On Thursday night in Atlantic City, a Wayne Gretzky rookie card set a new record for hockey trading cards. The O-Pee-Chee #18 Gretzky rookie card, which is graded a perfect 10 on the Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) scale, sold for $465,000. The previous record was $94,000, set by the same card, in 2011.
That’s a 395% price increase in just five years. It is astonishing, especially for a card that isn’t so old (1979) and isn’t so rare (there were tens of thousands printed from this series), and belongs to a player very much alive, who retired in 1999. (This particular card is the only known perfect 10 of its kind that has been PSA graded; there could certainly be many sitting in someone’s attic.)
“It’s another example of how hot the market is,” says Ken Goldin, CEO of Goldin Auctions, the New Jersey-based company that handled the sale. Goldin Auctions put a public prediction of $400,000 on the card before auction, and it beat the prediction by 15%. “We don’t have a crystal ball,” Goldin says. “Some people try to be ultra ultra conservative and make a low estimate so that it always looks like they beat their estimate. But we knew this would sell very high in this market.”
It isn’t just trading cards that are fetching exorbitant prices right now from deep-pocketed collectors, but other sports memorabilia. Babe Ruth’s contract with the Boston Braves from 1935 (the original document) sold at the same auction on Thursday night for $360,000.
A different Babe Ruth piece currently holds the record for the highest-price ever paid at public auction for sports memorabilia: Ruth’s game-worn jersey from 1920 that sold for $4.4 million in 2012.
But the rarest baseball card of them all is going back up for sale in September, in another Goldin Auctions offering, and it is expected to bust the Babe’s record.
It’s the T206 “Jumbo” Honus Wagner card from 1909 (the nickname refers to its extra-large border, an accident from the original cutting of the sheet), and it last sold for $2.1 million in 2013. (For much more on the Jumbo Wagner card sale, see the above video and see this Yahoo Finance story.)
Does the 395% price hike for a Gretzky card make it more likely the Wagner card will sell for a sky-high price? Absolutely.
As Goldin asks: “If somebody will spend half a million dollars on a card that is only 27 years old, what will they spend on the greatest card of all time?”
Interestingly, Gretzky is a previous owner of a different T206 Wagner card—not the “Jumbo,” but the other best-condition known Wagner card out there. He and former Sacramento Kings owner Bruce McNall bought the card together in 1991 for $451,000 and sold it off in 1995 for $500,000. Since that time, the card is still referred to as the “Gretzky T206 Wagner card” simply because Gretzky once owned it.
There’s another effect that Goldin expects from the Gretzky card sale news: “It leads people to go rummage through their attics, garages, basements and collections.”