But Cherry and other Melbourne retailers told The Sunday Age interest in cards had in fact been growing for several years before COVID-19. They pinned the trend on the card-mad kids of a quarter-century ago who now had solid incomes and families of their own to share the fun with.
The growth in interest had snowballed across most card categories, they said.
“Zion [Williamson’s] rookie card growth and Jordan’s rookie card growth led to Tom Brady’s rookie card going up, which led to Derek Jeter’s rookie card going up, as people chased the next card to pop,” Cherry’s owner Grayson White said.
NBA collectors dream of snaring the Zion Williamson logoman card, for which card trading site Blowout Cards is offering a bounty of US$500,000 ($728,000),
In the AFL, a card from the “Supremacy” set with the signatures of four-time premiership coaches David Parkin, Leigh Matthews, Kevin Sheedy and Ron Barassi could fetch anywhere between $5000-$10,000.
Rob Leong, co-owner of Blackburn’s EJ Cards, said the Supremacy cards sold out within days of their release late last year, despite costing $500 a box.
High-value AFL cards include a Tony Lockett 1300-goal signature card on the market for $4500; a 2004 ‘Brownlow Triple Signature’ card featuring Nathan Buckley, Adam Goodes and Mark Ricciuto worth $3000; and a Barassi ‘Legend Signature’ for $2500.
Mr White said he expected NFL cards to “go through the roof” this year thanks to the hype around prospects Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa. Demand for baseball and English Premier League soccer was also expected to grow in the coming years.
Even gaming card values have increased, with some Pokemon cards from its first 1999 edition fetching tens of thousands of dollars.
While the most widely-prized Pokemon cards come from the franchise’s early days, the opposite is generally true for NBA and AFL cards.
“In basketball cards, you’re looking for those made after 1996,” Mr White said.
“Basically when we all stopped collecting, that’s when cards became really interesting because those companies had to innovate to survive.”
But Mr White said the game-changer for basketball cards came in the late 2000s when the NBA awarded company Panini the exclusive manufacturing rights.
“Previously, everyone had a share of the pie and what that meant was your Shaquille O’Neal card was being mass produced by everyone because they needed to realise a profit,” he said.
As the sole licensee, Panini “can control the impact on the secondary market – and it’s working”.
“You can go into your local Big W and buy a pack of Hoops-branded NBA cards for about $4, and in that packet you could, potentially, get a card worth more than $20,000,” he said.
Though the glut of the 90s meant it was unlikely your old cards were the retirement fund you had imagined, there were always exceptions, Mr White said.
“Now’s the time to pull out the collection and have a look what’s in there.”
Collectors said the most significant trend of the last five years had been ‘breaking’ – a way of sharing costs of expensive boxes (the 10 cards in an NBA ‘National Treasures’ box costs close to $8000) among multiple people.
A common break involves participants pitching in money for a randomly generated team or player. Should a member of that team or your allocated player emerge from a box, it’s yours.
Cherry breaks boxes daily and broadcasts the “reveals” live online to hundreds of participants or spectators.
Mr Leong was optimistic the upward trend would continue for years to come, even as restrictions eased. In the 90s, the collectors were kids nagging parents or using pocket money. This time the market was mostly adults with pay checks, he said.
“It’s got a bit of gas in it yet.”
Zach is a reporter at The Age. Got a story? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org