T he world of sports trading cards includes a litany of rare, valuable and visually stunning examples. Whether you look for cards in packs or boxes at your local card store or at The National Sports Collectors Convention, finding your “grail” is a major milestone for every card collector. The thrill of finally holding that special card that you have searched for over the course of a day or a decade is one of the most satisfying feelings in card collecting.
Each collector might have their story and reason for their grail, but here are eight cards that have found their way to the top of many collectors’ lists.
1909-11 T206 Honus Wagner
The 1909-11 T206 Honus Wagner was perhaps the first grail of trading cards. Wagner objected to being featured in the set, so his card was removed from production after only a few hundred were produced. The card has enjoyed near-mythical status for nearly a century, from its first valuation at $50 in 1939 (roughly $1,100 today) all the way to its private sale at $7.25 million in the summer of 2022 – there’s even one in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
1933 Goudey Babe Ruth, Numbers 53 and 149
Babe Ruth has a wide array of important cards, and some of the most significant come from the 1933 Goudey set. It helped popularize the practice of including gum with trading cards and included more visually appealing and durable cards. Ruth has four different cards in the set, but the most valuable and rarest of them are cards numbers 53 and 149. Number 53 sold for $4.2 million in July 2021 in a PSA 9, and a PSA 8 of number 149 sold in December of 2023 for $396,000.
1952 Topps Mickey Mantle #311
If you were in New York City in 1960, you may have seen hundreds of cases of 1952 Topps Series 2 being loaded onto a barge, set to be dumped at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Why? Because Topps needed more room in their warehouse and the set had poor sales early on. This significantly limited the population, and those who managed to keep one safe have certainly been rewarded: the card set the record for most expensive card ever in 2022, fetching $12.6 million for an SGC 9.5, and has sold for more than $4 million three times in the past three years.
1958 Pelé Alifabolaget #635
In 1958, the same year as the World Cup, the Swedish outfit Alifabolaget produced the first trading card ever made of Pelé. It commemorated the then-17-year-old phenom as he won his first World Cup, becoming the youngest winner ever. Since then, this card has been at the heart of soccer trading cards, and even those in the worst condition routinely fetch 4 figures. A copy with the highest PSA grade achieved, a PSA 9, sold privately for $1.3 million. PSA has only graded 136 of these, and with such a low population, it’s little wonder that finding one of these is a crowning achievement for many soccer collectors.
1979 O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky #18
The 1979 O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky is at the top of the list for many hockey card collectors. Produced in Canada in tandem with its Topps counterpart in the US, “The Great One’s” Canadian rookie has broken into seven figures on multiple occasions; one of the world’s two PSA 10s sold in 2021 for $3.8 million. Especially with the lower print run of the O-Pee-Chee set, this is sure to be a grail for hockey collectors for many years to come.
1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan #57
Although “His Airness” has a multitude of fantastic cards, few are as striking as his 1986-87 Fleer. Although technically not a rookie (Star Company made team sets in 1984-85, which included licensed Jordans), the 1986-87 Fleer set was the first pack of basketball cards available to the public since the 1981-82 season. It flopped initially. Hobby stores struggled to sell the cards for 50 cents per pack. Now, collectors gravitate to the set for its amazing checklist as well as its vibrant colors and design. The card has been graded by PSA more than 25,000 times, but there are only 321 PSA 10s, and they regularly command six-figure price tags.
2003-04 Lebron James Exquisite Collection Jersey Auto #78
One is spoiled for choice when considering iconic Lebron James cards. However, it is difficult to overstate the significance of Lebron James’ 2003-04 Exquisite Collection Jersey Autograph. Exquisite Collection was created by Upper Deck for the 2003-04 product year, and they could scarcely have picked a better year to start. Only available for six years with NBA licenses, the name Exquisite Collection is venerated by collectors to this day, in no small part thanks to this card. The card was brought to national attention when, during the 2020 NBA playoffs, Lebron was notified by the national media that the Rookie Parallel version of this card, limited to 23 copies, had just sold for $1.8 million. The card reached new heights when a copy of the version limited to 23 sold for $5.2 million in a private sale in April 2021, and one of the version limited to 99 sold for $2.4 million in October of the same year.
2017 National Treasures Patrick Mahomes II Jersey Autograph #161
Since he was drafted in 2017, Patrick Mahomes II has quickly climbed the all-time great ranks in the NFL, as have his cards on many grail lists. Among the hundreds of options, perhaps his most iconic is the 2017 National Treasures Jersey Auto. The base version, limited to 99 copies, can command six figures depending on the condition. The one-of-one platinum version set a record for football cards in 2021, selling for $4.3 million. Looking for his third Super Bowl win this year with Super Bowl LVIII, there’s no telling where he, or his cards, could end up.
These eight cards have captured the hearts and minds of generations collectors, but which card will be your grail? When you see it, what will you do to secure it? Watch this space to find out when your grail arrives at Sotheby’s.
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