BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI
The American Tobacco Company.
The Goudey Gum Company.
The Helmar Brewing Company. Wait, who?
The first two long-defunct companies are associated with some of the rarest and most expensive baseball cards in the sports collecting world. While the Helmar Brewing Co. certainly sounds like it belongs among the aforementioned brands that began producing trading cards at the turn of the 20th century, it’s only two decades old.
Though Helmar may not have more than a century of history behind it, the cards it produces, which are the brainchild of owner Charles Mandel, are no less attractive or collectible – in addition to being some of the hottest and most sought after cards on the modern day market. Mandel’s cards, all of which feature original artwork by himself plus a series of other artists, are inspired by his love of the game, particularly the old time Tigers such as Ty Cobb; and conjure up thoughts of the aforementioned old time cards.
Mandel, 63, grew up in the suburbs of Detroit and has spent the majority of his career working in the sports collectable market, whether it was by producing plastic sheets and binders for trading cards or the exquisite cards that his company now makes. What started out as an idea to brew beer has turned into a company that produces cards depicting some of the game’s all-time greats, along with many modern players.
“We started as a beer company in 2003 and it was my idea to have a theme using vintage baseball art,” Mandel said. “I didn’t brew the beer, I had it contract brewed and it went pretty well. I licensed players like Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, Shoeless Joe Jackson, guys like that to put on the advertising. But the brewer ended up going out of business and I was left wondering what I should do, when I realized that I had gotten so many requests for the posters, beer carriers, and stickers [used for advertising].
“People were enjoying the art for the beer project. I am a long-time collector, so I started going with that. I made a series of cards that were distributed in packages of chips and caramel corn. After that I wanted to make other sets that wouldn’t do particularly well in the [average] consumer market, so I started making limited edition cards – and I never stopped.”
The Helmar Brewing Co. has produced nearly 3,500 different cards since. Each card is generally limited to a run of up to 25 cards and there are now thousands of collectors who make up Mandel’s very loyal following. He distributes his cards through auctions he hosts every Tuesday evening on his website. Mandel usually auctions about 100 items per week with bids starting at $10. The average final price for a card is about $40, though he says many cards go for between $100 and $200 with some reaching as much as $400.
“I do things a little differently,” he said. “I don’t sell my cards. I auction. One thing that has been very helpful is that I don’t put everything on the market all at once. That’s good and bad for me. I’ll only sell four or five copies of a specific card each year so it can take me as many as five years to sell out. My next new series about the 1960s will come out in the fall; but maybe I’ll put out a few smaller ones in the meantime to add to existing sets.”
One of the unique aspects of Mandel’s cards is that he does much of the work himself, from painting the pictures that appear on the cards to printing them and putting them together. Each card has several layers and is put together by hand. Mandel cuts them, waxes them, stains them, distresses them, all in an effort to make them look like they are century old.
“It’s almost embarrassing how long it takes,” said Mandel, who gets a great deal of assistance in this process from his wife Sharon. “I was the first one distressing cards and that was a real conflict for me. Should I make them as perfect as I could or distress them? In today’s market, everyone likes the perfect card. But I like other style cards that are a little beat up and look like they have been loved so I went with my heart even though it takes more work. The thing is, I make less money; but it ended up that a lot of other people liked the idea of a handmade card and not one looking like it was just cut out of a monster sheet in some million-square-foot factory.”
Mandel has been collecting cards since he was 10 years old and at one point had a very large and impressive collection. That collection, however, was stolen 30 years ago and he says he wasn’t going to go back and try to rebuild it because the cost of many of those cards was too high at that point.
“I ended up making my own cards, and that ended up being even better than collecting other people’s stuff,” Mandel said.
The Helmar cards vary in size depending on the set, of which there are 37. The sets have names like Helmar Pharoah’s Choice Imperial Cabinet, The Trolley Car Series, The Brewing Co. Cabinet, The Imperial Cabinet, Great Game Cabinet, and Oasis. The Imperial Cabinets are the largest, the T206s are the smallest; but they are all thick and have the feel of an old time card.
Mandel, who is a self-taught artist, has done much of the artwork himself because he said he couldn’t find the right artist to paint what he had in his head. He has since branched out and worked with nearly a dozen artists, several of whom he has now worked with for years.
“I actually started doing it myself because I couldn’t find an artist to execute my ideas,” Mandel said. “I started working with one artist who paints in opaque watercolors and he said he couldn’t do it; so I went out and bought a bunch of paints and worked on it every day for over a year. I was getting pretty decent and it helped me understand the problems he was having executing my ideas so it worked out really well.”
There is no slowing down for Mandel, either. He says as long as he remains healthy, he’ll keep going. He has a book of ideas for cards that is 27 pages, all single-spaced. Additionally, he has another “thick” book with notes on each of those ideas.
Collecting and creating is all about the emotions that each activity stirs up for Mandel. He’s passionate about his work and doesn’t concern himself with what the high-volume card companies such as Topps are doing. He simply focuses on what appeals to him and the collectors who make up his considerable following. `
“I thought that after I did the cards in the snacks that would be it,” Mandel said. “But I had this great desire to make cards. I never expected this. I made a few and threw them out there and thought, ‘this is going to be it.’ It went so well and I am blessed to continue and go on to explore all different types of art, sets, methods, and processes. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me for sure.”
Mandel produces history and who knows, perhaps in 100 years or so it won’t seem so strange mentioning Helmar Brewing with the likes of American Tobacco and Goudey Gum.