Sports memorabilia soar as Mickey Mantle card breaks record


A mint condition Mickey Mantle baseball card sold for $12.6 million on Sunday, entering the record books as the highest-selling sports memorabilia in a market that has grown exponentially in recent years.

The rare Mantle card eclipsed the record set just a few months ago – $9.3 million for the jersey Diego Maradona wore when he scored the controversial “Hand of God” goal at the 1986 World Cup.

It easily surpassed the $7.25 million for a century-old Honus Wagner baseball card sold in a recent private sale.

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

All are part of a booming market for sports collectibles.

Prices have risen not only for the rarest pieces, but also for pieces that may have been gathering dust in garages and attics. Many of these items make it onto consumer auction sites like eBay, while others are put up for bid by auction houses.

Because of its near-perfect condition and iconic theme, the Mantle map was destined to be a bestseller, said Chris Ivy, head of sports auctions at Heritage Auctions, which led the bid.

Some saw collectibles as a hedge against inflation in recent years, he said, while others reignited childhood passions.

Ivy said savvy investors saw inflation coming — as it did. As a result, sports memorabilia has become an alternative to traditional Wall Street investments or real estate — particularly among Gen Xers and older millennials.

“There’s only so many Netflix and Tiger King people that have been able to watch it (during the pandemic). So, you know, they got back into their hobbies, and sports collecting was clearly a part of that,” said Ivy, who noticed an uptick in calls from prospective sellers.

Add in the interest of wealthy foreign collectors and there’s a confluence of factors that have made sports collectibles particularly attractive, Ivy said.

“We’ve started to see some growth and price increases, which has led to some media coverage. And I think it all just sort of built itself,” he said. “I would say the onset of the pandemic has really added fuel to this fire.”

Before the pandemic, the sports memorabilia market was valued at more than $5.4 billion, according to a 2018 Forbes interview with founder David Yoken.

By 2021, that market had 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 data-encrypted fingerprints.

Sports cards were in particular demand as people were spending more time at home and there was an opportunity to rummage through potential treasure troves of childhood memories, including old comics and small stacks of gum cards featuring famous sports stars.

The lure of making money from something that could be in the basement of one’s childhood was irresistible, according to Stephen Fishler, founder of ComicConnect, who has observed the growing rise – and profitability – of collectibles being sold on auction houses.

“In short, the world of modern sports cards has gone insane,” he said.

Dating to 1952, the Mantle baseball card is widely considered to be one of the few baseball legends in near-perfect condition.

The auction brought in a handsome profit for Anthony Giordano, a New Jersey waste disposal contractor, who bought it at a New York City fair in 1991 for $50,000.

“Once it was 10 million, I just deposited. I couldn’t keep my eyes open,” said Giordano, 75, on Sunday morning. His sons oversaw the auction for him. “They stayed up and called me bright and early this morning to tell me it got where it got.”

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

“Sports collectibles are finally coming into their own as an investment,” Grady said. “The best sporting goods are now beginning to rival works of art, rare coins and rare artifacts as great investment vehicles.”

The switch-hitting Mantle was a 1956 Triple Crown winner, 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 a Picasso. To others it’s just a Rembrandt. To some people it’s a thing of art,” said John Holden, professor of sports management law at the Oklahoma State and hobbyist sports card collector.

As with works of art, which have no intrinsic value, the value of sports tickets is in the eye of the beholder – or in the wallet of the potential bidder.

“Value,” Holden said, “is what the market is willing to support.”