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'Shocking': Why baseball card and memorabilia buying is booming amid the pandemic

Daniel Roberts
Editor-at-Large

L.A. Angels outfielder Mike Trout is only 28 years old and very much still playing pro baseball after nine seasons. But this week, an autographed Mike Trout rookie card sold at auction for $922,500. The price tag sets a new record for a modern-day trading card.

The card, from a 2009 Bowman Chrome Draft Prospects series (distributed by Topps), was part of the 2020 spring auction run by Goldin Auctions, which also oversaw the $3.12 million sale of a rare T206 “Jumbo” Honus Wagner card in 2016. This auction also included two autographed Michael Jordan cards that each sold for more than $150,000; a non-autographed Jordan rookie card that sold for $99,630; a Kobe Bryant rookie card that sold for $113,160; a Kobe Bryant 2000 NBA Championship ring that sold for $206,000; and a 2003 LeBron James game-worn Cavaliers jersey that sold for $371,200.

The auction will end up bringing in more than double the previous highest-grossing auction in Goldin’s history, CEO Ken Goldin says, with double the number of bids and total participants. And that’s amid a global pandemic that has hammered the U.S. economy.

The trading card and memorabilia market has “increased exponentially since the lockdown,” Goldin says, “because a lot of wealthy people don’t have anything to spend their money on. A lot of them pulled their money out of the stock market and they want hard assets... It’s been on an upward trajectory for the past several years—the modern card market started taking off with six-figure numbers in 2015—but the past six months have been unbelievable. And the past three months have just been shocking.”

Mike Trout autographed rookie card that sold for $922,500 (L); Michael Jordan autographed card that sold for $187,730. (via Goldin Auctions)

Of course, there’s quite a disconnect between rich adult collectors paying $900,000 for a baseball card and the traditional image of kids trading cards in person as a hobby—something that isn’t possible during lockdown. But the baseball card industry had already shifted to the internet in the last few years, where live card pack “breaks” (openings) rack up views on YouTube and Facebook.

Nowadays, secondary-market companies purchase cases of card packs from a company like Topps, then sell spots in the breaks; collectors can pay for a spot in the break, and then they watch live to see what cards they get in their section of the break. “It’s almost the e-sports of the trading card business,” says Topps VP Michael Leiner.

Quarantine has added steam to that preexisting trend, and Topps is benefiting across both of its main retail channels: brick-and-mortar (at places like Target and Walmart), and ecommerce at Topps.com.

“We’re seeing really unprecedented demand,” Leiner says. “The last five years have been great, but the last couple months we’ve seen further growth as we’ve been in this lockdown mode. I think a lot of collectors are getting nostalgic. A lot of folks are at home sifting through their old baseball cards... and going out and purchasing more.”

Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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