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Sports cards are back in a big way — pandemic, recession and all

IN AN ANONYMOUS office complex amid the Meadowland sprawl of northern New Jersey, Rick Probstein tears through a standing vault in search of his most prized treasure.

With wire-rim glasses and incandescent red hair, Probstein oversees his dimly lit five-room unit like Richard Branson on “MTV Cribs.” He’s earned it. EBay’s preeminent sports memorabilia proprietor reportedly racked up $50 million in global sales last year.

It’s a month before the coronavirus will upend civilization, and Probstein is in a collector’s paradise: One room spills over with racks of signed jerseys being prepped for shipping; in another, two dozen employees, sardined at workstations, painstakingly monitor auctions; in Probstein’s office, columns of cards on folding tables test gravity with mini helmets littering his desk. Atop the vault sits a Babe Ruth autographed baseball, acknowledged with a halfhearted nod as Probstein rummages below.

Probstein retrieves from the vault plywood-thick cards, autographed and embedded with game-used jersey swatches — one of them, a LeBron-Jordan dual patch autograph, will soon fetch $35,000 — and two graded 1952 Topps Mickey Mantles.

The Mantles are the showstoppers. In 2018, one went for almost $3 million at auction. Two could buy a private island.

But vintage cards yielding top dollar is nothing new. What is new and hard to fathom: Over the past half-decade, even now amid a pandemic that’s decimated the American economy, contemporary sports cards have attracted gargantuan sums from high-rolling investors. And somehow, during a year that included the sharpest GDP quarterly contraction in American history, card sales have demolished all-time records, dumbfounding investors and collectors alike.

Probstein, a former Wall Street headhunter who ditched Manhattan for northeastern Jersey when the dot-com bubble burst, is at the center of the gold rush. And even as a class-action lawsuit against him lingers and an FBI investigation into some of the industry’s biggest players ramps up, the money pours in. Which might be why Probstein isn’t concerned.

Instead, he’s focused on finding his favorite item. On inventory alone, his base of operations in the shadow of MetLife Stadium might be worth $10 million at any given time. Probstein’s pride and joy, then, must be Smithsonian-worthy. A Honus Wagner? A Sporting News Babe Ruth rookie? A 1951 Bowman Willie Mays?

He exalts, turns and plops down the coup de grace: a 1-kilogram Swiss gold bar. “I just think this is cool,” he says.

“Outside the white whale,” Probstein says, gesturing to the Mantles, “I’m just like, ‘Whatever.'”

THE STORY OF the past 40 years of baseball cards in America is, in many ways, the story of John List.

Born in 1968 in Madison, Wisconsin, List was relentlessly focused on the Green Bay Packers and baseball cards by the early ’80s. A paper route paid for his collection. Mowed lawns and shoveled driveways were a means to the same end. He lived for weekends in Chicago and Milwaukee, blazing through the convention circuit.

Soon List was studying economics at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, moonlighting as a convention dealer at the peak of collecting. Sports cards had become a billion-dollar industry — morphing from nostalgia-dredging totems of a post-World War II America to genuine livelihoods.

“There were more card shops than there are Starbucks,” List says.

List, who by 1988 was a self-described “intensive dealer,” was also drawn to the pastime’s academic possibilities: Hobbyists monitored and collected athletes they favored; values fluctuated with players’ hype and performance; with enough money and a little strategy, a collector could single-handedly corner and control markets.

Cards were American economics, miniaturized, and as such were tantalizing to an economist like List — even as they soon collapsed under the lethal combination of rampant fraud and overproduction and the 1994 MLB strike.

Free market capitalism is, if nothing else, adept at creating bubble economies. Amid the wreckage of this so-called junk wax era, as America’s 10,000 brick-and-mortar card stores dwindled into the hundreds, List — now Dr. List, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, short-listed for a 2015 Nobel Prize — brought academic rigor to his passion.

“I looked for the best ways to negotiate, the best auction types to sell your cards, how trustworthy dealers were when promising specific grades, loss aversion,” List says today, describing work that ultimately yielded some of the earliest field experiments in economics on sports cards.

If anyone in America truly understands baseball cards — and can explain the seemingly inexplicable boom in their market since the onset of the global pandemic — it’s List.

Before COVID-19 hit, he spent time at spring training in Phoenix and visited his go-to mom and pop shop, AZ Sports Cards, an establishment so warm and welcoming that it’s called the sports card version of “Cheers.”

“The shop is doing OK,” List says. “But the [owner says] the real money is online.”

The rise of eBay, Amazon and newer marketplaces like StockX gave birth to huge secondary markets and fierce global competition for sports’ most coveted stars, which in turn sent prices skyrocketing.

Sought-after rookie cards (see: Ken Griffey Jr.’s 1989 Upper Deck card) drove demand in the industry’s heyday, a time before manufacturers were held accountable for how many of each card they produced. The infamous Junior rookie? Rumor has it, Upper Deck overproduced the set into 1990 and even printed sheets of only Griffey, denying foul play all the while. Perceived rarity pushed the card’s value skyward, but in reality, there are in the neighborhood of 2 million in existence, with Junior himself saying he owns “over 100.”

Today’s industry runs on manufactured scarcity and “chase” cards: low-print-run, serially numbered cards, the most valuable of which are often rookies, usually autographed with memorabilia embedded. While the old model encouraged collectors to keep buying boxes, which once contained dozens of packs, today’s upper-echelon boxes routinely cost thousands and often boast only one pack of astronomically valued cards, sometimes even just one card.

In the U.S., where real wages (adjusted for inflation) have been flat for nearly half a century, few can drop $1,000 on a box of cards. Those who can usually fit a description.

“I deal with hedge fund managers, venture capitalists,” says Ken Goldin, founder of Goldin Auctions. “If someone comes to me with $5 million asking for $5 million [worth of cards] in a week, it’s not an issue.

“I’ve had people with a liquid net worth of $500 million to multibillions tell me this is not a short-term thing: Sports cards are part of their asset allocation from now on.”

List, for his part, isn’t surprised that Wall Street invaded. He’s surprised it didn’t happen sooner.

“When you think about typical assets that hedge funds invest in, you think equities, stocks, bonds, commodities and currencies. That’s where art and Americana come in: stable assets that hedge other parts of portfolios,” List says.

“The sports card market [does] well because it’s part nostalgic, part art and part investment potential. That combination is what’s magical.”

Card manufacturers do have economically priced boxes, but they promise fewer chase cards and less resale value. The average kid can still collect for novelty’s sake but rarely in the same circles as the hobby’s new high rollers.

Savvy collectors responded to high-priced boxes with money-pooled “case breaks”: Multiple collectors pitch in for unopened cases or boxes, livestream the breaks on social media and divvy up the hits. Millions of priced-out viewers live vicariously through breakers on YouTube, Twitch and elsewhere.

Those spoils hitting the secondary market might as well be chum in ocean waters: In 2019, eBay reported more than $600 million in card sales, which have risen 40% overall since 2016. Executives from Upper Deck, Panini America, Topps and Leaf all say the past three to five years have been the industry’s best ever.

Even List, ever the academic, has turned more aggressive recently.

“I’m more bullish on cards than most,” List says. “I’m actually trying to corner the market on –“

He catches himself before letting his secret slip. There’s no cornering a market if your competition knows your game.

“Well, a 1982 Topps card,” he says, “[of which] there are 262 PSA 10s.”

PSA 10s — cards dubbed physically perfect by Professional Sport Authenticator, the most frequented and polarizing card grading service — draw the highest resale value, making them the most expensive.

And if there’s one thing a Nobel Prize-short-listed economist understands, it’s supply and demand.

“I own about 80 of them,” List says flatly.

IF YOU’RE LOOKING for a metric with which to gauge the state of the sports card market, you could do worse than the annual attendance at the National Sports Collectors Convention. Essentially a getaway for industry insiders and hobby shop owners at the LAX Marriott in 1980, it became the industry’s biggest convention with a record 100,000 attendees by 1991.

Eight years later, after the collapse of the card market, that attendance plummeted to 25,000. By 2018, attendance at the National had rebounded to 45,000. Booths for this year’s convention, slated for late July in Atlantic City, had sold out by the end of the 2019 show.

Then the coronavirus happened.

The show was pushed to December, then canceled outright, as the U.S. hunkered down for a pandemic response that prompted the sharpest economic contraction in modern history, with roughly 60 million first-time jobless claims by September. By all accounts, it should have been game over for the card industry.

Instead, virtual auction blocks exploded, rewriting record books again and again (and again!) in the past half year.

From May to early June, more than 40 cards sold on eBay for at least $50,000. 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 I have never witnessed such vibrancy,” List says.

Early in the year, both a one-of-one LeBron/Jordan autographed dual patch card — yes, there’s only one in existence — and a Mike Trout red refractor rookie autograph, one of five of its kind, had sold for $900,000 with Goldin Auctions, the highest sums ever for modern cards. By July, a LeBron James on-card rookie patch autograph shattered that record, going for $1.8 million. Just last week, on the heels of his second consecutive MVP award, a Giannis Antetokounmpo one-of-one rookie patch autograph broke that record, going for $1.812 million. Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson and Ja Morant rookies are routinely going for $50,000 or more.

In late August, a Trout one-of-one rookie went for a staggering $3.9 million, becoming the most expensive sports card ever sold, dethroning the crown jewel of collecting, the T206 Honus Wagner, which had sold for $3.1 million in 2016 after going for $2.1 million just three years earlier.

Most folks with even a passing interest in cards know about “the Wagner,” but for those in the know, it was old news well before its record fell.

“When we sold [the T206 in 2016], the big story wasn’t the Wagner,” Goldin said before the Trout auction. “It was that a 2003 LeBron rookie sold for $310,000. That got my eyes open. There’s a lot of collectors collecting modern cards.”

Million-dollar cards used to require history, time to appreciate, a “backstory,” says Dave Jamieson, author of “Mint Condition.”

“That’s clearly not what’s going on here with a signed Mike Trout rookie card.”

RICK PROBSTEIN KNOWS better than most the degree to which the world screeched to a halt six months ago and people everywhere, terrified of the outside world, scurried inside to their screens. He’s reaped the rewards of untold 2020 impulse buying.

“There are no card shows,” he says. “People are flocking to eBay. We’re shipping overseas every day [and] haven’t seen any downturn.”

He’s projecting more than $75 million in sales this year for his auction house, dwarfing his record-setting $50 million in 2019. Even when New York and New Jersey were the epicenter of America’s outbreak, his business never missed a beat.

If there have been any bumps in the road, they haven’t been COVID-19’s doing. A 2019 FBI investigation into some of the industry’s biggest players — notably PSA, which could spell trouble for the industry’s grading process — is ongoing. In April, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Probstein and others that alleges, among other charges, misrepresentation and shill bidding — the manipulation of prices during live auctions.

“The suit is a total money grab,” Probstein says. “The judge threw it out.” (The lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of California in Orange County under the racketeering and organized crime law known as RICO, is still active. Probstein and fellow defendant PWCC Marketplace have each made motions to have the case dismissed; they will be heard in early November.)

Should Probstein and others be found liable, they’d hardly be the first ones. Former Mastro Auctions CEO Bill Mastro was convicted in a criminal case of some of the allegations levied at the group, and spent 20 months in prison for his role in doctoring a T206 Wagner sold to Wayne Gretzky.

(That Wagner, despite being doctored, was purchased by Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick for $2.8 million in 2007.)

If there was ever a wholesome side to a hobby that once hawked tobacco to children, it’s long gone in 2020. And the year has laid that reality bare, starting with the newly deceased: Two weeks after Kobe Bryant’s death, Bryant cards were everywhere, increasing by a stratospheric 600%, according to eBay sales data.

“It’s not something I want to capitalize on,” Probstein says. “But I’m a broker for people who want [me] to sell.”

Then, in April, the wildly popular Jordan documentary “The Last Dance” incited a fever pitch for Jordan hobbyists and increased Jordan card 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. Every day, there was something new.”

Still, the fortunes of Probstein aside, fear is creeping across the industry of an impending bubble.

“Predicting the future price of an asset,” List says, “is like predicting which way a drunk walking out of a saloon will stumble: It is always easy to predict a bubble after the bubble bursts. Monday morning quarterbacking is undefeated.

“Back in the late ’80s, the Wagner would sell for $10K, $19K, $23K, and everyone back then said that it was a bubble. Well, I sure wish I could have invested in that bubble. That said, there are usually corrections in markets.”

In August, with demand for Michael Jordan memorabilia peaking, a pair of Jordan shoes with a glass shard from a backboard he’d shattered still embedded in the sole sold for $615,000, the most expensive shoes of all time. Days earlier, a sealed case of 1986-87 Fleer basketball cards, promising 40 untouched Jordan rookies, sold via Collect Auctions for $1.79 million.

In the early ’80s, basketball cards were so unpopular that Topps stopped producing them, and Fleer bought the exclusive license in 1985. Forty untouched Jordan rookies would net roughly $4 million in the current market, not to mention the Dominique Wilkins, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon and Karl Malone rookie cards also in the set. Simply put, $1.79 million was a bargain. So too, it seemed, was the ’86-87 Fleer case in the same auction that sold for a mere $10,058.

Or, it would have been — if the case weren’t empty.

Ten thousand dollars for shelled boxes and discarded wrappers.

In perhaps the most brazen omen of decadence in an industry littered with them, Bobby Poll, the owner of SIG Auctions, took home the lot. When reached for comment on what possessed him to pay 10 grand for trash, he said, “You thought, ‘There must be something wrong with that guy,’ right?”

“I know what I want to do with it,” Poll said, alluding to his mysterious plans to somehow resell, well, garbage.

And he expects to make a profit.

“Worst-case scenario?” he says. “I break even.”

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