Each April, when my bride asks what I want for my birthday, I jokingly tell her “the Holy Grail of baseball cards — a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle.” We both chuckle because the purchase of one of these tiny pieces of cardboard even in ratty condition would require us to take out a second mortgage.
And one in near-mint condition?
With vivid colors and no creases, the ’52 Mantle commands prices one would expect to pay for a Picasso or a Renoir. These cards we once clamped with clothespins to the spokes of our Stingray bicycles to create cool, whirring, motorcycle sounds as we pedaled down the sidewalks and roads of our youth are now worth a king’s ransom. Up and up they rocket in value. Where they will peak is anyone’s guess.
A few months ago, entrepreneur Rob Gough made a cannonball splash when he paid a record-setting $5.2 million for a ’52 Mantle that was graded nine out of a possible 10. It was a jaw-dropping purchase — the most money ever shelled out for a sports card — but hardly an isolated event in a memorabilia market that’s gone mad, thanks, in part, to the pandemic. And it shattered the mark set just five months earlier when a one-of-a-kind 2009 Mike Trout baseball card sold for $3.9 million — a stratospheric leap from the $400,000 it went for in 2018.
And it’s not just baseball cards that are soaring through the clouds. Before the recent Super Bowl, a Patrick Mahomes rookie commanded $861,000. The Kansas City Chief quarterback’s record for most expensive football card didn’t last long. Recently, the CEO of FitBit forked over $2.2 mil for a Tom Brady card. So, the G.O.A.T. got Mahomes’ goat again. Two months after winning his seventh championship ring, Brady had established yet another record of note. And, don’t look now, Tom and Patrick, because Josh Allen is gaining on you. The Buffalo Bills quarterback, who had a break-through, MVP-caliber season in 2020, recently saw one of his rookie cards auctioned off for $210,000.
Basketball and hockey have gotten into the act, too. Last month, Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic set a new hoops record when his 2019 Panini rookie went for $4.6 million. And a 1979 Wayne Gretzky O-Pee-Chee rookie recently fetched $1.8 million in auction, establishing a new hockey standard.
It’s enough to send baby boomers scrambling to their parents’ attics in search of cards their mothers did not throw out.
“It’s been insane,” said Ezra Levine, CEO of Collectable, a fractional ownership platform that enables users to buy and sell shares in valuable cards. “Athletes and influencers and celebrities have jumped aboard, and the hobby has become cooler and more profitable than it’s ever been. This truly is the golden age of collecting. It’s a lot more fun saying you own a share in a card or a piece of sports memorabilia than say, a share in some tech company on the stock market.”
Domestic sales for trading cards on eBay skyrocketed 142 percent in 2020. The increased interest can be partially attributed to one-time collectors rediscovering their childhood hobby while being cooped up because of COVID-19. But even before the pandemic hit 13 months ago, the shift from investing emotions to investing big money was starting to take place. And it wasn’t only nostalgic boomers fueling the gold rush.
“We’re noticing more young people taking an interest,” Levine said. “Some do enjoy the cards, but many see it strictly as an investment; a strategic asset no different than a stock portfolio.”
Gough collected cards as a youngster in Indianapolis. But the entrepreneur’s recent return to the hobby and his huge outlay for the ’52 Mantle was “70 percent investment, 30 percent from an emotional standpoint.” The man who founded DOPE, an immensely successful street-wear apparel company, believes “this card is going to continuously beat the S&P 500. So, what am I gonna do? Take the $5.2 million and put it in the market? Put it in a house, where you’re going to get three to eight percent a year? Or put it in Mickey Mantle?”
In recent years, Gough has upgraded his ’52 Mantles. His latest “Mickey Mona Lisa” was one of just nine such cards rated at least a nine. Reportedly, there are only three ’52 Mantles graded a perfect 10. None of those are for sale, but if they were, auction houses have estimated they could garner as much as $20 million apiece.
Which brings me back to my birthday gift wish. Collectible recently offered $10 shares in a ’52 Mantle that was graded an eight by authenticators. I purchased five shares, and am one of 655 investors in a sale that was capped at $485,000, and was fully funded in a matter of minutes. When the company allows Collectible subscribers to trade the card down the road, I’ll likely be able to sell my shares for at least twice as much as what I paid for them. But I’ll probably hold onto them instead. See, I’m an old school hobbyist. I collect for emotional, not monetary value, though I am cognizant what these investments are worth.
Now, that I own a fraction of a ’52 Mantle, I’m going to set my sights on some other cardboard works of art. Next time, my bride inquires about a B-Day gift, I might ask for a Honus Wagner T206 (value: $3.1 million). Or something more affordable, like that Gretzky rookie or a 1986 Michael Jordan Fleer depicting His Airness flying toward the rim. Hey, that Jordan’s a steal at just $99,000.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.