as part of the Gulf War.
The set is incredibly popular today for a few reasons:
- Topps did not make that many cards; some estimates are around 7000 of each card.
- The cards are condition-sensitive since the soldiers who brought them home didn’t have the supplies to care for them.
- They have historical significance.
As such, the key cards in the set, in high-grade condition, command big dollars. The big cards are the players you would expect like Chipper Jones, Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux, Cal Ripken, Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, Don Mattingly, Barry Bonds, and Barry Larkin.
But there have been a few surprisingly high-priced sales of what would traditionally be commons the past few years that would surprise most collectors. Those cards are the Steve Avery, Jose Mesa, Alejandro Pena, Edgar Martinez, and John Mitchell PSA 10s.
But before we dive into those specific cards, we should look at PSA Set Registry for the 1991 Topps Desert Shield Set. It’s one of the more popular “junk-era” sets on the registry with 63 All-Time and 51 active registered sets, which is especially impressive when you consider the set has a monster 792 cards in it. Six of the sets show they have recent updates, and at least a dozen seem to be targeting high-end cards, despite the top 3 sets separating themselves. However, you never really know if folks list all of their cards or if all the active PSA set collectors have registered their sets. I used to have the second-highest graded 1978 Topps Basketball set, but I never shared it. Clearly, though, there are a lot of collectors going after high-grade 1991 Topps Desert Shield Cards.
Next, how many graded 1991 Topps Desert Shield cards are there? PSA has graded 67468 of them, which sounds like a lot, but remember there are 792 cards in the set, which averages about 85 grades per card. When you look at just GemMt 10s, PSA has graded 13045, or just over 16 per card, a scarce number for a modern set.
Now that we have the background, the sale numbers for these 5 PSA 10 “commons” make more sense.
The Steve Avery card sold for $1650 in July 2020; it’s a pop 11.
The Jose Mesa card sold for $988 in January 2019; it’s a pop 6.
The Alejandro Pena card sold for $1000 in July 2018; it’s a pop 5.
The Edgar Martinez sold for $1414 in April 2020; it’s a pop 7.
The John Mitchell sold for $1526 in July 2018; it’s a pop 4.
The common theme is that all five cards have PSA 10 populations well under the average for the set. And when you consider how many collectors are trying to complete high-grade sets, it follows that bids on these would go high. Remember, it only takes two exuberant bidders to drive the price up on a single auction. Who knows what any of these PSA 10s would sell for today, but remember, there is an underbidder in any high-end sale. I do acknowledge the possibility of shill bidding as well.
I think the lesson here is never to underestimate the power of the PSA Set Registry and a little friendly competition amongst collectors with deep pockets. A few unopened boxes of 1991 Topps Desert Shield were on display at the 2021 National. There was a video of a collector ripping a pack, so it’s conceivable there are more high-grade examples still to be discovered and submitted for grading, which could potentially pull down the price of any of these less liquid cards.
In a future article, I’ll discuss how 1991 Topps Desert Shield packs get authenticated when the display boxes and pack wrappers are identical to ordinary 1991 Topps cards.
Do you have any neat stories about the 1991 Topps Desert Shield set? If so, please share them in the comments, and don’t forget to check out @PostWarCards on Twitter too.