The 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card is the Mona Lisa of sports cards.” Entrepreneur and actor Rob Gough fizzes with excitement as he describes the card featuring the baseball legend glancing backwards, bat resting on his shoulder. The card was originally sold in bubble-gum packs for five cents, but in January, Gough paid $5.2m for it through PWCC, a major trading cards marketplace. 

Despite the soaring value, Gough describes the deal as “a steal”. This same card had sold for $2.88m in April 2018 and Gough was offered $8m for it in the same week he bought it. A 1953 Topps baseball card was also recently spotted amid the family photos behind President Biden in the Oval Office – it featured Satchel Paige, the first black pitcher to play in the American League (and only the seventh black Major League player). “Historically, sports cards have had better returns than S&P500 companies, so I knew my Mickey Mantle card was a safe investment,” Gough adds. “I think this card will get to prices close to high-end art; it’s so rare and it’s a piece of American history.” 

A 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, sold for $5.2m in January
A 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, sold for $5.2m in January
A 1961 Fleer Wilt Chamberlain
A 1961 Fleer Wilt Chamberlain

Ken Goldin agrees. The founder of sports collectables specialist Goldin Auctions cites the T206 Honus Wagner baseball card from 1909-11, distributed in cigarette packets. Wagner was one of the first five players to be inducted into the sport’s Hall of Fame but withdrew permission for his image to be used, and the American Tobacco Company stopped printing the card – reducing its availability. 

“There are 50 of these cards that trade, and each time one has been sold it has never been for less than the owner paid; that includes the recession of 2008-09,” says Goldin. In May, Goldin sold a T206 Honus Wagner for $3.75m.

A T206 Honus Wagner, sold for $3.75m in May
A T206 Honus Wagner, sold for $3.75m in May
A 1911 Fred Odwell card at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
A 1911 Fred Odwell card at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In recent years market prices have been driven up, explains Goldin, by factors including an international market – Australia, UK, Asia; the media frenzy generated by prices; and the launch of fractionalised share companies that buy cards for six-figure sums and then sell part-ownership shares.

“If you collect for fun, buy what you like,” advises Goldin. “If it’s for investment, buy what everybody likes. The player featured is the most important thing. A rare card in great condition, of a player that nobody cares about, won’t sell for a lot. But Michael Jordan, even on a heavily produced card like his 1986 Fleer rookie, in a 5 condition, will still sell for thousands.” 

Soccer is the same, he adds. “Buy a true legend, such as Pelé, Messi, Maradona, Ronaldo.” Goldin cautions that cards of a new player (a “rookie”) in any sport risk price crashes due to injury and off-field misdemeanours.

In the UK, prices remain less elevated despite a long history of collectable sports cards, says auctioneer Tim Davidson. Late Victorian cards from independent tobacco companies are the ones for serious collectors, he adds, citing a 1898 card made by Robert Sinclair Tobacco in Newcastle that he sold for £5,500. Mass-production in the 20th century killed their rarity, as did the fact that there can be 10, 20 or even 30 sets of football cards from companies such as Panini, Upper Deck, Merlin, and Futera.

A signed LeBron James rookie card, sold by Goldin Auctions for $1.8m in July 2020
A signed LeBron James rookie card, sold by Goldin Auctions for $1.8m in July 2020
A 1978 Diego Maradona, sold by Goldin Auctions for $110,400
A 1978 Diego Maradona, sold by Goldin Auctions for $110,400

Where the market remains feverish, third-party authenticators such as PSA play a vital role in verifying genuine cards and grading their condition, from 1 to Gem Mint 10. PSA then seals cards in tamper-evident “slabs”. Graders still get a buzz when an iconic card arrives, says PSA president Steve Sloan. “What’s also exciting is the renaissance of interest in some of the modern rookie cards issued for players like LeBron James, Mike Trout and Tom Brady.” 

A 1958 Pelé card
A 1958 Pelé card

At the start of his pro career, NFL legend Brady secured a deal to sign 1,000 Panini cards for 20¢ each. In April, one sold for $2.25m at online sports auction house Lelands. But the Super Bowl-winning quarterback is looking to the future of sports collectables as co-founder of autograph.io, a platform for non-fungible tokens based on entertainment and sports. As sports collectables, virtual NFTs represent a revolution; kids can’t swap NFTs in the playground. But perhaps a video of Kobe Bryant dunking a basket will prove just as collectable – the NBA’s Top Shot was responsible for $500m in NFT transactions in the first quarter of this year. 

NFTs would have been pure science-fiction to the children who collected the first annual set of Topps baseball cards 70 years ago. But so would the idea that among their 5¢ packs were cards that would go on to be worth millions. 

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