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Mike Trout trading card sells for almost $4 million, breaks record set by Honus Wagner card



The previous record was set in 2016, when a rare Honus Wagner T206 card produced between 1909 and 1911 sold for $3.12 million. Wagner, whose career ended in 1917, has long since been regarded as one of the greatest baseball players ever, and while Trout is on track for that kind of acclaim, he is just 29 and figures to play for another decade.

The unique nature of the Trout card and his elite on-field production — not to mention that coveted trading cards are on a run of record-breaking sales this year — helped propel the item into unseen territory. An outfielder for the Los Angeles Angels, Trout has won American League Rookie of the Year and three AL MVP awards and has finished in the top four in voting four other times. His career wins above replacement (WAR) mark of 73.5 already places him 84th in MLB history.

Most of the big-money buyers at sports memorabilia auctions are in their late 20s to early 40s, and “they want to buy cards of the players that they are watching today, or that they watched as a kid,” said Ken Goldin, the founder and CEO of Goldin Auctions, which has had a hand in some of the most expensive sales this year.

A Trout rookie card that was one of just five fetched over $920,000 at a Goldin Auctions sale in May, setting a record at the time for a card created after the 1970s. That modern-era mark was shattered in July by a LeBron James rookie card, which the auction company saw go for $1.845 million.

As with the Trout cards, scarcity was the key to the high value of the James card, which was one in a special series of 23 (correlating to James’s jersey number) and one of two to qualify as being in near-mint condition. That scarcity is hardly an accident, as leading trading-card companies such as Topps and Upper Deck saw a thriving market collapse in the 1990s amid a glut of product.

“I think we all learned a lesson. The industry learned its lesson about overproduction and how damaging that was. The people at the card companies are aware of the damage that did,” an executive with Beckett Media, which produces price guides for trading cards, told the Athletic in May.

Goldin, when reached by phone Sunday, noted that even cards of tremendous historical interest could lose value by suddenly becoming less rare. He cited the 2016 discovery in a house’s attic of seven Ty Cobb cards, which pushed the known total of such cards from 15 to 22.

“If you look at a ’52 Topps Mickey Mantle [card], nobody really knows how many were produced,” Goldin said. “This particular [Trout] card is the best possible card of the best player today, and there’s only one of them that was produced. And the whole world knows there’s only one.”

The Wagner card is thought to have been made in fewer quantities than those of contemporary baseball stars, with some accounts indicating that the Pittsburgh Pirates legend, 10th all-time in WAR, did not want children to become interested in the tobacco products the cards were used to promote. Goldin’s presumption was that if the Wagner card sold in 2016 were auctioned off again today, it would top the Trout card by selling for over $4 million.

As for other limited items of modern-day stars, Goldin said a rookie card of James that also is one of one would sell for at least $2 million, and his company expects to get at least $1.5 million at its next auction for a 1/1 rookie card of another NBA superstar, the Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. He added that a “superfractor” card (meaning one of one) for Fernando Tatis Jr., a rising star for the San Diego Padres, would likely sell for at least $500,000.

The Trout card sold for $400,000 two years ago, making for a massive profit for “Vegas” Dave Oancea, a sports betting consultant who predicted earlier this month it would make him “four or five million dollars” at the auction.

“A lot of people had a lot of negative things to say, that I was crazy,” Oancea told Reuters about the reaction to how much he spent in 2018 on the card. “You know, ‘You could have bought a house,’ ‘You could have bought this and that,’ that I’m stupid and it’s a piece of cardboard.”

Oancea echoed Goldin in saying supply and demand informed his 2018 purchase. “There’s one in the world,” Oancea said, “and right now the baseball card market is booming.”

As for why the market has been growing so steadily in 2020, Goldin pointed to the stock market crash this year as the novel coronavirus pandemic caused massive disruptions worldwide. Though the market rebounded quickly, he claimed that wealthy individuals have taken some of their money out of the market and are looking into other investments outside the usual sectors.

“They’re not spending their money buying high-rises in New York, San Francisco or L.A.,” he said.

Goldin also noted that syndicates of pooled investors in trading cards have popped up recently, as the “standardized grading and authentication has … really propelled the marketplace.”

All of which could bode well for his company and others in the sports-memorabilia business, as long as the fever doesn’t break.

“I think six months from now, the amount of available money to buy this is going to be much greater than it is now,” Goldin said, “and the supply is not increasing.”

That said, it may be some time before a perfect storm comes along again as it did with the Trout card, given its one-of-a-kind status and his veneration in baseball circles. Goldin said he thought the record set Saturday will stand “for a very, very long time,” because it will take many years for another baseball player to generate the kind of comparisons to Mantle that Trout has.

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