Wayne Gretzky Card Reaches for $1 Million in Sports-Collectible Boom

Those dusty boxes in your parents’ attic filled with your childhood stuff might just be treasure chests.

A resurgence of nostalgia in adults bored by lockdowns and social distancing is boosting the market for collectibles such as sports memorabilia. As they reconnect with their childhood hobbies during the pandemic, the price for rare mint condition trading cards has jumped to six- and seven-digit valuations — more in line with a Basquiat artwork than the Kurt Bevacqua card that was inserted into your bicycle spokes to make it sound like a motorcycle.

“We’ve certainly seen a lot of growth and interest over the past several years, but it’s been growing exponentially since the spring,” said Chris Ivy, director of sports auctions at Dallas-based Heritage Auctions. “When the pandemic started we were tightening our belts, but to my surprise our spring catalog auction surpassed our estimates by over 30%, and that was just the tip of the iceberg.”

Heritage’s latest auction features a 1979 Wayne Gretzky O-Pee-Chee rookie card that is expected to fetch more than $1 million as well as a 1916 Babe Ruth card that could top $200,000.

“Prices have surged over the last few months,” Ivy said. “In addition to nostalgia, there are also a lot of economic factors: Money is cheap right now and people are buying hard assets to hedge against future inflation.”

For those looking to invest in the market, Ivy recommends first collecting what you like, and to buy high-quality players.

“You’re always going to do well with the best of the best,” he said. Auction houses like Heritage regularly have sports memorabilia sales and conduct their auctions online. Then there’s always eBay, wheresports card sales increased 92% from March through May, compared with the last three months of 2019, according to Sports Collectors Daily.

Those sky-high prices for the Gretzky and Ruth cards aren’t an aberration.

Earlier this year, Heritage set auction records with a Michael Jordan 1986 Fleer rookie card selling for $420,000. That came with a little help from the publicity brought on by ESPN’s 10-part documentary series “The Last Dance” that told the story of Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls. A 1941 Joe DiMaggio card and a 2004LeBron James card both surpassed the Jordan total, with each selling for more than $700,000.

Card maker Topps even played into the pandemic-fueled mania by releasing a limited edition Anthony Fauci card that captured the nation’s top infectious disease expert throwing out the first pitch at a Washington Nationals game. The 51,512 cards sold out at a price of $9.99 in less than 24 hours before making their way to eBay, where they were listed for immediate sale at prices upward of $150.

The PWCC 500, anindex of the top 500 trading cards, shows this year’s market boom. The index hit an all-time high in May and has continued on an upward trajectory since then. It’s now gained more than 216% since its inception in 2008, about as much as the S&P 500’s total return over the same time period.

While the rapid growth across all markets lately have increased fears of a bubble ready to pop, Ivy believes the sports memorabilia market has staying power as it increasingly becomes seen as a viable alternative asset class.

“No market can go up perpetually, but I think the signs are positive that this is here to stay,” he said.

And for those would-be treasure hunters out there, here’s a little hope: The 1916 Babe Ruth card currently up for auction was found wrapped up in a plastic baggie in a drawer by a woman in Miami.

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