A LeBron James Rookie Card from 2004 recently sold for nearly $2 million at auction. That’s the most ever paid for a contemporary sports card and not far below the $2.8 million (over $3 million today with inflation) paid for a 1909 T206 Honus Wanger card in 2007 (the highest price ever realized for a sports card). The LeBron James card sale is part of a larger trend. Over the past five years, prices for contemporary sports cards have been soaring. For collectors and appraisers alike, that can be a mixed bag.
Take for example, some of the rookie cards of Yankee great Derek Jeter. In 2015, a mint 1993 Upper Deck SP Jeter card (#279 – Foil) was selling online for around $30,000. Several years later, an example of the same card (and in the same condition) sold for nearly $100,000 on eBay. In 2019, Heritage Auctions sold a similar card for nearly $140,000 (pictured above). In May, an example sold for $160,000 at Denver’s Mile High Card Company.
It is notable that contemporary sports card prices continue to climb even in times of social and economic uncertainty. But what may be lost in the news is that a lot of rookie Jeter cards are still ordinary – many examples sell for less than $100. With contemporary cards (those printed after 1986), variety and grading can make all the difference. The #279 Jeter card is no different. Recently, lower graded versions of the card have sold for much less – PSA 9s are selling for $5,000, PSA 8s for less than $1,000. PSA (Professional Sports Authenticator) is one of the leading authenticators and sports card grading companies.
There are other factors to consider. Since the 1990s, card companies often produce different varieties of one card, differentiated by color and quantity (known as print run). The Select Certified 1996 #100 Derek Jeter Mirror Blue is listed in the Beckett Sport Card Price Guide at $8,000. Only 45 were printed. One example recently sold for $37,000 at auction. A Mirror Red recently brought $2,000. The Beckett guide values the plain card at less than $5!
Sometimes card companies release just one version of an item – such as a printing plate, proof, error card, or special edition. Collectors know that rarity AND quality drive memorabilia value. Rare as it is, a one of a kind 2018 Gleyber Torres autographed printing plate isn’t as popular as other rare items. One recently sold for $500 on eBay. In contrast, a mint Ultimate Signature Derek Jeter/Joe DiMaggio autographed card from 2005 recently sold for nearly $10,000. Five were printed. Of course, Torres isn’t DiMaggio, or even Jeter.
At least three modern-day sports cards have sold for more than the #279. We already know about the $2 million LeBron James card. In 2016, another James rookie card sold for $312,000. In 2018, a Tom Brady rookie card sold for $250,000. For younger collectors in their 30s and 40s, players like Jeter, James, and Brady are icons, much like Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron were for baby boomers. So, it may not be long until one rare contemporary card sells for at least $3 million.