During the pandemic last year, with people locked inside and looking for something to flip the mood, quarantiners turned to nostalgia and began collecting trading cards. Pokémon cards, basketball cards, baseball cards, and more.
Now the market is flaming hot.
Rare cards selling for a high price is not a phenomenon unique to 2020. In 2018, a rare Mike Trout baseball card sold for $400,000. Two years later, its market value was almost 10 times that. The increased demand for cards during the pandemic has driven values to extraordinary heights.
“There’s never been a time like this in the history of the business. I would bet that for every person who wanted a Michael Jordan rookie card in 2019, there’s 100 [now],” said Ken Goldin, founder and executive chairman of Goldin Auctions, which has participated in these high-dollar sales.
The increased interest in the trading card market has opened the eyes of millionaires and billionaires alike. Josh Luber, a co-founder of sneaker resale app StockX, left the company in 2020 to help form Six Forks Kids Club, an asset management company with a focus on trading cards.
A group of billionaires that includes New York Mets owner Steve Cohen purchased Collectors Universe last year for $853 million — a company that authenticates and grades collectibles such as trading cards, which is essential to determining their market value.
A trading card’s value can be made or broken based on one thing: age. The older the card, the rarer and more valuable it is. It is an investment, so an expectation of a higher future value is baked into the price, too.
In August 2020, a one-of-one rookie Mike Trout baseball card sold for a record $3.94 million. In January, just five months later, a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card shattered the record with a sale of $5.2 million. The Mantle card received a grade of 9, just shy of the mint grade of 10. It is believed that only six of those same Mantle cards with a grade of 9 are still in existence.
That record could be broken any time, however. Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), which grades cards, says there are still three 10-graded Mantle cards in existence. One of the cards was in a climate-controlled, UV-protected enclosure and transported by an armored vehicle in 2018.
Those cards are valued at more than $10 million each.
Trading cards are made each year in limited numbers. As the decades pass, players’ careers cement themselves in history while cards bearing their likenesses get damaged or lost. After almost 70 years, only a handful of pristine Mantle cards remain. Fakes can be made, but like government officials with counterfeit currencies, expert card graders can detect reprints in a variety of ways. Therefore, legitimate supply is limited to the few that stand the test of time.
This is a reason why Pokémon cards continue to skyrocket in value.
Pokémon cards first hit the market in Japan in 1996 and made their way to the United States in 1999. The original set — or “base set” — of cards, containing Generation 1 Pokémon, are coveted cards to this day. Like sports cards, rarity is what sends Pokémon card values to the moon.
While intentional features such as holography make a card rarer, unintentional printing errors can as well. Some early-printed cards lacked a shadow underneath the Pokémon, an error that was eventually corrected. The correction makes those shadowless Pokémon that much more coveted as fewer shadowless ones remain in the market.
In October 2020, a 1999 first-edition shadowless holographic Charizard sold for $220,000 to former rapper and Pokémon super fan Logic.
There were also some promotional cards printed in Japanese and given out at a very limited capacity in the ’90s. This is another version of a rarity among Pokémon cards that could set their value at $10,000 and beyond.
Capitalizing on the increased attention around Pokémon cards, YouTuber Logan Paul unboxed a $200,000 first-edition “Booster Box” on livestream last fall. The box contained 36 packs, allowing him to keep one for himself and sell the remaining 35 for $11,111 each.
In the process, Paul’s livestream attracted 300,000 concurrent viewers and raised about $130,000 for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
In February, Paul announced that he spent another $2 million on six more Booster Boxes, putting another 36 packs up for auction. Paul again unboxed the 36 auctioned packs on livestream, revealing “12 highly valuable holographic cards” that are worth $12 million, according to Goldin Auctions.
Two of those 12 cards were Charizards that could alone be worth $500,000 each.
The 36 packs reportedly sold for over $39,000 each in auction, over three times what they sold for in Paul’s October livestream.
While Paul and many others have benefitted from the quick ascension in values of trading cards, it has reached a boiling point when it comes to the producers and retailers.
Walmart employees from around the country have personally told me that their shelves are clear and cards have been moved to customer service, where sales are limited to two per person. Walmart has seen similar issues with fighting, and one employee even said a card distributor found a GPS tracker on her car.
Cards can still be found online, but like any market, demand being higher than supply means prices will continue to rise in resale markets.
With large distributors such as Target and Walmart limiting purchases, card collectors will have to get more creative (and pay higher prices) to get their hands on packs.
If anything has been proven over the past year, though, it is that price and lack of availability won’t stop people from trying. Tensions may cool down inside retail stores, but the market for trading cards may not simmer down for quite some time.