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If you have old Pokemon cards lying around, you could be sitting on some serious cash. Photo: Bloomberg

Dig out your old Pokemon cards – they could be worth a lot more than you think, thanks to the pandemic, boredom and an increased feeling of isolation

  • A man who ‘had nothing to do’ when Los Angeles shut down started selling Pokemon cards for fun – now his Instagram Live events regularly clear US$6,000 per show
  • Cards are not the only collectible causing chaos. The pandemic has inspired a surge in the buying and selling of art, coins, currency – even street art and NFTs

Anthony Jimenez hadn’t thought much about his Pokemon cards since middle school, when girls had suddenly seemed more interesting.

But with time on his hands during the coronavirus pandemic, Jimenez dug out his old collection and found that the cards were in pristine condition, a fact that would change his life and financial outlook.

“When I found my old Pokemon cards, it was like, ‘Oh my God, these are skyrocketing in value. I should try to sell some of them,’” Jimenez says. “So we decided, just for fun, to try this out because Los Angeles was shut down, and we literally had nothing to do.”
Jimenez, 27, has kept his day job in marketing for a tech giant on the west coast of the United States. But he’s sold enough new cards, and some of his old collection, to fuel a lucrative side gig – Tony’s Collectibles – that he runs live on Instagram on some nights with two childhood friends. It’s been clearing an average of US$6,000 per show.
Anthony Jimenez (left) and friends sell Pokemon cards on Tony’s Collectibles on Instagram Live. Photo: TNS

The pandemic inspired a surge in the buying and selling of all manner of collectibles, from the traditional – fine art, rare coins and currency – to newer crazes such as Pokemon cards and street art.

It’s the kind of commerce that used to rely on bricks-and-mortar stores and large, in-person events, but it has managed a relatively smooth transition to online events run by newcomers like Jimenez and venerable firms like Stack’s Bowers Galleries, founded in 1933.

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“We have seen a record number of new clients coming into the market,” says Brian Kendrella, president of Stack’s Bowers Galleries, which recently auctioned an 1804 Draped Bust silver dollar for US$7.68 million, making it the fifth-most valuable United States coin ever sold. “We’ve really seen it across all asset classes.

“These are new clients at an entry level from a price point perspective as well as at a highly advanced level that are spending six figures and beyond.”

The exploding demand has increased scarcity and injected a bit of chaos into the collector industrial complex.

A Oldsmobile F-88 concept car at the 34th Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction in Arizona in 2005. An analysis by Credit Suisse in October found that classic cars are by far the best-performing collectibles category. Photo: Reuters

The Professional Sports Authenticator firm has been hit by an “avalanche of cardboard” from collectors contacting the authentication and grading company for a third-party evaluation of their trading cards, according to its president, Steven Sloan.

“We recently received more cards in three days than we did during the previous three months,” he said on the company’s website. “Even after the surge, submissions continue at never-before-seen levels.”

Some Walmart stores in the US pulled their Pokemon cards after collectors and resellers rushed bricks-and-mortar locations. And parents are now upset that they are unable to buy their children Pokemon cards because of high online prices.

Everyone just starts freaking out over it. That energy really drives the enjoyment. I mean, who knew that us Gen Ys were prone to getting this excited about trading cards?
Dil-Dominé Jacobé Leonares, collector

Part of the boom can be explained by increased disposable income and idle time for some people lucky enough to keep their jobs but work remotely during the pandemic, experts say.

The collecting increase is also an emotional response to coronavirus lockdowns that are without precedent in living memory. Stay-at-home orders have left people feeling more isolated than ever before. At a time when it was difficult to meet people, activities built around collectibles presented an opportunity for people to bond over items that give them pleasure.

“In times of stress like these, we are sort of biologically programmed to try to hold on to things, and to acquire things,” says Bradley Klontz, a psychologist and author. “Collectibles has the word in it. ‘I’m going to collect things and surround myself with things.’ And I think that’s a survival instinct at work.”

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Collector and appraiser Ronnie Pirovino points to too many Zoom meetings and too much binge television watching, which has left people searching for something else.

“I truly feel we can point to the amount of free time people had for reflection to allow for a certain escapism to take place, and allow them to revisit some things that they may have had been interested in the past and to see how they might be able to participate in some of that again,” says Pirovino, a fine-art member of the International Society of Appraisers who has served as an expert consultant to well-known auction houses including Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams.

Pirovino once owned one of the largest collections of art toys by Kaws, the nickname used by American artist and designer Brian Donnelly. But in recent years, he has redirected his collecting “with a much more personal narrative”, selling his figurines for “many millions of dollars”.
Artwork by US artist and designer Kaws, whose real name is Brian Donnelly. Photo: AFP

As an investment, collectibles aren’t guaranteed to hold value, as anyone who bought into the ’90s-era Beanie Babies mania can tell you.

An analysis by Credit Suisse in October found that indexes tracking high-end collectible value gained across most categories, with varying degrees of volatility: “Wines and fine art have returned the least,” the analysis found. “Watches and jewellery have been effective stores of value, with cumulative 10-year returns between 27 per cent and 61 per cent. Classic cars were by far the best-performing collectibles category.”

In a note to clients, Credit Suisse Group chairman Urs Rohner wrote: “Given the uncertainty created by the Covid-19 pandemic and some concern about the sustainability of economic policies precipitated by the crisis, collectibles can add an extra dimension to investors’ portfolios by helping to diversify asset allocation and provide an element of safety.”

For Jimenez, a little research into his collection’s worth prompted him to reach out to friends. “That set off the chain reaction of them looking through their basements and trying to find their Pokemon cards,” he says. “And I think that’s how it happened for a lot of people in the last year.”

That’s a big part of the collecting allure, says Jeff Figler, a certified sports memorabilia appraiser.

“Once somebody hears about some big sale that’s just out of this world, a lot of these people were saying to themselves, ‘Hey, I’ve got this stuff that I’ve had for years”, he says.

“And once somebody hears about some sale that’s just out of this world, then a million other people send their cards in and it’s just a domino effect. And they’re saying ‘pandemic or no pandemic, I’m going to cash in’.”

A collection of Pokemon cards, which have found new value during the pandemic. Photo: Bloomberg
Rediscovering past hobbies like Pokemon card trading has become a pandemic-safe way to connect with old friends, says Karsen Woods, chief experience officer at 888 The New World, a digital art and NFT (non-fungible token) marketplace.

“Now that this is happening in more of this digital atmosphere or environment, whether it’s through collecting sneakers or toys, you’re still connecting with people through apps and social media,” Woods says.

To collectors like Dil-Dominé Jacobé Leonares, 37, from Los Angeles, the difficulty finding cards is part of the attraction.

“Part of the thrill is just opening up a new pack of trading cards with friends, looking for the really rare and collectible items and then you pull out one that is really valuable,” Leonares says.

“Everyone just starts freaking out over it. That energy really drives the enjoyment. I mean, who knew that us Gen Ys were prone to getting this excited about trading cards?”

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He recently founded a business called Vccess, the New Wave of Fandom. Vccess gives creators the tools to control the release of their intellectual property, in the form of physical and digital collectibles, Leonares says.

In April, he partnered with rapper MIA to auction off a digital collectible called the Kizhi Coyn, which was a repeating graphic image with audio attached, at a fundraiser for the victims of the volcanic eruption earlier this year on the Caribbean island of St Vincent. Leonares says the auction raised more than US$254,000.

As a collector, Leonares says the boom has increased the authentication and grading backlog.

“I think I have about maybe a hundred cards … that still have yet to be graded,” he says. “I have two Pokemon Charizards that are super rare. If they’re authentic and if any are nine or 10, then I’d probably put them on sale. I’ll just have to wait and see.”