The Junk Wax Era took place between the late 1980s and early 1990s, and nearly took the hobby down completely when the bubble eventually burst. Here’s a guide taking you through everything you need to know, as well as drawing parallels to modern collecting.
The ‘junk wax era’ officially ended in the 1990s, but what does the term mean, and does it have any relation to the hobby in the present? Taking place between 1986 to 1993, it caused values to plummet, as a consequence of products being printed in ridiculously high numbers.
Are we in the midst of a second junk wax era, and could it all come crashing down again in the next few years?
What is the ‘Junk Wax Era’?
Supply and demand. It’s a concept that every card collector should understand. It’s why some one-of-ones aren’t worth much, and the reason why some unnumbered cards sell for high amounts.
The junk wax era describes a period (1986 to 1993) in which an excessive number of cards were printed to match renewed interest in the hobby. It earned the name as ‘sealed wax’ is a term used to describe unopened boxes of cards. In other words, the cards inside are junk.
In terms of actual print runs, we’re talking about sets produced in the millions. There was also a lack of chase cards or serial numbered options, which is why PSA 10 grades are often the only valuable cards from the era. In other words, it’s more than likely that your collection from the late 1980s and early 1990s is worthless.
For example, it’s true that a 1991 Topps Stadium Club #94 Brett Favre RC will sell for over $170 in PSA 10 condition:
However, that drops to under $30 for a PSA 9 grade:
As for upgraded copies, the price dips further to roughly $6, and that’s for a Hall of Famer who won the Super Bowl, retiring as the NFL leader in passing yards, passing touchdowns, and quarterback wins. The average card from the era is worth a fraction of this amount.
(Graded cards are worth more as it guarantees the condition of the item.)
It’s a shame for collectors, but it’s worth remembering that there are no parallels or serial numbers to add rarity.
How did the junk wax era end?
How did the junk wax era end? Badly. Collectors suddenly understood that their cards were worth nowhere near as much as they expected. At the time, the hobby was seen as a stable investment, but nobody knew just how many cards were being printed.
(It’s thought that companies like Topps, Donruss, Fleer and Upper Deck printed billions of cards during the seven-year period.)
The baseball player’s strike in 1994 burst the bubble, as there were no sets to be printed. Values declined as rapidly as they had risen, leaving various collectors with heaps of cardboard that was worth next to nothing.
It’s one of the reasons why I’d advise to stick with parallels and Hall of Famers if you’re worried about the bottom falling out of the market anytime soon. But are we due for a new junk wax era in 2023?
Are we in a new 2023 junk wax era?
Possibly, depending on who you ask. What’s clear is that current sets are being printed in massive amounts, and it’s never hard to get your hands on most products. That would indicate that we could be heading into a new junk wax era, 30 years on from the original.
This is true whether you’re looking at TCG sets like Pokemon or Dragon Ball, or sports cards released by companies like Topps and Panini.
I’d advise to stick with numbered cards and autos, or even rare inserts from popular sets. The market for base cards is risky, and there are too many being made. Once again, my guess would be that supply currently exceeds demand.
The junk wax era: Summary
The junk wax era is great in some respects. There’s an abundance of products to collect, and you’ll find lots of Hall of Famers in multiple sports. It’s a great place to start for entry level collectors, and there are lots of cheap packs to rip.
However, lots of collectors lost serious money when the bubble burst, and it highlights the risks when looking at cards solely from an investment perspective. We’d take it as a potential learning experience, especially for anything other than the rarest releases.
The Junk Wax Era: FAQ
Here are some of the most common FAQs relating to the junk wax era:
Is there a junk wax era in 2023?
Possibly. After renewed interest in the hobby following worldwide lockdowns, mainstream appeal has cooled ever so slightly. It has led to companies like Topps and Panini printing modern sets in high numbers, devaluing the cards inside. After all, part of the reason why many cards are valuable is that they’re reasonably rare.
If you prefer Pokémon, think of how easy it is to get boxes at the moment. Think of the thousands of sets being opened every day.
Will there be a second junk wax era in 2023? We could already be near the bubble bursting, and it’s something for every collector to consider.
Prices are already down compared to the midway point in 2021, but the market seems to have levelled out for the time being. I’m still adding to my PC, but I’m sticking with autos and parallels for now.
Are sealed junk wax era sets still cheap today?
Yes. You’ll be able to find sealed boxes from the era for next to nothing, and the same goes for the millions of copies that were opened over the years.
Prices have risen due to collectors who just want to rip cheap packs. However, we’ve yet to burn through the sheer amount of product that was produced over the period.
Will junk wax cards ever be worth anything?
They can be valuable, but it’s rare. PSA 10 graded Gem Mint copies tend to be an exception, and they’re especially tough to locate. Consider the sheer number of lower grades, or have a look on a site like eBay to see just now many are up for sale at any given time. That’s without accounting for the thousands sitting in boxes in attics, collecting dust.
What’s the best junk wax card?
If we’re using ‘best’ as a synonym for value, there are a few decent options that were released during the period. For example, one exception to the rule would be the majority of Ken Griffey Jr. rookie cards. Our review notes that;
“His collection of RCs might have been overproduced to the point of minor deforestation, but PSA 10 copies are still a valid long-term investment if you’re hoping for safer options within the hobby.”
Check out the famous 1989 UD Star Rookie below:
Why are some graded junk wax cards valuable?
If it’s a Hall of Famer rookie card in pristine condition, there’s always going to be some interest, even if it’s a junk wax era card. It’ll also be worth more than the average release from the period. This is especially true if it happens to be graded by the likes of PSA. (As we’ve mentioned, this is only true for pristine versions in most cases.)