Mickey Mantle card breaks record as sports memorabilia rises

A mint condition Mickey Mantle baseball card sold for $12.6 million on Sunday, blasting into the record books as the highest paid for sports memorabilia ever in a market that has become exponentially more lucrative in recent years.

Mantle’s rare card eclipsed the record set a few months ago – $9.3 million for the shirt worn by Diego Maradona when he scored the controversial “Hand of God” goal in the 1986 FIFA World Cup.

It easily topped $7.25 million for a century-old Honus Wagner baseball card recently sold at private sale.

And just last month, the heavyweight boxing belt reclaimed by Muhammad Ali during the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle sold for nearly $6.2 million.

All of them are part of a booming market for sports collectibles.

Prices have risen not only for the rarest items, but also for those that may have been gathering dust in garages and attics. Many of these items end up on consumer auction sites like eBay, while others are offered for bidding by auction houses.

Because of its near-perfect condition and legendary subject matter, the Mantle card was destined to be a top seller, said Chris Ivey, director of sports auctions at Heritage Auctions, which handled the bidding.

Some saw collectibles as a hedge against inflation over the past few years, he said, while others rekindled childhood passions.

Ivey said savvy investors saw inflation coming down the road — as it did. As a result, sports memorabilia has become an alternative to traditional Wall Street or real estate investments — especially among members of Generation X and older millennials.

“There’s only so much Netflix and ‘Tiger King’ people could watch (during the pandemic). So, you know, they were going back to hobbies, and obviously sports collecting was part of that,” said Ivey, who noted an uptick in conversations between potential sellers.

Add to that interest from wealthy overseas collectors, and you have a confluence of factors that make sports collectibles particularly attractive, Ivey said.

“We started to see some growth and some price increases, which led to some media coverage. And I think it all just builds on itself,” he said. “I would say the onset of the pandemic really added fuel 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 has grown to $26 billion, according to 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-fungible tokens, which are digital collectibles with unique fingerprints encrypted with data.

Sports cards were especially in demand as people spent more time at home and the opportunity arose to dig into potential treasures of childhood memories, including old comic books and small stacks of gum cards depicting sports stars.

That lure of making money from something that might be in one’s childhood basement is irresistible, according to Steven Fischler, founder of ComicConnect, who has watched the boom — and profitability — of collectibles traded between auction houses.

“In short, the world of modern sports cards is going crazy,” he said.

The Mantle baseball card dates back to 1952 and is considered one of the few baseball legends in near-perfect condition.

The auction made a substantial profit for Anthony Giordano, a New Jersey waste management entrepreneur who bought it for $50,000 at a 1991 New York trade show.

“As soon as it hit 10 million, I just got on board. 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 this morning bright and early to tell me it got where it did.”

The card was one of dozens of sports collectibles up for auction. In all, the items raised about $28 million, according to Derek Grady, executive vice president of sports auctions for Heritage Auctions.

“Sports collectibles are finally getting their due as an investment,” Grady said. “Top sporting goods are now beginning to compete with fine art, rare coins and rare artifacts as a great investment vehicle.”

The switch-hitting Mantle was a 1956 Triple Crown winner, a three-time American League MVP and a seven-time World Series champion. The Hall of Famer died in 1995.

“Some people might say it’s just a baseball card. Who cares? It’s just Picasso. To other people it’s just Rembrandt. It’s an art form for some people,” said John Holden, an Oklahoma State sports management law professor and 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 in the pocket of the potential bidder.

“The value,” said Holden, “is whatever the market is willing to support.”

Associated Press reporting.


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