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Early 1950s Topps title a popular seller with online auction users

Dec. 9, 2005

Look 'n See, a Topps Chewing Gum set produced in 1952, may be the most visible cards of its vintage now being offered on eBay.  Wings and Scoop, two titles of comparable age, do not come as close to Look 'n See's ubiquity.  Similarly, neither Hopalong Cassidy (1950) nor Rails and Sails (1955), generate substantial numbers of listing hits on the site's search engine.

Two reasons may account for Look 'n See's prevalence. First is card population.  It is not known whether Topps published significantly greater volumes of Look 'n See than its contemporary non-sport products.  

A few older hobbyists, however, clearly recall the cards as available for purchase in candy stores as late as the winter of 1954.  Look 'n See's 1952 release year had been established as fact in Jefferson Burdick's American Card Catalog of 1960.  

No matter what length of time Look 'n See remained in general nationwide release, the cards were certain to have been an impressive seller.   It had been a period when its manufacturer became primed to overtake Bowman as the country's leading gum card producer.  The surviving numbers of Look 'n Sees  today offer powerful testimony as to its original popularity.

Another factor explaining the card set's eBay exposure centers on what many long-time non-sport enthusiasts have groused about for decades.  A correlation exists between Look 'n See and how sports cards are viewed by the general public.  

Baseball cards are divided into common cards and several levels of high-demand stars.  Look 'n See is a personality-driven set rather than a topic-based card collection.  Certain cards carry a premium value due to who is depicted.  A Charles Lindbergh may realize a sales price of at least five times greater than a Ponce de Leon.  

What has irked collectors for years, is the value of the issue's Babe Ruth card.  It outstrips the relative common worth of any other Look 'n  See single.  The Ruth example remains in very high demand within the baseball card world and, as a result, set builders must deal with three-figure prices for an average condition example.

Apart from the Ruth card, Look 'n See's most desired pasteboard depicts the 17th Century Dutch artist Rembrandt.  When discussing the entire set, most knowledgeable dealers and collectors agree the single is legitimately scarce.  

Over the years, evidence has been chiefly anecdotal and is usually put forth by people who collected the cards as children.  Further, many latter-day want lists most often find card number 82 as unchecked.  Rembrandt, however, is not impossible to find through Internet auctions.  The card's degree of scarcity may not be known conclusively until the discovery and public display of an actual Topps Look 'n See uncut press sheet.

Look 'n See had been a clear sales winner for Topps.  One feature of the set that hooked kids into spending their pennies were the hidden answers located on the backs.  A question followed each card subject's mini-biography.  For example, "For what famous type of painting is Rembrandt most famous?"  A strip of red cellophane included in each pack could be placed over the back to reveal the response.  The cellophane cancelled out the back's bright orange color, along with obliterating the accompanying narrative.  To a youngster, the process was magic.

There seemed an exciting connection between the product and the youthful consumer.  In the July 1989 issue of The Wrapper, veteran collector Eddie Grove recalled, "The set caught my eye from day one . . . it gave me a chance to make many a book report at my elementary school.  I remember going to the store and seeing those packs in the box with all those question marks with the words 'magic and hidden pictures' on the wrappers.  Those things made all of us want to scoop up all the cards we could get our hands on."

It had not been the first time Topps published cards in which its clientele needed to perform some operation to derive enhanced satisfaction of the product.  X-Ray Roundup and Magic Photos, both marketed in 1949, are interesting curios.  With Magic Photos, a child had to physically develop the tiny blank cards by dipping them in water and rubbing the card's face with the wrapper.  (Today, if encountering these scarce cards, poorly- developed cards are commonly found.)  X-Ray Roundup's backs are a precursor of Look 'n See's format.  By using a small red cellophane strip, kids could view a second hidden illustration.  

A very rare Topps test issue, Hee Haw, believed to have been published in 1970, drew on Look 'n See's red cellophane/back concept.  Instead of  trivia questions, Hee Haw's reverse side carried jokes, with the punch lines hidden from the naked eye.

The Sport Americana Price Guides for Non-Sport Cards authored by Chris Benjamin and first published in the early 1980s asserted that Look 'n See had been issued in two series.  Card numbers 1 through 75 were followed by numbers 76 through 135.  

In the Look 'n See story that appeared in the July 1989 Wrapper issue, columnist Bob Nolan speculated the set entered the marketplace as a three-series product.  The theory is problematic.  

Topps segmented the first 75 cards into subsets with seven distinct titles.  Card numbers 1 through 9 depicted Presidents; numbers 10 through 31 featured Famous Americans; numbers 32 through 42 were of Military Leaders; and cards 43 through 46 pictured Famous Women.  Other headings included Explorers (6 cards), Men of the West (11), World Figures (5) and Inventors (7).  

It remains possible the company only packed out the first 45 cards of Look 'n See's initial foray into stores.  However, the figure belies logical configuration.  Given Topps' handling of the set's remaining 60 cards, Nolan's three-series theorem cannot be rejected out of hand.  In fact, it appears to gain some credence when further discussing subtitle lineups.

The Presidents subset opens with card number 1 (Franklin Roosevelt) and ends with number 9 (Washington).  The backs list a secondary numbering system for each subset.  For example, the FDR card is denoted as "No. 2 of 9 Presidents."  Adding confusion is card number 4 (Lincoln) with the designation "No. 1 of 9 Presidents."  The haphazard numbering practice is repeated with the remaining subheadings found through card 75.

The reported second series is scattershot with respect to the six subsets contained within it.  Headings include World Figures Series 2 (19 cards); Famous Americans Series 2 (16); Famous Writers (10); Explorers Series 2 (6); Famous Women Series 2 (7); and Famous Canadians (a mere two cards).

Unlike the first 75-card segment where one subset followed another, no such pattern exists for the remaining 60.  Card 76 depicts Louis Pasteur, denoted number 9 of 19 World Figures of Series 2.  This is followed by number 77, William Penn, the 5th of 16 2nd Series Famous Americans.  One logical guess is that Topps, in realizing Look 'n See's popularity, went ahead with a subsequent card run without refined plans as to its configuration.

Look 'n See's portraitures provided Topps with opportunities to recycle the art work in later card sets.  The painting used for card 126, Explorer Leif Ericcson, eventually became an illustration worked into Scoop, a set that captured historical events in the context of newspaper stories.  Scoop number 149, Leif Ericcson Finds Finland, uses the Look 'n See portrait as the ersatz news photo on the card back.

Other Look 'n See art found their way into Who Am I, a 1967 release that used a scratch-off coating to reveal the full portrait images.  The Who Am I illustrations were slightly altered and retouched, but on balance had been the basic art that appeared in Look 'n See 15 years earlier.  To the chagrin of non-sport collectors, Babe Ruth's Look 'n See depiction is recycled, along with new images of more contemporary baseball players.  Other Look 'n See subjects re-debuting in  Who Am I include the Roman emperor Nero, King Henry VIII, Paul Revere, Napoleon Bonaparte and William Shakespeare.

Look 'n See's positive attributes --  the well-executed art work, its heritage as a vintage set and the plentiful quantities of cards -- all provide reasons for notable traffic and interest through cyberspace auctions.  The Hobbyist surveyed eBay for roughly a four-week period starting in late October and gauged sales activity.

A few listings contained lots of 40, 50 or 100 different cards.  Overall condition of these pasteboards, not surprisingly, ranged in the fair-to-good category.  One complete set, claimed by the seller as an excellent condition collection, realized a final $800 price.

Most auctions, about 95 percent of all observed and tracked, dealt with single cards.  One high-volume seller initiated auctions of some 25 PSA-graded Look 'n Sees.  The great majority were nm-mt 8s and 7s.  Card number 91, Enrico Caruso graded a PSA-8, carried an opening $180 bid.  The lowest opener had been $20 for a PSA-6 example of number 35, Gen. Matthew Ridgeway.  A PSA-8 of Babe Ruth, the supposed centerpiece of the auction grouping, reached for a $1,300 initial bid.  Significantly, none of the seller's graded cards attracted even one solitary bid.

Other encapsulated Look 'n Sees fared better. One seller offered 16 graded pieces, none judged under PSA-7. The most expensive of this assemblage had been of a PSA-8 graded card number 122, Captain William Kidd. Seven bids lofted the final price to $122. Another Nm-Mt-8, number 104 Queen Elizabeth II, concluded at $115.

One merchant found success with a graded Ruth card, a less immaculate PSA-5 that attracted 21 bids. The final price checked in at $81. Three non-slabbed Ruth cards generated measurable interest. One near-mint example wound up with 25 bids and a $128.50 closing price. Two other very good condition Ruths finished at $113.50 and $67 respectively.

During the survey period, three Rembrandt cards were tracked. Both had been judged as off-centered and were, at best, considered as very good in condition. One finished at $67, another at $60 and the third closed at $41.50. Two more Rembrandts appeared on eBay in early December. One vg- card sold for $80; the other, a fair condition card did not meet the seller's reserve price.

Most non-sport collectors take a dim view of card grading firms and the encapsulation process. Sealing a card in a plastic sarcophagus suggests a disquieting sterility, a barrier of sorts that prevents full enjoyment. Further, card grading is expensive for both dealer, who initially pays for the submission process, and hobbyist, who ultimately shoulders the premium price.

Presently, it appears enough Look 'n See cards may still be easily located in non-graded form. However, eBay is a volatile environment. Many factors account for the pricing disparities of a particular card. Consider Look 'n See's card number 45, aviatrix Amelia Earhart. One eBay listing displayed a vg Earhart with a final $31 price after six bids. A second vg Earhart finished at a very different $11.25 closing.

During the survey, common Look 'n See cards of at minimum very good condition were sold between 99 cents and slightly more than five dollars.  In some cases, activity per item managed one bid response.  Five bids or more for very good or less commons would be considered remarkable.  However, near-mint cards found more interest.  A mid-November auction featured a non-slabbed near-mint #112 Rockefeller that garnered 12 bids and a final $82 sale.







Card number 1 from Look 'n See




Card number 30 depicting Charles Lindbergh is a high-demand single 



Number 15, Look 'n See's most expensive, though not necessarily scarcest card.



Purportedly a scarce card, Look 'n See's #82 is not an impossible to find specimen.





The one-cent gum wrapper















Look 'n See card back of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.  Underneath the title, the designation reads, "No. 1 of 11 Military Leaders."




















Look 'n See #128

Who Am I  #35




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Copyright June 2010 by Scott Thomas, all rights reserved.