TRADING UP With ''Desert Storm'' cards setting the pace, non-sport collectibles are joining baseball in the big leagues.

(MONEY Magazine) – Everybody knows the Persian Gulf war was good for stocks: the Dow Jones industrials are up 16.1% since Jan. 16. But the best wartime investment, up more than 7,000% in the past three months, isn't sold by any stockbroker. Instead, you may find it at your local 7-Eleven, tucked into an eight-card pack just released by Topps Inc. In the new ''Desert Storm'' collection, the card featuring allied forces commander Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf has jumped from 6 1/2 cents in the store to more than $5 to collectors since the debut of the series in early February. Hobbyists are going crazy over non-sport trading cards -- especially now that collecting baseball cards has outstripped the budgets of most fans. A 1909 Honus Wagner card, for example, went for a staggering $451,000 just six weeks ago and a 1952 Mickey Mantle that some aging yuppies remember owning as a kid fetched an amazing $49,500. As a consequence, more affordable non-sport cards are becoming the savvy choice for investment-conscious hobbyists. This past March, an Adolf Hitler card (see below) from Gum Inc.'s 1938 set ''Horrors of War'' sold for $2,662. And the top non-sport card could bring $5,000 -- one of the 1879 lithographs of a Canadian governor named the Marquis of Lorne that were conceived as a gimmick to sell cigarettes and ultimately became the first non-sport trading cards. ''We think non-sport is where the market is going,'' reports Joshua Evans, founder of Leland's, a sport memorabilia dealer that grossed $119,000 at the first-ever non-sport card auction held last March in New York City. ''They may be the collectible of the '90s.''

Just as the term suggests, non-sport trading cards cover everything but baseball, football and other athletics. They therefore chronicle a mind- boggling range of Americana and fantasy, from boot camp to high camp and everything in between. In fact, some 7,000 distinct non-sport sets have been issued since that first 1879 Marquis. By comparison, just about 1,100 sets of baseball cards have been issued since rival Old Judge Cigarettes pasted the first boys of summer on cardboard six years later. Backing a winner, the trading card industry has jumped on the non-sport bandwagon. Since the Persian Gulf war began, at least nine companies have been busy issuing commemorative sets, which range from star-spangled patriotic -- a 110-card ''Operation Desert Shield'' set from Pacific Trading Cards -- to seriously offbeat -- Pot-Shot Productions' set of 36 ''Damn Saddam, the Wacky Iraqi'' cards. All are being snapped up by collectors. In one month alone, the leading cardmaker, Brooklyn-based Topps, sold $10 million worth of its 88-card ''Desert Storm'' set, according to Stanley Lanzet of the New York City brokerage Arnhold & S. Bleichroeder. In all, estimates Lanzet, sales of non-sport cards total $55 million to $60 million annually -- small, perhaps, compared with the $500 million sport card market, but moving up.''These cards are really hot,'' says Lanzet. Indeed, while stars-and-stripes renditions of Stormin' Norman and Scud- busting Patriot missiles have lifted the hobby to new heights, interest in non-sport cards was already growing. Last year, for instance, Pacific Trading Cards, just outside Seattle, scored with a 110-card set of scenes from the 1960s television sitcom The Andy Griffith Show. Pacific's founder Michael Cramer says the series has more than recouped his ''several hundred thousand dollar'' investment, including $10,000 for licensing and royalty fees. For the companies peddling patriotism, of course, profits are bigger: General Schwarzkopf and other military heroes don't receive royalties, and all the Defense Department charges for an eight-inch-by-10-inch glossy is a piddling $4.25. For the 50,000 or so non-sport collectors, ''prices have more than doubled in the past 18 months,'' says Roxanne Toser, publisher of Non-Sport Update, a hobbyist magazine (P.O. Box 5858, Harrisburg, Pa. 17110; quarterly, $16 a year). Some examples: Donruss' 1978 Elvis Presley 66-card set sold for $3.50 when issued and $5 in 1989. Now it goes for between $15 and $30. Topps' 1976 Star Trek series, originally priced at $12 for 88 cards, has jumped from $35 in 1989 to $120 now. What's the appeal? One reason, say experts, is Americans' search for roots. Throughout the century, few events or personalities have escaped the canny eye of trading card designers, which means there's a card set for every enthusiasm -- including a 1988 series of great 20th-century rabbis (below). ''These cards tell us something about our culture, our history, ourselves,'' explains Ray Browne, chairman of the Department of Popular Culture at Ohio's Bowling Green State University. ''They're cameo encyclopedias of Americana.'' Another reason is more down-to-earth. Says Meir Schacherl, a 42-year-old New York collector who owns about 10,000 non-sport cards: ''They're not that expensive to get into.'' But before shelling out even pocket money for a mint Colin Powell or a New Kids on the Block, there are some basics you should know: -- The non-sport market is somewhat illiquid. Few conventions exist for non- sport traders, as opposed to literally thousands of baseball card shows every year. The largest in non-sport is the International Non-Sport Convention, Aug. 3 to Aug. 4 in Parsippany, N.J., which attracts some 50 dealers and 500 collectors. You can, however, attend baseball shows, where many dealers also sell non-sport items. Advises Chris Benjamin, author of Sport Americana Guide to the Non-Sports Cards (Edgewater Book Co., $14.95): ''Sport dealers often don't know as much about non-sport cards, so you can find real bargains.'' -- Non-sport prices are more speculative. ''Don't buy these cards unless you really want to own them,'' cautions Leland's Evans. -- In general, dealers and collectors say the more rare, the better: look for cards that are scarce, either because they're vintage or perhaps because the manufacturer changed the image somehow. One recent example: After the first few weeks of production, Topps switched from brown print on its Persian Gulf cards to yellow print. The few brown ones are therefore more valuable. ''They're worth about 30% more already,'' says Benjamin. -- And many of the most prized non-sport cards are beautiful as well. The best-quality cards were issued during the genre's prime in the 1930s and 1940s. Now defunct manufacturers like Bowman, Goudey and Gum were then in full non-sport bloom. Competing fiercely, they turned out what experts say are the most detailed card sets in the hobby's history. Sums up Chicago collector Charles ''Pete'' Stahl, a 46-year-old attorney: ''Non-sport cards are really little works of art.''