Shortly after Lelands Auctions broke the record for the most expensive football trading card — selling a Tom Brady rookie card two months ago for $2.25 million — the auction house realized they would break that record again in short order.
Lelands was contacted by a New England Patriots fan with a vast collection of merchandise and trading cards. The collector knew his autographed 2000 Playoff Contenders Championship rookie card of Brady was in slightly better condition than the one just sold.
“He wanted to use the momentum of us setting that initial world record and essentially break it,” Jordan Gilroy, the director of acquisitions at Lelands, said Wednesday.
And the anonymous seller did just that. Piggybacking off the success of the previous Brady card, Lelands broke a two-month-old record this week, selling the latest autographed Brady rookie card for $3.1 million to continue the rapid rise in trading card valuations.
“It’s really strong for like the top 5% of cards, because those are the cards that are not going to be flooded on eBay, those are the cards that not many people have,” Gilroy said. “And the wealthy individuals are going to realize that and say to themselves, ‘A lot of people are spending millions of dollars right now. They may buy it before me, so I’m going to buy it right now.’ And you see these historic sales of multi-million-dollar cards selling almost on a weekly or monthly basis.”
In the trading card market, baseball has long reigned supreme. With cards dating back to the early 1900s, seven-digit sales have been commonplace for years. A 1909 Honus Wagner card sold for $3.36 million in 2016, for instance. A 1952 Mickey Mantle card became the most expensive card in history when it sold for $5.2 million in January. A 2009 Mike Trout card went for $3.94 million in August 2020.
Basketball has seen a surge in value, too, with a 2003 Lebron James card selling for $5.2 million in April and a 2018 Luka Doncic card sold for $4.6 million in February. A Wayne Gretzky rookie card for hockey went for $3.75 million in May.
Football has lagged behind, though. Besides Brady, no other football card has surpassed a six-digit sale price, although Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes could soon follow Brady’s path. Brady’s stature as one of the game’s best ever quarterbacks and his recent Super Bowl with Tampa Bay has helped fuel the rush for Brady cards.
“He was like the guy. The Patriots were the team to beat every year,” Gilroy said. “He’s like the Michael Jordan of football. He went to a new team, and MJ went to the Wizards and didn’t win a championship, but Brady went [to the Buccaneers] and won the first year, and people did not expect that. So it’s just a combination of the market being at a great level, mixed with people just being excited about football and Brady winning.”
The interest in trading cards extends beyond just the high-profile sales, though that’s where the biggest prices are. Online auction site eBay said four million more trading cards were sold on its platform in 2020 compared to 2019, with the largest jump coming from soccer cards at a 1586% increase. Cards for basketball (373%), hockey (258%), football (168%) and baseball (73%) all saw rises on the site, too.
In 2019, Goldin Auctions sold $27 million in collectibles. That rose to $103 million in 2020. And the fervor for trading cards led Target to temporarily halt in-store trading card sales after a series of altercations between collectors rushing to buy packs.
What sets the most recent record-setting Brady card apart from the one sold for $2.25 million in April is the grade. The latest card sold for $3.1 million is rated a BGS 9 — there are only seven cards of that grade in the world, and none are rated higher. The previous Brady card was rated a BGS 8.5.
With 100 cards produced in 2000 of that kind, Gilroy said one would think there would be more cards rated a BGS 9 or higher. But the card is “so condition sensitive,” making the pristine models even more valuable.
“$2.25 million for an 8.5,” Gilroy said, “and then .5 higher is almost a million dollars extra.”
The trend doesn’t appear close to slowing down, either, with the highest-profile cards continually drawing eye-popping prices.
“In an auction, you don’t set the price,” Gilroy said. “But there are very few of these ‘Holy Grail’ cards available, so once one pops into an auction, the high-end clients flock.”