NEW YORK (AP) — A pristine Mickey Mantle baseball card that sold for $12.6 million on Sunday shot into the record books as the highest-paid sports memorabilia ever in a market that has become exponentially more lucrative in recent years.
The rare Mantle card overshadowed the record posted a few months ago – $9.3 million for the jersey worn by Diego Maradona when he scored the controversial ‘Hand of God’ goal during the 1986 FIFA World Cup.
It easily surpassed $7.25 million for a century-old Honus Wagner baseball card that recently sold in a private sale.
And last month, the heavyweight boxing belt was reclaimed by Muhammad Ali during 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle” sold for nearly $6.2 million.
They are all part of a thriving sports collectibles market.
Prices have gone up not only for the rarest items, but also for pieces that may have gathered dust in garages and attics. Many of those items end up on consumer auction sites like eBay, while others are offered by auction houses.
Because of its near mint condition and legendary subject matter, the Mantle card was destined to become a top seller, said Chris Ivy, the director of sports auctions at Heritage Auctions, who led the bidding.
In recent years, some have seen collectibles as a hedge against inflation, he said, while others are reviving childhood passions.
Ivy said savvy investors saw inflation coming — as it is. As a result, sports memorabilia became an alternative to traditional Wall Street investment or real estate — especially among Generation X members and older millennials.
“There’s only so much Netflix and ‘Tiger King’ for people to watch (during the pandemic). So, you know, they got back into their hobbies, and collecting sports was clearly part of that,” said Ivy, who noticed an increase in phone calls among potential sellers.
Add to that the interest of wealthy foreign collectors and you have a confluence of factors that made sports collectibles particularly attractive, Ivy said.
“We started to see some kind of growth and some rise in prices, which led to some media coverage. And I think it’s all just built on its own,” he said. “I’d say the start of the pandemic really added gasoline to that fire.”
Before the pandemic, the sports memorabilia market was valued at more than $5.4 billion, according to a 2018 Forbes interview with David Yoken, the founder of Collectable.com.
By 2021, that market had grown to $26 billion, according to the research firm Market Decipher, which predicts the market will grow astronomically to $227 billion within a decade — fueled in part by the rise of so-called NFTs, or non-replaceable tokens, which are digital collectibles with unique, data-encrypted fingerprints.
Sports cards were especially in demand as people spent more time at home and there was an opportunity to rummage through possible treasure troves of childhood memories, including old comic books and small stacks of gum cards featuring major sports stars.
According to Stephen Fishler, founder of ComicConnect, the temptation to monetize something in your childhood basement is irresistible.
“In a nutshell, the world of modern sports cards is going crazy,” he said.
Dating back to 1952, the Mantle baseball card is widely regarded as one of the few baseball legends in near-perfect condition.
The auction yielded a handsome profit for Anthony Giordano, a New Jersey waste management entrepreneur who bought it for $50,000 at a show in New York City in 1991.
“As soon as it hit 10 million, I just gave up. I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore,” Giordano, 75, said Sunday morning. His sons watched the auction for him. “They stayed up and called me bright this morning and asked to tell me it was reaching its point.”
The card was one of dozens of sports collectibles up for auction. In total, the items brought in some $28 million, according to Derek Grady, the executive vice president of sports auctions for Heritage Auctions.
“Sports collectibles are finally coming into their own as an investment,” Grady said. “The best sporting goods are now starting to compete with works of art, rare coins and rare artifacts as a great investment vehicle.”
The switch-hitting Mantle was a Triple Crown winner in 1956, a three-time American League MVP, and a seven-time World Series champion. The Hall of Famer passed away in 1995.
“Some people might say it’s just a baseball card. Who cares? It’s like a Picasso. It’s just a Rembrandt to other people. For some people, it’s an art,” said John Holden, an Oklahoma State professor of sports management law and an amateur sports card collector.
Like works of art that have no intrinsic value, he said, when it comes to sports cards, the value is in the eye of the beholder — or the wallet of the potential bidder.
“The value,” Holden said, “is what the market is willing to support.”
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