Collector Profile: Bill Bengen – A Collector's Conclusions

Jul 17, 2015

While one need not be a rocket scientist or a renowned trend-establishing financial wizard to be a card collector, Bill Bengen happens to be both. He is also a former COO of his family's business and a passionate non-sports collector whose self-described "compulsive dedication" to the hobby earned him induction into the PSA Collector Hall of Fame.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1947, Bengen attended The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he graduated with a B.S. in aeronautics and astronautics. The co-author of "Topics in Advanced Model Rocketry," which was originally published by the MIT Press in 1973, Bengen once hoped of being a part of NASA's space exploration program.

However, after realizing that future government funding for the program was drying up, this dream was soon set aside and he went on to begin what would become a 17-year career with his family's soft drink bottling franchise.

Bengen ultimately served as the company's COO until it was sold in 1987. Thereafter, he moved to Southern California where he reinvented himself as a financial planner.

Establishing Bengen Financial Services in 1989, Bengen applied the same analytical approach to finance as he did to rocket science. Conducting extensive research that included empirical simulations of historical market behavior, he concluded that a person could draw up to four percent annually from their financial portfolio without fear of outliving their money.

In October 1994, Bengen published the results of his research in the Journal of Financial Planning, with his conclusion being: that a person should have enough money for a retirement to be able to withdraw four percent of the starting portfolio, adjusted by inflation each year, to have their savings function like an annuity.

This rule, which was popularized by the 1998 Trinity study that was based on the same data and similar analysis and which Bengen later revised to four-and-a-half percent if tax-free and four-point-one percent if taxable, became known and accepted throughout the financial world as "The Four Percent Rule" or "The Bengen Rule."

After presiding over his practice for two decades, Bengen sold his firm and retired in 2013, when he reinvented himself yet again, this time as one of the world's foremost authorities and collectors of non-sports cards.

A fan of non-sports cards since he was a kid, Bengen loved the diversity of the genre that offers a seemingly endless stream of categories ranging from fantasy creatures and worlds, movie monsters, historical events and war heroes to space travel, classic cars, legendary musicians, world leaders, cartoon characters and classic television shows.

Focusing mostly on cards and sets from the 1950s, Bengen recently sat down with Sports Market Report to talk about his love of non-sports offerings and about his hope that both die-hard sports card collectors and those new to the hobby will be inspired to learn, appreciate and become involved with the genre.

Sports Market Report (SMR): You grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, which was the epicenter of Major League Baseball at the time due to its dominant teams. Were you the only kid during this era who was interested in non-sports cards rather than baseball cards?

Bill Bengen (BB): I was raised in Brooklyn for the first 12 years of my life, and then my family moved out to Long Island, where I lived until I was in my 40s. As a kid, I did collect baseball cards, which I enjoyed; but the things that really enthralled me the most were the non-sports cards. I always had a far greater interest in non-sports cards - they were the ones I loved the most.

SMR: What was the offering that first got you hooked?

BB: The first card that really got my attention was a 1952 Topps Look 'N See card. It was the #126 Leif Ericson card. It's a very tight headshot and he has his mouth wide open like he's screaming a battle cry. I would have been about five years old when I first saw that card and it just blew me away [laughs]. You wouldn't see Mickey Mantle doing a yell like that on any baseball card. So it was that card - that kind of uniqueness and excitement it conveyed - that got me into it.

SMR: How did the collecting bug progress from that Ericson card?

BB: I collected every non-sports card I could find. There was a Look 'N See series on famous people and cards that depicted planes and jets. I liked the 1954 Bowman U.S. Naval Victories cards and the 1953 Topps World on Wheels cards. And then I really went nuts over the [1956] Davy Crockett cards because I loved the television show so much. I was fascinated by so many cards and sets that I spent a lot of time in the candy store with my nickels.

SMR: Were you always a set builder?

BB: Always. Right from the start. I'm pretty compulsive in that way. I was always obsessed with putting together a complete set of cards, and some of them were very difficult to complete because, unlike with most sports cards, non-sports offerings tended to be short-prints. I remember getting so frustrated, buying pack-after-pack and not finding what I needed. But I was always dedicated and persistent, and I would eventually find what I needed.

SMR: Back in those pre-grading days, were you conscious about the condition of the cards you collected?

BB: The condition of a card probably didn't mean as much to me as the subject matter back then. The thing I loved was the neat art and pictures, and I also enjoyed the information on the back from which I learned a lot. I really never gave any thought to a card having razor sharp corners, centering, print defects or anything else relating to condition - all the things that I am intensely - obsessively - concerned about now [laughs].

SMR: Just about every kid who has ever collected cards has gone through those "fall away" years. Was that the same with you?

BB: In my case, what happened was that the hobby was ripped away from me. I had been collecting the entire time we lived in Brooklyn. I had shoeboxes filled with cards. But then, when we moved out to Long Island, my mother was clearing things out for the move and gave all my cards to a friend of mine. So all of a sudden, when I was 12, I found myself without any cards. It was pretty traumatic [laughs]. That was a huge setback for me and I pretty much stopped collecting for the next 40 years.

SMR: That is pretty typical; collecting usually wanes as guys enter their teens and start looking towards their future and thinking about what they want to do with their lives.

BB: That was my story. I had always been very interested in aerospace, ever since I was very young, so I went to MIT and got a degree in aerospace engineering.

SMR: You became a rocket scientist!

BB: [laughing] That's what they called me. However, I never practiced in the field. When I got out of school, in 1969, the moon landing program was at its peak. But when I looked out over the next five years, I could see the funding for the program being severely slashed. That was what I was really interested in - space exploration - and the funding for that [field] was being cut. So after a year of drifting around, I joined my family's Seven-Up bottling business - which I swore I would never do [laughs].

But I enjoyed it and eventually worked my way up to running the company for four or five years. Then, I saw changes on the horizon and made the recommendation that we sell the company. It was getting to be an extraordinarily competitive field and I just didn't think we could survive as a small independent company. 

That's when I moved out to Southern California and started my career as a financial advisor. I was a financial planner and money manager. My wife and I built the business; we did that for 25 years and then I retired in 2014.

SMR: Was that when you got back into collecting?

BB: I had gotten back into cards when I was still running the financial business. I would say it was around 1999 that I got back into collecting. I had long since given up the hope of ever seeing, much less owning, the cards I had as a kid.

I had thought about them over the years - how much I had enjoyed those cards when I was a kid. And then, one day I was on eBay and came across a set of Topps Rails and Sails cards from 1955. It just hit me when I saw those cards... of course there would still be some of those old cards out there!

I remember looking at them and thinking: "How stupid could I have been to have never thought of that!" It was the first time it hit me that, of course, people would have saved those cards. So, once I saw them and knew they existed, I became obsessed with searching for them and reconstructing all the sets I had as a kid.

SMR: Was it when you reentered the hobby that condition and grading became so important to you?

BB: Well, condition was important to me. I did want really great looking cards. But grading wasn't something I knew about. I had amassed quite a few set collections by 2000, and at the time, I wasn't aware of the concept of card grading. However, I should have been, because I had also been a rare coin collector and was certainly aware that [coins] were being graded and encapsulated.

One day I happened to come across my first graded card and that changed everything. I thought that was a great idea for a guy like me who wanted cards that looked like they just came fresh out of a pack, with sharp corners and edges. So grading - [i.e.,] the authentication and third-party opinion on condition and grade - was a great thing; but it was kind of a secondary factor for me at first.

I had become obsessed with card preservation, so the protection component - the encapsulating of the cards - that was what really appealed to me. That was why I initially sent all my cards off to PSA and got them graded - so that they would be properly protected. That wasn't a quick thing to do. We're talking about 15,000 cards or more, so it took me about a year to get them all graded.

SMR: What was your focus when you got back into collecting?

BB: I was really into cards from the 1950s. I wanted to build non-sports collections from all the major card manufacturers from the 1950s, which consists of about 90 sets. I wasn't considering baseball cards at all. Non-sports cards were my focus, and then, after a while, I moved on to getting cards and sets from the 1960s.

However, as I got into [the 1960s sets], I realized they really weren't my interest. So I sold everything later than 1959 and narrowed it down to those 1950s sets. That has been, and still is, my focus. And with most of them, I have gotten to number one on the PSA Set Registry. That has been an accomplishment of which I am really proud. I really love the Registry.

SMR: Tell us why you say that?

BB: The PSA Set Registry brings so many things to collectors and to the hobby. First of all, it's a fun thing that provides competition between collectors. You put your sets up [online], then everyone else puts their sets up and you compete for the top spot. There is a lot of fun in that kind of competition. 

It is also a tremendous source of information. You can find information on the Registry that isn't available anywhere else - information that provides very important insight on a card's rarity.

For someone who has been a sports card collector and is thinking about getting into non-sports, it is the first place they should go to acquire an understanding of what is out there in any particular genre. To me, the Registry has made a tremendous contribution to the strength and growth of my collection and to the hobby.

SMR: Many have found the Registry to be a huge asset when it comes to building very difficult sets, especially in high grade. Do you find this to be true? If so, can you elaborate on your personal experience in this regard?

BB: Yes. I have gotten calls from other collectors and dealers who have seen what I collect on the Registry. They see that I have a void and have contacted me to let me know they can provide the card I need. Without the Registry, it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for that person to know what I needed or to have found me. So that's just one of the great things about it. For me, there's no question that the Registry is a tremendous aid in building sets.

SMR: Where and how have you gotten most of your cards over the years?

BB: I would say I have gotten probably 85-to-90 percent of the cards I own through online auctions and eBay, although I have also done numerous private purchases as well.   

SMR: Has there been any card or set that has proven to be a really tough challenge for you?

BB: I'm a high-grade collector, so I have had many challenges. The [1956] Davy Crockett Green set is a brutally hard set to compile in a high grade. There are only a handful of cards from that set that have been graded PSA MINT 9s, and there is only one set that has been graded PSA NM-MT 8. 

The #20A "Ambush" card, which was issued with two different backs - an error card and a corrected card - both are very rare. In a high grade it is extremely tough. Anything in PSA EX-MT 6 or higher, in either of those cards, is very hard to find. 

There are also some series that are very difficult, like the 1950 Bowman Wild Men cards. That is an extremely difficult set to collect in high grade. It's a beautiful little set, but just brutal. In fact, it is so difficult I gave up on it and sold what I had put together. I just couldn't find anything, or if I did, the prices were high; it just became too frustrating. 

The 1949 Bowman Wild West series is another tough one. It's a huge set with many cards that you just never find in high grades. 

SMR: It's an age-old question, but we have to ask: any favorites?

BB: I would have to say one of my favorites in the 1956 Davy Crockett Orange series is the #1 "King of the Wild Frontier" card, which has a great shot of Fess Parker leaning against a tree with Ol' Betsy. To me, that is the essence of Davy Crockett. That series was an important part of my life when I was a kid, so that is certainly at the top for me.

I also love the 1954 Topps Scoop series. I think that series is the quintessential non-sports set of the 1950s. It's a quality set with wonderful art and a fun format, with the front page newspaper and banner headlines on the back. Those cards also provide some good solid information on a wide range of subjects. I can just sit for hours and look through that set.

The #20 card in that set, which is the Hindenburg burning, is a card I remember seeing as a kid. It's a spectacular looking card with a blue background and orange flames erupting from the Hindenburg. That is definitely one of my favorites.

Another series I really like, which probably comes as no surprise considering my background, is the 1957 Topps Space set. Card #24 in that set shows the aftermath of a meteor strike on Manhattan. I remember how that card impressed me when I was a kid.

SMR: You mentioned earlier that the cards from the 1960s didn't appeal to you. Has there been anything post-1959 that has ever caught your interest?

BB: A couple of things. I really like the 1982 Donruss M*A*S*H set because I really loved the show. I also collect the Dinosaurs Attack series that Topps produced in 1988. They are easy to find, except for what I want. My goal is to build a PSA GEM-MT 10 set, and so far, I have not been successful in that endeavor. But, I'm almost there. 

That is a good example of the dark corners within the non-sports genre that I like to explore - sets that others have not gone into or don't even know exist. There is a lot less competition when it comes to putting together sets like that, but that's what makes it fun for me - to do something that is way off the radar screen, that no one else is doing. 

SMR: As you are well aware, non-sports cards often take a backseat to sports cards when it comes to popularity and desirability. Do you see that changing in the future?

BB: Well, I think sports cards, and especially baseball cards, will always have a broad appeal and will always be at the top of the list for most collectors. But, I think the non-sports genre has gained a lot of interest amongst collectors in recent years.

That has been, in part, due to PSA including them on the Set Registry and magazines like Sports Market Report (SMR) publishing stories about them. Even if people are not collecting them, most collectors now know that there is this huge genre of these other cards out there.

SMR: Do you have any advice for someone who may be thinking about crossing over into the non-sports world of collecting?

BB: There are a couple of good books on the subject out there - Chris Watson's The Non-Sports Bible_, of course. There is also a lot of great information on the Internet, and both the PSA Set Registry and Pop Report are invaluable resources for someone starting out. For those who want to do some digging, there is a lot of information out there to help them find something that will interest them._

SMR: Bill, as a renowned finance expert, we're guessing you have to approach your collection with an eye towards its investment potential. True?

BB: For me, this is my enjoyment - my hobby. But, there is certainly a very important investment side to card collecting, and I've done well with cards. I believe PSA has had a lot to do with that - as we have seen non-sports cards increasing in value. When I sold a 1952 Look 'N See set a few years ago, I sold it for over three times what I paid for it. So, while I never thought of doing this as an investment, it has turned out that way.

SMR: No matter what genre someone collects, and no matter what their investment potential may be, so many of us, like you, are passionate about our card collections. And so, it is rare that we get the opportunity to have a real-life rocket scientist provide an analysis on why that is. Care to do so?

BB: [laughing] I have given that some thought and I think that the interest in collecting trading cards, which is primarily a male thing, has a lot to do with the way men's brains are wired. Cards are possessions, and males like to hunt for things and possess things. I think cards also bring out the protective instincts in men. You want to protect your cards and keep them safe.

Beyond that, they have a magical quality. They are things that you can hold in your hands and can magically transport you back in time. They are objects of beauty - little pieces of art.

Card collecting is also the basis of friendships - of connecting with people with whom you have a common interest. I have met a lot of great people through collecting and we have a ball. It's one of those things that makes life a little more enjoyable. So my analysis would be that it's a magical thing and that there are a lot of components that contribute to the magic.

Thanks to Bill Bengen for providing cards from his collection to feature in this article. Please note that the 1952 Look 'N See #126 card image is provided courtesy of PSA.