SURE, AMERICA’S PASTIME REMAINS KING OF THE HILL, BUT ICE HOCKEY AND BASKETBALL ARE WINNING ATTENTION FROM SERIOUS COLLECTORS, TOO
By Steve Lansdale
For years, the booming sports collectibles market has been centered on baseball cards and related memorabilia. The most serious of collections were built around equipment, cards and photos of the game’s immortals, players like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax – and with good reason.
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Generations of collectors grew up hearing tales of the game’s biggest stars, figures who were idolized by previous generations.
Times have changed.
Baseball still is the dominant sport in the hobby, and prices reflect that. But the notion that top auction results – those in the six- and seven-figure range – are limited solely to the heroes of the diamond is no longer accurate.
That is not to suggest that baseball collecting has slipped – it has not. Artifacts from America’s Pastime continue to bring exceptional results. But more than ever, other sports are drawing attention – and sizeable bids – from the most serious collectors.
Heritage Auctions, the world’s leading sports auctioneer, enjoyed another tremendous year in 2020, thanks in large part to a trove of baseball memorabilia unmatched anywhere in the world. But the days in which baseball dictated the entire auction market are over. Mementos from other sports have enjoyed a massive surge in desirability and, therefore, in prices paid at auction. Basketball led the way, but hockey produced a couple of the top results for the year, including the top result for any sports lot in 2020.
“While our hobby was heavily focused on vintage baseball collectibles in the past, 2020 has ushered in a new era where we are now seeing other sports as well as modern-era cards regularly commanding six and seven-figure price tags,” says Chris Ivy, Heritage’s director of sports auctions. “A new generation of deeply engaged collectors is rising up and jumping in with both feet, bringing the promise of a bright future for this hobby in the decades to come.”
The player known simply as “The Great One” produced the greatest result for any sport at Heritage Auctions in 2020 when a 1979 Canadian O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky #18 Rookie PSA Gem Mint 10 sold for $1,290,000, becoming the first hockey card to crack the $1 million plateau. The result, brought by one of just two known to carry a Gem Mint 10 grade from Professional Sports Authenticator, nearly tripled the previous record of $465,000 that was set four years ago.
A Gem Mint-condition American version of Gretzky’s NHL debut card set its own record in December when a 1979 Topps Wayne Gretzky #18 Rookie PSA Gem Mint 10 found a new home at $720,000, more than three times the previous record. The full population of Topps exemplars housed within a PSA slab is about 500 larger than O-Pee-Chee slabbed cards, but each issuing body has just twice achieved the grading service’s highest honor, so a smaller percentage of the Topps Gretzky rookie has been showcased beneath a Gem Mint 10 label than the O-Pee-Chee.
Other than Gretzky, however, the top non-baseball lots are dominated by basketball, the popularity of which has soared like a buzzer-beating heave from mid-court.
Not surprisingly, the lots from the hardwood were led by the former star many still consider the greatest player ever to suit up. A 1997 Metal Universe Michael Jordan (Precious Metal Gems – Green) #23 PSA Authentic, of which just 10 were made, rose like His Airness soaring to the rim when it realized $915,000, nearly doubling its pre-auction estimate. That’s more than twice the price paid in August when Heritage sold the only known Jordan 1986 Fleer rookie card graded Pristine 10 for $420,000, a world-record price for Jordan’s debut.
A 1986-87 Michael Jordan game-worn Chicago Bulls uniform prompted nearly 40 bids before it finished at $480,000. The jersey and shorts were photo-matched to five games between November 1986 and March 1987, during the season that was his most prolific as a scorer, as he averaged 37.1 points per game.
A 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan #57 SGC Pristine 10 set a world record in August when it sold for $420,000, more than four times the previous record of $96,000 that was set just three months earlier. The card was the only 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan #57 graded a Pristine 10 by SGC, its desirability enhanced by the prestigious Gold Label.
Featuring the greatest current player, and the most popular challenger to Michael Jordan’s title as the greatest player of all time, a 2004 Topps Chrome LeBron James (Superfractor) #23 PSA Gem Mint 10 drew a winning bid of $720,000 in Heritage Auctions’ October 2020 Michael Jordan & Basketball Icons Sports Catalog Auction. The 2004 Chrome collection, which was actually released in February 2005, is widely regarded as one of Topps’ most iconic modern basketball sets. This King James card is a second-year card, as quintessential as any rookie-year offering, and literally one of a kind.
A 2003 Bowman Chrome Rookies & Stars LeBron James (Chrome Gold Refractor) #123 PSA Gem Mint 10 brought nearly five times its pre-auction estimate when it closed at $288,000. The last of just 50 produced, this card is virtually flawless and therefore received a perfect Gem Mint rating, one of just eight to achieve that lofty status.
The future of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the NBA, changed forever when the draft lottery gave the team the chance to land the greatest player in the history of Ohio. James’ first season yielded this 2003-04 Upper Deck Exquisite Collection LeBron James Rookie Patch Autograph 05/99 #78 BGS Mint 9-10, which brought $264,000. One of just 99 made with a patch of a game-worn jersey and a blue signature, it was inserted into boxes in the Upper Deck Exquisite Collection, which prompted skeptics to mock the initial $500 price. Such cards are considered the most desirable of all James rookies.
Among the most unique lots sold in 2020 was a 2016 Kobe Bryant Number “8” Staples Center hardwood used in his historic 60-point farewell game, which realized $631,000, far surpassing its pre-auction estimate of $500,000. The section of the floor on which Bryant rose to hoops legend status includes four panels, each measuring four by eight feet, and was removed from the Staples Center shortly after he capped off his iconic career with a 60-point farewell performance April 13, 2006. The corresponding section, on which he signed the No. 24, is on display at the Lakers’ practice facility.
Just as he has crashed into the rarified air previously controlled by the likes of Jordan and James, a 2013-14 Panini Prizm Giannis Antetokounmpo (Autograph Prizms Black) #33 (1/1) BGS 9.5 Autograph 10 joined the ranks of the hardwood collecting elite when it sold in December for $384,000. Reflecting the boom of the modern card collecting market, this card has been called the finest Antetokounmpo representation ever produced, and arguably the finest modern trading card that exists, only in part because of its exquisite condition and the coveted Antetokounmpo signature.
1986 Fleer Basketball Set
Featuring arguably the only lineup that could challenge the original Olympic Dream team, a 1986 Fleer Basketball Cards & Stickers Complete Set (132+11), all graded PSA Gem Mint 10, scored big when it finished at $216,000. The names in the set read like a roster of basketball Hall of Famers, including Jordan, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Magic Johnson, Julius Erving, Larry Bird and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The set is, simply, the most coveted basketball set of the modern era.
Other Top Performers
While Wayne Gretzky and NBA superstars claim the top results among non-baseball collectibles, it would be inaccurate to suggest that other sports did not also thrive at Heritage Auctions in 2020. Other top lots to cross the block included:
Patrick Mahomes II
2016 Panini Select ’17 NFL Draft XRC Patrick Mahomes II Gold Prizm Redemption #2 PSA Gem Mint 10
Sold for: $192,000
2018 New England Patriots Super Bowl LIII Championship Ring presented to wide receiver Josh Gordon
Sold for: $138,000
1985 William “Refrigerator” Perry Super Bowl XX game-worn and signed Chicago Bears rookie jersey
Sold for: $63,000
1990 Scott Norwood Super Bowl XXV game-worn Buffalo Bills jersey
Sold for: $52,800
O-Pee-Chee Wax Box
1979-80 O-Pee-Chee hockey wax box with 48 unopened packs, with Gretzky rookie on back of pack
Sold for: $252,000
1970-71 Bobby Orr game-worn Boston Bruins jersey
Sold for: $150,000
1984 Wayne Gretzky Stanley Cup playoffs game-used stick
Sold for: $66,000
STEVE LANSDALE is a staff writer at Heritage Auctions.
This article appears in the Spring 2021 edition of The Intelligent Collector magazine.