People have been collecting things for centuries. Some of these collections are valuable, most aren’t. From comic books to marbles to shells from the beach, there are many examples from our youth collections that don’t tend to hang around into adulthood.
Whilst many of these collections aren’t worth anything (such as the shells) there are some lucky collectors who managed to find a collection hobby that is quite valuable. Examples of these would include comics, action figures and sports trading cards.
While most sports trading card collectors get started in their youth, there are some that are attracted to this as adults, particularly given the investment returns that sports trading cards can generate. While some trepidation must be highlighted when assuming highly prized sports trading cards always go up in value (as with other collectables such as art or rare coins) in general sports trading cards are a worthwhile investment.
Below we go into detail regarding an introduction to collecting sports trading cards and some ideas on how you can make money on this.
What are trading cards?
From Wikipedia “A trading card (or collectible card) is a small card, usually made out of paperboard or thick paper, which usually contains an image of a certain person, place or thing (fictional or real) and a short description of the picture, along with other text (attacks, statistics, or trivia). There is a wide variation of different types of cards.
Trading cards are traditionally associated with sports (baseball cards are particularly common) but can also include subjects such as Pokémon and other non-sports trading cards.”
Whilst this article will focus on sports trading cards there can be some good money to be made in collecting other trading cards such as Pokemon or Magic: The Gathering.
Basic history of sports trading cards
The earliest sports trading cards are believed to have been baseball cards that were produced in the late 19th century by cigarette manufacturers who added these trading cards (usually baseball players in the U.S) to their cigarette packs to stiffen up these packets and also as a way to advertise for their products.
Examples of this style of cards include American Tobacco Company, P.H Mayo & Bros and Lone Jack Cigarette Company and as you can imagine, rare mint condition cards of this era can be worth a lot of money.
As these cards became more popular, manufacturers then branched out to other products to add trading cards to which increased the popularity of these cards. Restrictions due to World War II lead to the end of this cigarette style trading cards and led rise to the current sports trading card industry that we now are familiar with.
During this period, leading sports card manufacturers such as Upper Deck, Fleer and Topps began to dominate the industry
While sports trading cards have been valuable throughout history in recent times there has been an explosion of demand around sports trading cards and new market entrants such as Fanatics have realized the potential value in sports trading cards (and other overlapping areas in sports) and expanded aggressively in the sports trading cards space.
How much are sports trading cards worth?
In most cases sports trading cards on their own aren’t worth that much. There can be some more value in having a full series of cards, however the value of a full series is usually in the highest demand card of that set, such as a rookie of the year rookie card in a major sport.
Then you have the valuable one off cards, that can fetch four to five figures. Great cards to own however not likely to allow you to retire on at least on their own. Examples of these cards include a mint condition Steph Curry Panini Crown Royale Rookie card which can fetch $25,000 and above.
Then you get the best of the best, the unicorns of the sports trading card industry. These are the holy grail of sports trading cards and are worth a fortune. They can also make some of the best investments across any investment class.
Usually these cards are old and really rare (think the American Tobacco Company Honus Wagner card or Topps Mickey Mantle Card) or it’s a modern day great who’s card is really rare (think Tom Brady or Lebron James rookie cards.
For example the one of the most valuable sports trading cards is universally agreed to be a Honus Wagner T206 from the American Tobacco Company. Of the top 10 most expensive sports trading cards of all time, 3 of the Honus Wagner cards appear on this list (not including the infamous ‘Gretzky’ T206 Honus Wagner (graded at PSA 8 NM-MT).
The “Gretzky’ Honus Wagner card came to prominence in 1985 when Alan Ray sold the card for $25,000 (plus a couple of other valuable trading cards) to Bill Mastro (who at one time was one of the most popular sports trading card figures). Eventually this card found its way into ownership of Wayne Gretzky and (and former L.A Kings owner Bruce McNall) in 1991, purchased for $451,000. After going through several owners, this version of the T206 Honus Wagner was last sold for $2.8 million (to the initially anonymous Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick) in 2007.
Even dating back to the pre Gretzky ownership there were rumors that this card had been tampered with and eventually it came to light that Bill Mastro had tampered with the card to make the card more valuable (Mastro eventually pled guilty to fraud charges and was sentenced to a jail term)
Given the fame of the ‘Gretzky’ T206 Honus Wagner we can track the performance over the years (even though it eventually came out as being tampered with) and compare this to returns on residential property (let’s use 3 bedroom Los Angeles County) and shares (let’s use the S&P 500). For illustrative purposes let’s start with the year 1995 (Gretzky sold this card to Walmart for $500K)
From 1995 to 2007 this card increased from $500K to $2.8M or a 560% increase over nearly 13 years.
From 1995 to 2007 Los Angeles County property increased from $178K to $505K or a near 284% increase over nearly 13 years.
From 1995 to 2007 the S&P 500 increased from 459.21 to 1,473.99 or a nearly 321% increase over nearly 13 years.
So as you can see the ‘Gretzky’ Honus Wagner card outperformed the US property and US share market significantly over that time.
Now this is only one card and isn’t completely indicative of the total sports card industry however it does show that with a suitable time frame investing in sports trading cards can be a fantastic investment option.
Sports trading card values (similar to other collectables such as art or rare coins) can tend to reflect the prevailing market/economic conditions and can get quite frothy valuations during boom economic times.
Also when investing in this asset class be aware that sports trading cards don’t pay an income (like property, shares and businesses do) unless you have a significantly valuable card that you may wish to rent out to card conventions or shows (providing you can obtain insurance and tight security).
How much money can I make from sports trading cards?
This depends and is also determined by the approach you take. If you take the approach where you buy a few packs of a particular collection and hope you get a valuable card from one of this packs
Alternatively you could expand this to a build a collection for a specific sport and year, i.e Fleer 2022 NBA set which will cost you a bit to put this collection together however if a few of the rookies of this year take off and become all timers then the value of your collection (particularly their rookie cards) could become significantly valuable.
Through savvy trading and a bit of luck you can trade your way up the value chain and eventually get into the bigger trading card leagues!
The other way is to invest significantly in high valued cards or collections as an investment and hope that the rate of return on these cards continues to increase, such as if you purchased a high end card (such as the ‘Gretzky’ Honus Wagner card mentioned above grew over 500% from 1995 to 2007).
The barrier to entry for this approach is the high level of capital involved (banks and financiers aren’t lining up to stake you for an expensive sports trading card).
Remember this style of investing is highly speculative and while long term you are likely to make money with a high end sports trading card there may be some shorter term fluctuations (particularly in times of economic uncertainty).
As with any investments, look at what your strategy is going to be, look at how much you can afford to invest and what rate of return are you looking to get from this investment. Finally, never invest more than you can afford to lose.
How is a sports trading card valued or graded?
There are three main sports cards grading companies that are universally accepted. These are PSA, Beckett and SGC. Each of these has their own corner of the market, with PSA and SGC usually favored for older, vintage sports trading cards while Beckett is favored for the modern sports trading cards.
Each grading company has their own grading range with Beckett and PSA (from PR1 through to GEM-MT 10 or gem mint) rating from 0-10 (10 being the best, Beckett using 0.5 increments) while SGC grades from 0-100 then brings this down to a 0-10 rating i.e 72 out of hundred will be assessed as 7.2.
How a card is graded again is dependent on each grading company however some of the main points are:
Centering: Basically are the borders in line and equal.
Cornering: In most cases the most important part of a cards grading, are the corners sharp? Check both sides of the card to make sure all corners are top quality.
Edges: Similar to the corners, are the edges sharp with no imperfections? Also look at the back of the card as well when checking edges.
Surface: What is the condition of the card? Are there any scratches, smears or imperfections on the surface?
Also note that It is important that the autograph on the card is as per the release. Sports trading cards will not be graded if the card is personally signed.
BGS 9 is the condition expected out of the pack and it is very rare that a card is valued at a 10. If you are lucky enough to own a 10 then it will significantly increase the value of the card even compared to a 9.
Other factors that will affect the grading of a card is the brand of card, the year of the card and the packaging the card came from.
For more information on sports cards grading check out this article from The Cardboard Connection.
Most valuable sports trading cards in history
- Mickey Mantle 1952 Topps $12.6 million
A high quality (and very rare) SGC 9.5 Topps Mickey Mantle playing card is the record high priced sports trading card after being sold by Heritage Auctions in August 2022 for $12.6 million.
There is a legend that the reason for the scarcity of this card is that most boxes of these cards were thrown in the trash due to lack of demand, however anyone with a high quality copy of this card is sitting on a gold mine!
- Honus Wagner T206 American Tobacco Company $7.25 million
The previous record holder of the most expensive sports trading card ever purchased for many years was a Honus Wagner card. Whether it was the “Gretzky’ T206 Honus Wagner or one of the others on this list, the name Honus Wagner means serious value for a sports trading card.
In August 2022 a T206 Honus Wagner SGC Grade 2 sold for $7.25 million in a private sale becoming the most expensive sports trading card ever sold. A few weeks later this record price was smashed by the Mickey Mantle 1952 Topps card which sold for $12.6 million.
- Honus Wagner T206 American Tobacco Company $6.606 million
This version of the Honus Wagner T206 card was graded at SGC 3 and sold for $6.606 million in August 2021. At the time this was a record sale for a sports trading card, however this record was since broken by another Honus Wagner T206 sale and by the eventual record holding Mickey Mantle card sale.
- Wardell Stephen “Steph” Curry II Panini National Treasures $5.9m
The first non baseball card and the first modern era player card to appear on this list. The Steph Curry Panini National Treasures Rookie Card (PSA 8 NM-MT) sold for $5.9m via private sale in July 2021. This purchase took the place on the list of the previous highest most expensive basketball card (Lebron James 2003-04 Upper Deck Patch Autograph rookie card, $5.45m sale price).
- Lebron James 2003-04 Upper Deck Rookie Patch Autograph $5.45m
The 2nd basketball card on this list (interesting that none of these basketball cards are of Michael Jordan) is that of Lebron James. This card was a 2003-04 Upper Deck Rookie Patch Autograph (BGS MT9) that sold for $5.45 million in April 2021 and at the time was the most expensive basketball card ever sold (before the above Steph Curry card transaction occurred).
*Note a PSA 10 Pikachu Illustrator trading card was sold to Logan Paul for $5.275 million in 2021 which would be top 5 trading card sale.
How to make money in sports trading cards
As we touched on earlier, a simple way to enter into collecting sports trading cards is to find a sport you like or would like to learn more about, one that tends to offer sports trading cards that can become valuable. Do some basic research (including how to store your cards), work out the budget you can spend on this then start buying your cards.
Don’t forget to invest in all the relevant card protection equipment to preserve your investment.
Do your research on the trading card manufactures that tend to increase in value the most and look for an upcoming release to begin your journey. Look at the main grading companies websites, Beckett, PSA and SGC for further information about sports trading card quality and investing tips.
There are also popular sports trading hobby sites that have a wealth of knowledge about collecting cards. These include The Cardboard Collection, TAASS and PWCC
Alternatively if you have a little more money to invest you can look for more expensive cards as a long term investment option. With this option make sure you do a significant amount of research before looking to invest and seek out the advice of sports trading card experts either online or in your area.
If in doubt, start small and with a sport you know or follow. Find a good sports card manufacturer, do your research then start buying packs of cards to build your collection.
Other trading cards examples
Whilst this article is based around sports trading cards, there are also other forms of trading cards that are quite valuable, two of which (Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering) we mentioned earlier.
If this is your preferred style of trading cards to invest in, go for it. Use the same steps mentioned earlier when doing your research and finding a quality card manufacturer to start collecting; however , there is plenty of investment potential in these trading cards.
Some of the most expensive trading cards outside of sports are:
Pokemon Trading Cards
Pokemon the brand was created by Satoshi Tajiri and was first seen in the 1996 Nintendo Gameboy in the game Pocket Monsters Red and Green. This game was a hit, starting on the most successful franchises in history. Eventually other Pokemon merchandise was created and
Pokemon trading cards were first released in Japan in 1996 (a US release followed in 1999).
The Pokemon trading cards are some of the most popular (and valuable) non sports trading cards and there are several Pokemon trading cards that will fetch well into six figures with the most expensive Pokemon trading card ever sold being the extremely rare PSA 10 Pikachu Illustrator card which was purchased by Logan Paul for $5.275 million in 2021.
Magic: The Gathering Trading Cards
Magic: The Gathering (believed to be the first collectible card game created) was created by Richard Garfield and the first set of cards was published in 1993.
Essentially a player takes the role of a Planeswalker who travels through domains (dimensions) placing spells with the aim to reduce your opponent’s health to 0 (from 20). Cards decks can be a minimum of 40 cards however most games are played with 60 random cards with decks created by players.
New cards are released regularly through expansion packs and the most expensive cards are either the rarest ones or the ones that have the biggest effect on opponents in gameplay.
Expensive Magic: The Gathering Cards can be sold for four figure sums while the most powerful, rare (and expensive) card is the Black Lotus. This card can be sold in the mid 5 figure range with an autographed version (by the original artist Christopher Rush) of this card (PSA 10) sold in 2021 for $511,000.
Yu-Gi-Oh! Trading Cards
Yu-Gi-Oh! Is another trading card game on this list, this time from Japan. Yu-Gi-Oh! Was created by the big Japanese Video Game and Entertainment company Konami. The first lot of cards was released in 1999 and in the US in 2002 eventually becoming one of the trading cards games in history with billions of cards sold.
Similar to Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh! cards can fetch mid four figures with the most expensive Yu-Gi-Oh! Card sold was a variant of the Ultimate Blue-Eyes White Dragon card which sold for 45 millions yen or (approx. $427K USD). There have been rumors of a $2 million sale of a stainless steel Black Luster Soldier card however this doesn’t appear to be verified.
Collecting sports trading cards is one of those rare opportunities where you can make (sometimes significant) money from one of your hobbies. The key is to handle these cards as an investment (even at an early age) and protect your cards. The cards with the highest PSA are the cards which are worth the most money so protect any good cards with your life!
Life any investments sports trading cards should be viewed as a long term option and given the fluctuation of collectible investments there may be some periods of time where your cards may lose value (particularly during an economic slowdown or recession) however if your view is long term and you invest in quality (and with some luck) you should end up with a decent long term investment with your sports trading cards.