Topps files are a treasure trove for collectors and enthusiasts of baseball, hockey, basketball, and football cards. The files represent the sole collection of every series of cards that Topps preserved for its internal archives, usually with two card sets affixed to pages post-production to display the front and back of each card. In August of 1989, Topps teamed up with Guernsey’s auction house to offer collectors a chance to own a piece of history. Over 3000 lots were identified and auctioned off, including Topps files from 1953 through 1966 across the four major sports. This article will delve into the 1989 Guernsey’s Topps Auction and explore some of the highlights from the baseball, hockey, basketball, and football albums that were up for grabs.
Guernsey’s Topps Auction occurred on August 19th and 20th, 1989, following a two-day public exhibition at the Hunter College Sportsplex in New York. In the introductory section of the catalog, titled “The Topps Archive at Auction: A Definition,” Guernsey’s offered insight into the auction’s contents:
What you will find in the pages that follow is Topps, its products and their history. You will find original artwork covering most of Topps’ categories: from bubblegum (Bazooka) to stickers (Wacky Paks), to educational and humorous cards series, to baseball, football, basketball, and hockey cards and posters. In addition, we have finished products, such as uncut baseball cards on their original production sheets. The items that grace the next two hundred pages sweep across five decades, often reflecting the tenor of the times. For each section, you will find several art mediums, from photography to flexichromes, from pen and ink to full-color painting.Guernsey’s
Guernsey’s concluded by emphasizing that “Topps has one archive to offer, and this is it. Take part in what clearly will rank as one of the most interesting auctions of all time.” With proceeds reportedly around $1.6 million, it certainly lived up to its billing. Now, let’s turn our attention to the files themselves.
The first catalog page that discussed the “Bound Volumes of Card Sets” appears on page 54, and it provides an excellent summary of what Topps files are.
From 1953 to the late 1970s, Woody Gelman led Topps’ Product Development Department, and it was his practice to store copies of the cards they produced in oversized scrapbooks. They would adhere two copies of each card – one showing the front and one showing the back – on sheets in numerical order. Some folks refer to these items as the “Gelman Catalogs.” I’ll share photos of all the albums Topps put up for sale, and you will see that only cards from 1953 to 1966 were sold in Guernsey’s auction. Later, individual pages of the remaining catalogs were enclosed in holders and certified by a third-party grader as authentic and originating from the one-of-a-kind Topps catalog. Other cards were individually encapsulated, but I will cover those items in the next series of articles on the Topps Files.
Here is a more recent photo of the 1957 Topps Basketball File album, featuring an internal page with a pair of Bill Russell cards. You can see that the album was pictured in the auction catalog on page 54, which I shared above.
The next page in the catalog, 55, showcased a few incredible sheets with some of the most iconic cards in the hobby of superstars such as Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Pee Wee Reese.
Pages 56 and 57 highlighted the individual files Topps auctioned off and a few more photos. You can see that sets between 1953 and 1966 were sold in series. Unfortunately, the 1953 Topps Baseball Series 2 file was missing both Mickey Mantle cards.
The hockey volumes were next to be auctioned off and listed on page 112 of the catalog.
Only one card was missing across the 1958, 1962, 1963, 1965, and 1967 Topps hockey sets. Remember that 1968 was the first year that O-Pee-Chee independently released their own sets under license from Topps.
Basketball cards kicked off the second day of bidding, and two of the early items up for auction were the 1957 and 1969 Topps Basketball Files. These were displayed on page 118 of the catalog.
The football card files were described on page 127.
Interestingly, most of the sets were Canadian variants. Also, the Topps file for the magic football set was how the hobby really learned about the 5-Cent Wrappers and unfolded panels.
In conclusion, the 1989 Guernsey’s Topps Auction was a significant event for collectors and enthusiasts of Topps sports cards. The auction featured a wide variety of items, but one highlight was the 1953 through 1966 files. These files provided a glimpse into the history and evolution of Topps sports cards. Topps would continue to release more items from their vault, including additional file sheets and individual cards. Stay tuned to learn more about these rare and insightful pieces of sports card history as I explore more about these albums, sheets, and cards in a series of articles over the next few weeks. Be sure to follow @postwarcards on Twitter and Instagram so you don’t miss them, or subscribe to The Post War Cards Newsletter for updates. Happy collecting!