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Key Storylines to Watch in the Winter Sports Auction Season

Key Storylines to Watch in the Winter Sports Auction Season
January 21, 2022
Dylan Dittrich

It’s alright to be a bit overwhelmed.

The Hobby is in overdrive, and the conveyor belt bringing items to auction at marquee events is moving at breakneck speed. In the next two months alone, Heritage, PWCC, Goldin, Leland’s, and SCP will all close major auctions. All told, there will easily be north of 6,000 lots finding new homes. 

And in the results of those 6,000 lots, stories will unfold, stories that inform the direction of various markets in 2022. 

But with that many lots, that many pieces of cardboard, that many patches, that many autos, that many Prizms, that many parallels, that many print runs….where the heck do you look to draw conclusions? And…why would you bother?

We’re honing in on a number of key storylines to follow as the winter auctions season plays out. Without missing the forest for the trees, we’ll point to some key grails worth watching, with context on how they might impact one’s view of the broader market. We primarily focus on the high end, in which our fractional audience is most interested. 

Let’s see how the first pages of 2022 might be written. 

Supply Fatigue for Grail Cards?

Photo: Leland's

Many will recall that an endless stream of PSA 10 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan cards coming to auction in 2021 made it impossible to sustain upward momentum in that card’s value. Why did they keep coming, even as values faltered? Because many owners of the card had acquired it at a cost basis vastly lower than even the lows of 2021. 

Towards the later stages of 2021, it became the case that other key cards appeared at seemingly every auction, likely driven by similar forces. Chief among them: the 2003-04 Exquisite Collection LeBron James RPA and the 2000 Playoff Contenders Tom Brady Championship Ticket.

The Brady Championship Ticket came to auction at Goldin twice in April, in August, and twice in October. It came to auction at PWCC Premier in August, September, and October. The trickle to market is not slowing, as the card will appear at PWCC (BGS 8), Goldin (BGS 8), and Leland’s (BGS 8.5) this season. BGS 8s have declined in value the last two times they sold, from $1.32mm to $1.11mm to $1.02mm. BGS 8.5s are off of their April peak of $1.72mm and have been sliding with the exception of an uptick at Goldin in October to $1.54mm. The Leland’s example has a 9 auto grade, so stopping the skid despite that shortcoming would thus be welcome news.

The Exquisite LeBron Rookie RPA came to auction at Goldin in April, May, August, October, and December. The BGS 8.5 closing in early February will look to surpass the most recent sale of $1.30mm, back in October at Goldin. 

These cards have print runs of 100 and 99 respectively, so whether the continued turnover of a not insignificant portion of the population has the effect of constraining upside is worth monitoring. It’s more likely, given the lower quantity, that the drip to market would slow soon, minimizing the negative impact; even the perception of reduced appearances at auction in the future would serve this purpose. 

Still, these headline results can have a trickle down effect on overall market exuberance or trepidation. Most of us don’t have a spare million-plus bucks that we’re clutching close, just waiting for the right moment to snatch one of these gems up, but we’ll watch carefully nonetheless.

Incremental Brady Tailwinds

Photo: Goldin

Does it really matter how the rest of the postseason wraps up for Tom Brady? He’s won seven Super Bowls, does an eighth change the equation materially for his card values? Last year saw a brief spike in value in the aftermath of the victory for many key Brady cards, but most reverted back to trend in relatively short order; some of this was of course driven by the timing of larger market trends.

This year, with the exception of his Playoff Contenders cards, many key rookies enter the pivotal moments of the playoffs in decline or stable. We’re less concerned about the impact on the Championship Ticket, the status of which at the pinnacle of football card collecting should be affected little. We will, however, be monitoring performance of his SP Authentic rookie, his SPx rookie, as well as his Bowman Chrome rookie. The question will not be whether values spike with another victory, but whether they spike and are sustained at new levels.

Non Brady High-End Football Demand

Photo: PWCC

Flirtations with the cards of quarterbacks not named Tom Brady were a theme throughout 2021. Things got most hot-and-heavy with Patrick Mahomes in the first half of the year before cooler heads prevailed, realizing the impossibly high bar that card values had set for his performance. Towards the end of the regular season, the QB du jour became Justin Herbert. Now, attention turns mainly towards Mahomes, Josh Allen,  Aaron Rodgers, and Joe Burrow. 

PWCC’s Premier Auction will close after only Burrow plays this weekend, while Rodgers will likely be on the field in the midst of the auction. Should the Bengals pull off the upset, focus will be on Burrow’s 2020 Panini Contenders Optic Gold Rookie Auto (BGS 9.5), as well as an uncirculated (but damaged) copy of his /99 National Treasures RPA. There will be no shortage of high-end Burrow cards at Goldin weeks later, including various NT RPAs. Much to gain for the Bengals signal-caller.

Similarly, Josh Allen faces a key matchup with Patrick Mahomes this weekend, and a win would more loudly stake his claim among the NFL’s very best. We’ll know a lot more about Allen’s postseason prospects when Goldin closes, but it will be interesting to see how a BGS 9.5 sale of his Contenders Gold Rookie Auto stacks up against Burrow’s. His 1/1 Red NT RPA (graded a BGS 8) will also give us a glimpse of what Allen demand looks like near the highest end this weekend at PWCC, as will his Gold Vinyl Prizm card in PSA 10 condition. The card comes from a print run of 5, and for context, the same card of Mahomes sold for $284k more than two years ago (a BGS 9.5 sold in October for $409k).

That of course brings us to the second most collectible quarterback in the Hobby, Patrick Mahomes himself. There are EIGHTY FIVE Mahomes lots at Goldin, up moderately from sixty nine in the year prior. There are nineteen lots in the PWCC Premier. Suffice it to say, there is NO shortage of key cards up for grabs, and we’ll learn a lot about Mahomes demand, whether he leads the Chiefs back to the Super Bowl or not. At the highest level, his /5 Black National Treasures RPA (BGS 9) will sell at PWCC this weekend. It last sold in August for $630,000 at PWCC, which was down from the January 2021 peak of $840,000. That result will come against the backdrop of a pending $350,000 buyout offer for the BGS 8 copy on Rally, which was trading down below $150k. In total, there are seven National Treasures Rookie Patch Autos that will sell in the coming weeks. As is always the case with Mahomes as a result of his elevated valuations, there’s an incredible amount riding on his playoff performance. The rise of the broader market into spring last year spared his high-end cards from losing ground post Super Bowl, but it’s not clear if that will be the case this time around, especially if he makes his exit against the Bills.

As is perhaps emblematic of his overall collectability, Aaron Rodgers has just one lot in the PWCC Premier Auction and is featured in just six lots at Goldin. The NFC Championship will have already been played by the time the Goldin auction closes, so the minimal supply could see significant tailwinds if the Packers have punched their ticket to the Super Bowl. 

Heightened Ticket Expectations

Photo: Heritage Auctions

Coming into 2021, many of us would have been floored to see a six figure ticket sale. But as the market rapidly strengthened throughout the year, such results became a regularity. As we begin 2022, we expect to see many during the winter auction season. The bar has been raised to such a degree that failure of certain lots to reach six figures would come as a disappointment and may lead to consolidation and a respite for the market’s relentless charge upwards. Which tickets will be in the spotlight? Here’s a few:

  • 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers Jackie Robinson Debut Stub (PSA 2) - opening at Heritage Auctions February 2nd. The high sale of a Jackie Robinson debut stub is $50,000, and that was way back in September of 2020 for a raw stub. Expectations are unsurprisingly high for this example, which is one of the two highest graded in the PSA population.
  • 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open Tiger Woods Debut Full Ticket (PSA 9) - opening at Heritage Auctions February 4th. An $85,000 sale of a PSA 8 Tiger debut ticket came out of essentially nowhere in late 2021. Failure to surpass that figure handily for the highest graded ticket in the population would perhaps suggest there’s a short term ceiling on values.
  • Wilt Chamberlain 100 Point Game Stub (PSA 3) and Signed Program - closing at Leland’s January 29th. Expectations for this lot will be heightened by the inclusion of the signed program from the game. There is just one stub from the game graded higher, and this stub shares a grade with one  that IPO’d on Rally for $115,000. The high sale at auction is $87k at Goldin in August, though that was for an Authentic graded example. 
  • Tom Brady Signed NFL Debut Ticket (PSA 7, PSA/DNA 9) - closing at Goldin February 6th. The $144,000 November Heritage sale of a PSA 10, PSA/DNA 10 full ticket from the game in which Brady threw his first touchdown raised more questions than it answered. Though the population from that game was lower (and that ticket obviously sits atop the rest), the sale effectively doubled the previous record for a Brady ticket (the debut - PSA 6, PSA/DNA 10) which was set in October at $73k. This sale will tell us a lot about whether the market has indeed leapt ahead, or if the $144k sale was an outlier. 
  • Mickey Mantle Debut Stub (PSA 1.5) - closing at Goldin February 5th. Not one but two Mantle Debut stubs sold for north of $100k in 2021. Both were graded PSA 3, and the second sale hit $141k in October. With the population being as low as it is (17 stubs), one would expect this stub to at least approach six figure territory, if not break into it to signal further bullishness in the category.

Game-Worn and Game-Used: Building Momentum or Continued Spottiness?

Photo: Heritage Auctions

There were some massive results in game-worn memorabilia in 2021. And right off the bat, the stakes will be raised in early 2022 with auction lots expected to draw nine figures. Perhaps the single most important will be the last Yankees jersey Mickey Mantle ever wore in a game. The jersey last sold in August of 2020 for $850,000. At the time, it was known to be the jersey Mantle wore for home run number 535, also known as “The Gift”, as Denny McLain served up a charity pitch to the aging slugger. Since then, there is video evidence to suggest Mantle also wore the jersey in his last plate appearance, at Fenway Park against the Red Sox. That discovery, of course, makes this an incredibly iconic jersey. For reference, the high mark for a Mantle jersey at Heritage is $1.32mm, which was matched to games six and seven of the 1964 World Series, when Mantle hit his record 17th and 18th WS home runs.

Also expected to reach nine figure territory (per Heritage’s guided value) are a pair of signed Jordan 1s photo-matched by MeiGray to an April 1986 contest in Milwaukee. These are “Dunk-sole” Jordan 1s. When Jordan returned from his broken foot, the original sole of the Jordan 1 was swapped for that of the Nike Dunk, which was softer and wider. This particular pair has had a fascinating journey. They originally sold via private sale through Grey Flannel, before being consigned to Goldin and Sotheby’s for a December 2020 auction. With an estimate of $600k to 800k, they failed to sell. The owner then had a photo-match conducted by and consigned them with Sotheby’s, where they sold via private sale. That buyer then enlisted MeiGray to conduct the photo-match, which was conclusive, and here they are at Heritage. It will be fascinating to see whether these approach the territory of the $1.472mm sneaker auction record (which was well more than double the prior mark). That was set by the signed Air Ship, which featured strong provenance to Jordan’s fifth regular season game and a possible photo-match to his third.

Along similar lines, Leland’s is offering the sneakers believed to have been worn the night Jordan broke his foot in 1985, potentially making them the last pair of unmodified, original Jordan 1s he wore in a game. There is no photo-match at play here, just provenance, and Leland’s has not been able to locate footage or images from five post-injury games to ascertain that he did not wear unmodified Jordan 1s in them. The starting bid here is $250,000, though that has yet to be hit. His 1984 Olympic Trials signed sneakers at SCP Auctions are also of interest, as these failed to sell at Sotheby’s in a summer auction with a low estimate of $80k. The summer months were not kind to the rare and game-used sneaker space, so a successful outcome here would further signal departure from those choppier waters.

A MeiGray photo-matched and signed Brady jersey from a 2010 regular season game against the Ravens comes to auction at Leland’s, closing next weekend. The estimate calls for $500-600k, putting the power of photo-matching and Brady’s greatness to the test. Recall that a photo-matched Bucs jersey with the “G.O.A.T” inscription sold for $480k earlier this month at Goldin (which was short of loftier expectations).

Finally, with the release of PSA’s bat population this summer, there will be some results with headline potential. A PSA/DNA GU 10 1947 Ted Williams bat, a year in which he won the Triple Crown, comes to the plate at Heritage in February. They last sold a bat from that season in 2017 for $180,000. There are just 14 GU 10s in the Williams population. Also in that auction is a PSA/DNA GU 8.5 Ty Cobb bat from 1916-1918. Heritage sold a PSA/DNA GU 9 in August for $216,000, that one coming from 1922-23. There are sixteen Cobb bats graded higher than 8.5.

Increasing Number of Players in the Soccer Spotlight

Photo: Goldin

You might have soccer fatigue after a 2021 which propelled the sport into the collecting spotlight in unprecedented ways. With that growing relevance came growing prominence at auction. For instance, in the Goldin Elite auction closing in early February, there are 122 soccer lots. Contrast that to the same auction a year earlier, when there were just 32. 

That auction featured 13 different players, but 22 of the 32 lots focused on just four players: Pele, Ronaldo, Messi, and Mbappe. The concentration isn’t dissimilar this time around, with 75 of 122 lots coming from those collecting favorites. Still, there are 21 players featured, suggesting there’s increasing diversification, even if there’s considerable room for more.

The question, however, is whether a new tier will rise in 2022 - below the four mentioned above, as well as Diego Maradona. Will vintage greats like George Best, Johan Cruyff, and Michel Platini continue to find new heights? The PSA 7 1968 Palirex Johan Cruyff will be one to watch - will it hurdle its previous price of $44k (achieved in August), and by how much? Similarly in the PWCC Premier Auction, the PSA 8.5 1969 Vanderhout Cruyff card will be under the microscope, with pressure to surpass the $22k sale of a PSA 8 in late October. 

Will there be continued acceleration for Thierry Henry and elevation to a similar level for Zlatan Ibrahimovic? The former saw a PSA 10 rookie sticker reach $66k at Goldin earlier this month, and a PSA 9 comes to auction in the Goldin Elite event, which is still just pop 12 vs pop 4 for the PSA 10. Zlatan has a PSA 9 rookie sticker coming up for auction, which is the highest graded example with just a population of three. Approaching that Henry sale level would be suggestive of continued demand for top-tier copies of players outside of the usual suspects. 

Of course, if you simply want to know how things are tracking at the high end, you can start with Messi and Ronaldo. Neither is having a successful season by their own standards, but their legacies are largely cemented. A PSA 10 2004 Mega Cracks Messi card will sell at Leland’s next weekend. The card is just pop 20 and last sold in August for $270k, which was a down sale from $340k in June. BGS 9.5s have slid consistently from March highs, with the last sale at $55k. With a true gem+ and a true gem up for auction at Goldin and PWCC respectively, positive momentum would be welcome. The key card for Ronaldo this season is actually his 2002 Panini Futebol Portugal Sticker (earlier than his key Mega Craques rookie card). A BGS 10 will sell at PWCC this weekend, and a PSA 10 is up at Goldin. A BGS 10 hasn’t sold since May, at $120k,  while the PSA 10 is on a consistent uptrend, selling successively higher in three consecutive sales, most recently drawing $138k in December. The same cannot be said for lower grades, or for the Mega Craques card.

Pele also has considerable representation at auction. His 1958 Alifabolaget card is for sale in several grades, highest among them an SGC 7.5 at PWCC. With no PSA 7 or 7.5 sales in the last year, the range of potential outcomes is wide, with an upper bound perhaps set by the $340k March sale of a PSA 8. The highest result of the season, though, may be his 1957 Balas Futebol rookie in SGC 2 condition at Goldin. It’s the only card in the SGC census, and just one, a 1.5, appears in the PSA census. A bidding war here propelling the card beyond $500k may be a sign of unrelenting high-end soccer demand. 

Aftermath of a Rough 2021 for Modern Basketball

Photo: PWCC

As PSA backlogs began to clear over the course of 2021, it became abundantly clear that hopes for modern basketball product were exceedingly high, particularly at the lower tiers of the market. As a result, values suffered. Still, collectors could find refuge at the high end, but only to the extent the broader market provided refuge (in the spring, it did not). 

Of course, with the stage reset entering 2022, many will be curious to see what kind of momentum modern stars carry, particularly as the basketball season prepares to take center stage. A selection of cards, both at the highest end and below, will present results of interest in the weeks ahead.

Three of Luka Doncic’s /99 National Treasures RPA will sell, two of which are BGS 9.5s (one at PWCC, one at Goldin). This card saw a rare, uninterrupted, sharply increasing trajectory throughout 2021, and $350k will be the level to surpass to continue that uptrend. The card at PWCC will have particularly high expectations, boasting a 10 subgrade for centering and 9.5s across the board otherwise. A PSA 10 of this card will open at Heritage on February 4th, and if the momentum from the 9.5s is strong, it could make significant waves. One BGS 9.5 from the /20 print run will also sell at both PWCC and Goldin. At a more “mid-tier” portion of the market, the result from his PSA 9 Mojo Prizm at Goldin will tell us a bit about where we’ve come from January 2021, when it sold for $28,800. Over at PWCC, his Blue Prizm in BGS 9.5 condition will look to stop a skid that has persisted since April, with the last five successive sales closing lower than the last.

We’ll also have a clear look at high end demand for Trae Young. His PSA 10 Gold Prizm, which has a population of only four, will sell for the third time in 12 months at PWCC, with $156k being the most recent sale in October to hurdle. BGS 9.5 examples of his National Treasures /99 RPA will sell at both PWCC and Goldin. Goldin’s is a true gem with 10 centering, and one would expect to see it surpass $66k, which was a down sale in December from the peak for this card ($73.2k), though that was a true gem as well (it did lack a 10 subgrade). Another down sale may be a sign of a softening market for the player, though his star remains on the rise, and he sits second in Eastern Conference guard voting for this year’s All Star Game. 

Ja Morant will be closely studied this auction season. The explosive guard has leveled up yet again this season and is staking his claim amongst the NBA’s elite. His /99 National Treasures RPA in BGS 9.5 condition will sell at Goldin and is already at $100k with weeks to go. The result there may solidify his place amongst the most collectible up and coming stars in the NBA. And one note on the man drafted ahead of him. Zion Williamson was represented with 35 lots in the January 2021 Goldin Elite auction. In 2022, there are nine Zion lots (exclusive of any boxes). Nonetheless, his own BGS 9.5 /99 NT RPA sits at $95k, not far behind his exceedingly more available draft-mate. 

Vintage Baseball: Coming, Going, or Settling In?

Photo: PWCC

Vintage baseball cards charted a mercurial path in 2021. As was the case with most other categories, the early stages of the year were quite favorable, before markets softened considerably in the late spring. However, strong results in vintage baseball in the summer months actually led the recovery. Still, that resurgence was short lived, as many prices tumbled again in the fall before stabilizing in late 2021. With considerable key results to come in the early part of the year, we’ll soon know if that stabilization was consolidation before further appreciation or a respite before continued volatility ahead.

Key results we’ll be watching: 

  • 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle (PSA 7) - Closes at PWCC 1/22. Following another PSA 7 (now funding on Collectable) failing to meet its reserve at Goldin a few weeks back, this card - which features superior centering - will come under the microscope, with $312k being the last successful sale in late November.
  • 1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle (PSA 8) - Closes at Heritage 1/27, closes at Leland’s 1/29, and opens at Heritage 2/4. Heritage’s November sale for $420k represented an uptick for the card after dropping from mid-July onward. That momentum will be tested three times in short order in the first quarter.
  • 1951 Bowman Willie Mays (PSA 8) - Closes at Leland’s 1/29 and at Goldin 2/5. This card effectively missed the late summer dip, selling for $234k in May and $264k in December. After only selling once in 2020, it sold six times in 2021 and will notch two early 2022 sales.
  • 1948 Leaf Jackie Robinson (PSA 8) - Opens at Heritage 2/4. A PSA 8 sold just twice in all of 2021, with no sales of higher grades. While PSA 7s were in freefall for much of the year, this is a somewhat rare opportunity for the highest-end demand to surface at a key Robinson event.
  • 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle (PSA 8) - Opens at Heritage 2/4. The last sale of PSA 8 Mantle was a mildly down sale, for $2.03mm at Goldin in October, though it followed a swift uptick. Will the climb higher continue? It's hard to say, as the front of the card is not yet imaged.

And in pre-war:

  • 1914 Cracker Jack Ty Cobb (PSA 8) - Clos

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