Nat Turner Seeks PSA Perfection for His Trading Card Collection
by Todd Tobias
Webster's Dictionary defines perfection as follows:
Noun: per·fec·tion \ pər-'fek-shən \ the quality or state of being perfect: such as
a: freedom from fault or defect: flawlessness
c: the quality or state of being saintly
That seems simple enough, but how would perfection be defined in terms of our hobby? As the choice of what to collect is subjective and based upon personal preference, perfection could not be judged by the theme of a collection. Then the definition must be based on the caliber of each individual item within the collection. Memorabilia seems nearly impossible to quantify in such a manner, but in terms of trading cards, that would basically mean that each card within the collection would have to be a flawless example. In hobby parlance, a PSA GEM-MT 10.
That seems straightforward on the surface, but the reality is that such a quest would be an incredible challenge. So much so that you might question who would even attempt such a thing? A collection comprised of nothing but PSA 10s is seemingly impossible. Truthfully, most cards do not deserve such a label straight from the pack based on issues such as centering, printing defects, rough cuts, and damage during transport.
Due to attrition and handling over the decades, hobbyists with a preference for vintage material would have even more difficulty building their collections while staying within the defined scope. A collector would need a rare combination of interest, dogged determination, world-wide contacts, and, of course, a fair amount of discretionary income before even contemplating such a journey. A healthy dose of patience would prove valuable as well.
Nat Turner, a software and technology entrepreneur and investor, is a collector with a passion for perfection. A hobbyist with a wide array of interests, Turner chases a variety of sets and collections that seemingly have little in common with each other. A perusal of his PSA Set Registry shows baseball, basketball, some football and golf, vintage and modern, company sets, and player collections. A more detailed look shows that all sets are being built with an abundance of cards in PSA 10 holders.
As one might imagine, Turner finds eBay and auction houses to be reliable hunting grounds, but more and more he is building his collection through the intelligent use of social media. Facebook and Instagram are his sites of choice, and Turner uses these platforms to connect with hobbyists around the globe. Not only that, but he also believes that social media might be the answer to a question that has plagued the hobby for the last 20 years: In a world that increasingly relies on technology, how do we get younger generations interested in collecting trading cards?
SMR had the opportunity to speak with Nat Turner and listen to his thoughts on the hobby, high-grade material, and international card deals.
SMR: How did you get started collecting sports cards?
NT: That was a long time ago. I was probably eight years old, and my dad was a Braves fan because he grew up in Atlanta. We lived in Europe when I was very young, but we could watch Braves games because they were on [the cable network] TBS. I would track all the Braves players - McGriff, Glavine, Maddux, Smoltz...
My dad actually gave me two cards: a 1975 Topps Hank Aaron that was all beat up and a 1977 Topps Nolan Ryan. By this time, we had moved to Houston and I had become an Astros fan. My dad took me to some card shows in the area, like at the George R. Brown Convention Center. There is a big show there, I believe to this day. We would check the price guides, and I would track Ryan Klesko cards and watch them go up and down. Then I started collecting basketball because I really liked the NBA.
SMR: Did you collect all the way through adulthood, or did you take the standard break in high school and college?
NT: I didn't really take a break, but I pretty much exclusively collected basketball in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I started getting into basketball in 1996 because that was Kobe Bryant's rookie year. Then in 2003-2004 I started collecting LeBron [James] because I thought he was awesome.
I didn't pick up baseball again until 2010, mainly because I wasn't a big fan of the Astros during that time. The game kind of changed back then with steroids and those things. But I got reinvigorated with guys like Mike Trout, who I think are good for the game and seem to be bringing it back to where it was before.
SMR: Most collectors want to have nice cards. However, there is a difference between nice cards and PSA 10s. At what point did you begin to learn about professional grading and what drew you to collect PSA 10s?
NT: From a business perspective, I believe in scarcity value. The investment value in cards for me is an unintended side effect. It always started with just wanting to have cards of players that I liked and having little pieces of something that I could track. It is kind of like holding a stock in a way, although it is still more about collecting the cards. But again, the scarcity value is something that I think about.
When I started to go after an expanded LeBron collection in his rookie year, I made the decision to only collect the highest grade possible. Then, when I started collecting baseball, [I found that] looking at the population report and the PSA Set Registry is so much fun. The grade is a big component of it, though not the only one. The idea of a card from the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s still being perfect is just fascinating to me. I collect unopened wax [packs] for that reason. The concept of untouched items that have endured the test of time in this condition is really neat.
I collect some modern cards, but oddly, I am not as focused on condition with them because they are rare cards. But with Topps baseball cards, where there are literally tens of thousands of them, that is where the condition is so important. Other than the cards that I've had graded, I don't think I have ever bought a PSA NM-MT 8 or lower unless there is not a higher grade above it. Not because they aren't beautiful cards, but I just think it is so cool to have a uniform set of [PSA] 10s.
SMR: Do you purchase a lot of cards already authenticated and graded, or are you submitting the bulk of your collection yourself? Either way, your eye for quality must be incredibly strong considering your Registry.
NT: A little bit of both. I would say that probably 75% is acquiring cards that are already certified and encapsulated. I don't submit a ton of [raw] baseball [cards] unless I open an old wax pack or box, but I have not had great success in submitting cards myself, and rightfully so because 10s should be hard to get. It is not enough for a card to just come out of a pack. I'm converting a lot of my basketball collection to PSA right now, which is mainly late 1990s and early 2000s. I'll send a couple of bulk submissions each year, and many of those cards I have had for 25 years.
SMR: You have an exceptionally broad collection. Everything is high grade, but that is where the similarities end. You have company sets, player sets, unopened material, basketball, football, golf, baseball, modern, and vintage... What do you consider to be your collecting sweet spot, or is there such a thing?
NT: I'm a general sports fan. I sold my first company in 2010, and the first thing I did was amp up my collecting because I could finally afford it. I started buying the cards that I wished I'd had when I was a kid, which was mostly rare Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant material. I would say that if I had to pick, it would be 1990s basketball as my number one passion. After that, I would say baseball from the 1950s through 1970s. I don't typically go for anything after 1979.
I dabble in sets. I am very casually going after four or five sets, such as 1959 Topps baseball. What I mean by that is that I am not making private deals for it or going crazy with bidding, but if I see a 1959 Topps PSA 10, I will pick it up. I'm fortunate because I am relatively young, so it is OK if a set takes me 40 years to build; it is totally fine.
I collect Mantle, Mays, Aaron, Ryan, and guys like that. I'm doing a run of each of those guys, and I am trying to do it in PSA 10. Pre-war stuff is something that I know nothing about, and I regret that. The reason I like baseball from the era I collect is because my dad gave me those two cards [mentioned earlier]. I started researching 1975 Topps and then expanded [to] modern basketball, starting in 2003 with the LeBron [cards].
So, I would say that number one would be basketball and then number two would be Hall of Fame baseball players from the 1950s through 1970s. And then I have an insane amount of unopened wax boxes, and my wife makes fun of me all the time for it.
SMR: Is your unopened material along the same themes as your card collection?
NT: Yes, exactly the same: 1950s through 1970s baseball, 1990s basketball, and 2003-2004 basketball. I have a few rare hockey and football sets from the 1960s and some boxes, but not a lot.
SMR: OK, now here is a little twist on that same question. Out of your entire collection, what segment do you consider to be the most challenging? What set are you building now that you will still be working on in 20 years?
NT: Hopefully it won't take 20 years, but I just got PSA to add a set to the Registry and I am currently the only one working on the set because these cards are so rare. It is the 1997-98 Precious Metals Gems Green Basketball set. I have already completed the red set, of which 90 cards were produced of each player, and there are 123 cards in the set. There were only 10 serial-numbered examples of each green card produced, and I have 107 of them so far. I am missing 16 cards right now.
In baseball, I would say for sure 1959 Topps in all PSA 10. Most of the cards in that set have a [PSA] 10 right now, though not all. I follow it closely, and 10 or 15 new [PSA] 10s come out each year. I suspect that I will also still be building my baseball wax pack run from 1952 Topps through 1980 along with my 1975 Topps Mini set. I think that I can get the standard 1975 Topps set done in all [PSA] 10s in about 10 years, but I just love the Minis because my dad gave me the 1975 Topps Hank Aaron. It's just so cool that there is a mini version of the set.
At the moment, I'm probably the furthest along with that one from the baseball sets, but that is next to impossible. I have opened 10 wax boxes of that product and probably submitted 500 cards to PSA and didn't get a single [PSA] 10. I've basically had to relegate myself to buying [graded] cards individually.
SMR: "Fish eyes" (circular print defects) and centering must be major problems.
NT: Exactly. Stains and other print defects make it very condition sensitive. Getting back to an earlier point, I just find pristine cards from difficult sets like that of 1971 Topps to be an exciting challenge. The odds of a card being printed perfectly, and then preserved, are low, but I find it cool.
SMR: You are also building your collection with the help of social media. Talk about the connections that you make on Instagram.
NT: I am on all the forums, like the Collectors Universe Forum and Blowout Cards. Hobby Kings is probably a distant third, but they are not really social media. They are message boards, and they are great because there is a lot of content there. I think vintage baseball collectors tend to be older, and based on who I am typically interacting with and buying from, Instagram is not as popular with that crowd. But with 1990s-2000s basketball collectors, everybody is on there.
The great thing about Instagram is that, for example, I will post one card every day from my collection, or I will livestream opening a box or something of the sort. Instagram is on your phone, which everyone has on them all the time, so you don't have to get on a computer to enjoy it. The direct messaging feature is also great. I have probably obtained four cards from the Precious Metals Green set because someone saw me post other cards from that set; they responded with a message saying that they had a card from that set and we worked out a deal.
I haven't found as much baseball [product] on there, with the exception of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper [cards]. But then there is the feed, so every day I will see cards that other people are posting for sale or trade. I can sometimes do five or 10 transactions a day. I can message some kid in Korea who collects Kobe Bryant cards, which is something that literally happened this morning. He has a rare Kobe card that he pulled from a box that he bought on eBay. He doesn't need that card, but he wants LeBron [cards], so we were able to work out a trade. But something like that would never happen otherwise, and it is so quick.
SMR: Would you like to share your Instagram handle here so that new collectors can connect with you?
NT: Sure. It is NatSTurner_Cards.
In the 1990s, there was a pretty vibrant group of young people that were collecting. Due to the internet, the brick-and-mortar card shops have mostly gone away, so I think that there is a lot to be done to get the younger generations interested in collecting. The hobby was affordable then. But now there is stuff out there that starts at $1000 a pack, and that is just not accessible to most people. I think that we have lost a lot of potential collectors in the last 10-15 years. There has been a lot of change from the card companies.
I don't know what the answer is, but I attribute my collecting now to starting when I was younger. There is a lot of cool stuff going on now. You've probably seen on Twitter some of the crazy prices people are paying for cards and others tracking wealthy people who are using the hobby in terms of investment, which is good. But I think that we need to lay the groundwork to teach young people that it is not about how expensive a card is, but about the actual collecting. I do think Instagram and Facebook are helping some [in this respect]. Social media probably has the best chance of bringing young people back into the hobby.
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The Challenge in Front of Nat Turner
• 1975 Topps Mini - Of the 105,734 1975 Topps Mini cards graded by PSA, only 1,743 have been labeled as PSA 10. Nat Turner has 292 of them in his collection.
• 1959 Topps - Of the 296,234 1959 Topps cards graded by PSA, only 462 have been labeled as PSA 10. Nat Turner has 76 of them in his collection.
• Mickey Mantle Basic Set - Of the 21 cards necessary to complete the set, Nat Turner has 10 of them in PSA 10.
• Nolan Ryan Basic Topps Set - Of the 27 cards necessary to complete this collection, Nat Turner has 22 of them in PSA 10.
*PSA Population Report and Set Registry statistics as of August 2018.
Please feel free to contact Todd Tobias at [email protected] if you have any questions or comments. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of August 2018.