IN ANONYMOUS Rick Probstein, an office complex in the middle of Meadowland in northern New Jersey, tears through a standing vault in search of his most valuable treasure.
With wire glasses and glowing red hair, Probstein monitors his dimly lit five-room unit like Richard Branson in "MTV Cribs". He deserved it. EBay's preeminent sports memorabilia holder reportedly had global sales of $ 50 million last year.
It takes a month for the coronavirus to turn civilization upside down, and Probstein is in a collector's paradise: shelves with signed jerseys are being prepared for shipping in one room. in another case, two dozen employees who are posted to workplaces carefully monitor the auctions; In Probstein's office, card columns on folding tables test gravity with mini helmets on his desk. On the vault sits a baseball signed by Babe Ruth, which is confirmed with a halfhearted nod as Touchstone rummages downstairs.
Toastein pulls out thick plywood cards from the vault, signed and embedded in jersey patterns used by the game – one of which, a LeBron-Jordan autograph with two patches, will soon fetch $ 35,000 – and two 1952-graded Topps Mickey Mantles.
The coats are the show stoppers. In 2018, one was auctioned off for nearly $ 3 million. Two could buy a private island.
But top dollar vintage cards are nothing new. What's New and Hard to Fathom: Over the past half decade, contemporary sports cards have drawn gigantic sums of money from high-profile investors despite a pandemic that has decimated the American economy. And somehow, in a year when the GDP decline was the worst in American history, ticket sales broke all-time records and stunned investors and collectors alike.
Touchstone, a former Wall Street headhunter who left Manhattan for northeast Jersey when the dotcom bubble burst, is at the center of the gold rush. And even if a class action lawsuit continues against him and an FBI investigation begins against some of the biggest players in the industry, the money will come in. Perhaps that is why Probstein is not concerned.
Honus Wagner, Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron – these cards have been pioneers for decades. But these days, contemporary gamblers are drawing big numbers. Erik Pendzich / Shutterstock
Instead, he focuses on finding his favorite item. Based on his inventory alone, his base of operations in the shadow of MetLife Stadium could be worth $ 10 million at any point in time. So Probstein's pride and joy must be Smithsonian-worthy. A Honus Wagner? A Sports News Babe Ruth Rookie? A Bowman Willie Mays from 1951?
He raises it, turns around and drops the coup de grace: a 1-kilogram Swiss gold bar. "I think that's just cool," he says.
"Outside the white whale," says Probstein, pointing to the coats. "I'm just like 'whatever'."
THE HISTORY OF The past 40 years of baseball cards in America is in many ways the story of John List.
Born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1968, List focused tirelessly on the Green Bay Packers and baseball cards in the early 1980s. A paper route paid for his collection. Mowed lawns and shoveled driveways were a means to the same end. He lived in Chicago and Milwaukee for weekends and flared through the congressional circuit.
Soon List was studying economics at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and was at the height of moonlight collecting as a convention dealer. Sports cards had become a billion dollar industry – from nostalgic digger totems of a post-WWII America to real livelihoods.
"There were more card stores than Starbucks," says List.
List, who was a self-described "heavy-hawker" in 1988, was also drawn to academic pastimes: hobbyists monitored and collected athletes they preferred; The values fluctuated with the hype and performance of the players. With enough money and a little strategy, a collector could single-handedly conquer and control the markets.
John List has been collecting since childhood. But even after filling his resume with academic achievements, he still finds reasons to be fascinated by his long-standing hobby. Fareine Suarez / University of Chicago
Maps were American economics, miniaturized, and as such tempting to an economist like List – even if they soon collapsed under the deadly combination of rampant fraud and overproduction and the 1994 MLB strike.
Last but not least, free market capitalism is able to create bubble economies. In the midst of the wreckage of that so-called junk wax era, when America's 10,000 stationary card stores dwindled to the hundreds, List – now Dr. List, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago – shortlisted Nobel Prize for 2015 – brought academic passion into his passion.
"I was looking for the best bargaining opportunities, for the best types of auctions to sell your cards, for the trusted dealers who promised certain notes, for loss aversion," says List today, describing work that ultimately led to some of the earliest field trials in sports cards .
If anyone in America really understands baseball cards – and can explain the seemingly inexplicable boom in their market since the global pandemic broke out – then it's ruse.
Before COVID-19 hit, he spent some time doing spring training in Phoenix and visiting his mom and pop shop, AZ Sports Cards, a establishment so warm and welcoming that it has been dubbed the sports card version of "Cheers."
"Business is doing well," says List. "But the (owner says) the real money is online."
The rise of eBay, Amazon, and newer marketplaces like StockX created huge secondary markets and fierce global competition for the most desirable sports stars, which in turn caused prices to skyrocket.
In-demand rookie cards (see: Ken Griffey Jr.'s 1989 Upper Deck card) fueled demand in the industry's heyday, a time before manufacturers were held accountable for the number of cards they produced. The infamous junior rookie? Rumor has it that Upper Deck overproduced the set by 1990, even printing only Griffey sheets, denying the foul all along. Perceived rarity has skyrocketed the value of the card, but in reality it is close to 2 million, with Junior himself saying he owns "over 100".
Today's industry works with manufactured scarcity and tracking cards: low-edition cards with serial numbers, the most valuable of which are often newbies, usually signed with memorabilia embedded in them. While the old model encouraged collectors to keep buying boxes that once held dozens of packs, today's top tier boxes routinely cost thousands and often offer just one pack of astronomical cards, sometimes even just one card.
Ken Goldin has auctioned the T206 Honus Wagner several times, but says he has seen more investment energy in modern cards in recent years. Ken Goldin
In the US, where real wages (adjusted for inflation) have been flat for nearly half a century, few can drop $ 1,000 on a box of cards. The ones that can normally fit a description.
"I deal with hedge fund managers and venture capitalists," said Ken Goldin, founder of Goldin Auctions. "If someone comes to me with $ 5 million and asks for $ 5 million (cards) in a week, that's fine.
"I've had people with $ 500 million net cash worth billions of dollars telling me this is not a short-term thing: sports cards are part of their asset allocation from now on."
For his part, List is not surprised that Wall Street has invaded. He's surprised it didn't happen sooner.
"When you think of typical assets that hedge funds invest in, you think of stocks, stocks, bonds, commodities, and currencies. This is where art and americana come in: stable assets that hedge other parts of portfolios," says List.
"The sports card market is good because it's partly nostalgic, partly art, and partly investment potential. This combination is magical."
Card manufacturers may have inexpensive boxes, but they promise fewer car chases and less resale value. The average kid can still collect for novelties, but rarely in the same circles as the hobby's new high rollers.
Experienced collectors reacted to high-priced boxes with money-pooled "fall breaks": Several collectors search for unopened boxes or boxes, broadcast the breaks on social media via livestream and share the hits. Millions of budget viewers live vicariously through breakers on YouTube, Twitch, and elsewhere.
Earlier this year, this LeBron James rookie card grossed more than $ 1 million. Upper deck
That loot, which hits the secondary market, might as well be a buddy in the waters of the ocean: In 2019, eBay reported card sales of more than $ 600 million, up 40% overall since 2016. Executives from Upper Deck, Panini America, Topps, and Leaf all say the past three to five years have been the best in the business.
Even List, always the academic, has gotten more aggressive lately.
"I'm more optimistic about cards than most," says List. "I'm actually trying to corner the market -"
He catches himself before he lets his secret escape. There is no launch of a market if your competition knows your game.
"Well, a Topps card from 1982," he says, "(of those) there are 262 PSA 10s."
PSA 10s – cards labeled as physically perfect by Professional Sport Authenticator, the most widely used and polarizing card scoring service – have the highest resale value, making them the most expensive.
And if there is one thing a Nobel Prize list economist understands, it is supply and demand.
"I own about 80 of them," List says flatly.
IF YOU LOOK For a metric that you can use to measure the health of the sports card market, you could do worse than attending the National Sports Collectors Convention every year. Essentially a haven for industry connoisseurs and hobby shopkeepers in 1980, the LAX Marriott became the largest convention in the industry in 1991 with a record 100,000 attendees.
Eight years later, after the card market collapsed, that number of visitors dropped to 25,000. By 2018, participation in the National had recovered to 45,000. The booths for this year's convention, which was scheduled for late July in Atlantic City, were sold out by the end of 2019.
Then the coronavirus happened.
The show was postponed to December and then canceled immediately as the U.S. squatted for a pandemic response that sparked the sharpest economic decline in modern history, with around 60 million first-time jobless claims by September. It should definitely be game over for the card industry.
Instead, virtual auction blocks exploded and wrote record books over and over again over the past six months.
From May to early June, more than 40 cards sold for at least $ 50,000 on eBay. From mid-May to July that number rose to 96, with more than 35% going for $ 90,000 or more.
"I've been in this market since 1976 and have never seen such vitality," says List.
Earlier this year, both a LeBron / Jordan signed dual patch card as one of five – yes, there is only one – and a rookie autograph from Mike Trout, one of five of its kind, sold for $ 900,000 with Goldin Auctions the highest sums ever made for modern cards. As of July, an autograph of a LeBron James rookie patch on the card broke that record, costing $ 1.8 million. Just last week, shortly after his second consecutive MVP award, a single rookie patch autograph by Giannis Antetokounmpo broke that record for $ 1.812 million. Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson, and Ja Morant rookies routinely go for $ 50,000 or more.
In late August, a trout rookie cost the most expensive sports card ever sold for an unbelievable $ 3.9 million and dethroned the crown jewel of collecting, the T206 Honus Wagner, which was sold for $ 3.1 million after its launch in 2016 $ 2.1 million just three years earlier.
Most people who are only temporarily interested in tickets know "the Wagner", but for connoisseurs it was old news long before the record fell.
"When we sold (the T206 in 2016), the big story wasn't the Wagner," Goldin said before the trout auction. "It so happened that a 2003 LeBron rookie sold for $ 310,000. That opened my eyes. There are a lot of collectors who collect modern cards."
|2009 Mike Trout||$ 3.84 million *||August 22nd|
|2013-14 Giannis Antetokounmpo||$ 1.86 million||21st September|
|2003-04 LeBron James||$ 1.8 million||July 18th|
|2003-04 LeBron James||$ 1.08 million||August 22nd|
|2009 Mike Trout||$ 922,500||May 16|
|1968 Nolan Ryan||$ 600,000||August 22nd|
|2003-04 LeBron James||$ 540,000||August 22nd|
|* Most expensive card ever sold|
Million dollar cards used to require history, time to guess, a "backstory," says Dave Jamieson, author of Mint Condition.
"That's clearly not what's going on with a signed Mike Trout rookie card."
RICK PROBSTEIN WHITE Better than most was the extent to which the world came to a standstill six months ago, and people everywhere, scared of the outside world, darted to their screens. He received the reward for countless impulse purchases in 2020.
"There are no card shows," he says. "People flock to eBay. We ship overseas every day (and) haven't seen a downturn."
He forecasts sales of more than $ 75 million for his auction house this year and dwarfs his record-breaking $ 50 million in 2019. Even when New York and New Jersey were the epicenter of the American outbreak, its business never missed a beat.
If there was any bumps in the road, COVID-19 didn't do it. A 2019 FBI investigation into some of the biggest players in the industry – particularly PSA, which could pose problems for the industry's evaluation process – is still ongoing. In April, a class action lawsuit was filed against Probstein and others, in which, among other things, false information and shill bids are asserted – the manipulation of prices during live auctions.
"The suit is a total money robbery," says Probstein. "The judge kicked it out." (The lawsuit filed in the Orange County California Supreme Court under the Extortion and Organized Crime Act known as RICO is still pending. Probstein and co-defendant PWCC Marketplace each filed for dismissal in early November. )
Rick Probstein, pictured here with a signed Mike Trout rookie, expects his eBay auction house to generate sales of more than $ 75 million in 2020. Rick Probstein
Should Probstein and others be held liable, they would hardly be the first. Former Mastro Auctions CEO Bill Mastro was convicted in a criminal case on some of the allegations made by the group and spent 20 months in jail for treating a T206 Wagner sold to Wayne Gretzky.
(This Wagner was purchased in 2007 by Ken Kendrick, owner of Arizona Diamondbacks, for $ 2.8 million despite being treated.)
If there was ever a wholesome side to a hobby that once sold tobacco to children, 2020 will be long gone. And the year exposed that reality, starting with the newly deceased: two weeks after Kobe Bryant's death, Bryant cards were everywhere, the stratosphere is rising 600% according to eBay sales data.
"I don't want to benefit from it," says Probstein. "But I'm a broker for people who want to sell (me)."
Then, in April, the hugely popular Jordanian documentary "The Last Dance" sparked a fever among Jordanian hobbyists and increased Jordanian ticket sales by 370%.
"We did so much (business) with" The Last Dance "," Probstein notes. "We sold a signed Jordan rookie for $ 125,000 and another for $ 85,000. There was something new every day."
Aside from the fate of Probstein, fear of an impending bubble creeps through the industry.
"Predicting the future price of an asset," List says, "is like predicting the way a drunk walking out of a salon will stumble: it's always easy to predict a bubble after the bubble has burst. That Quarterbacking on Monday morning is undefeated. "
"In the late 1980s the Wagner sold for $ 10,000, $ 19,000, $ 23,000, and everyone said it was a bubble at the time. Well, I wish I could have invested in that bubble are usually corrections in markets."
In August, when demand for Michael Jordan memorabilia was peaking, a pair of Jordan shoes with a shard of glass from a backboard that he broke, still embedded in the sole, sold for $ 615,000, the most expensive shoes any times. Days earlier, a sealed box of Fleer basketball cards from 1986-87, promising 40 untouched Jordan newbies, was sold for $ 1.79 million through Collect Auctions.
In the early 1980s, basketball cards were so unpopular that Topps ceased production and Fleer bought the exclusive license in 1985. Forty untouched Jordan newbies would fetch roughly $ 4 million in the current market, not to mention Dominique Wilkins, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Karl Malone rookie cards also in the set. Put simply, $ 1.79 million was a steal. So it also appeared that the Fleer case sold for only $ 10,058 in the same auction from 1986 to 1987.
Or it would have been – if the case hadn't been empty.
Ten thousand dollars for peeled boxes and discarded packaging.
Bobby Poll, the owner of SIG Auctions, took home the lot, perhaps the most brazen omen of decadence in an industry littered with them. When he reached for a comment about what made him pay 10 grand for trash, he said, "You thought there must be something wrong with this guy, right?"
"I know what I'm going to do with it," said Poll, alluding to his mysterious plans to somehow resell trash.
And he expects a profit.
"Worst Case Scenario?" he says. "I'm going to break even."