Gotta catch ’em all! Collecting Pokemon cards

Charizard, a fire Pokemon, has widespread appeal. This first edition card fetched $31,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021 at Heritage Auctions.

This first-edition Charizard card sold for $31,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021 at Heritage Auctions.

NEW YORK — At any point in time, just about anything that is wildly popular with the younger generation can and does become collectible. Pokemon is said to be the biggest media franchise of all time, and its trading cards are one of the top-growing collector categories. With more than 800 Pokemon characters, the hugely popular cards are intended for use in a game where players battle against each other with the character-monsters shown on their cards. “Pokemon” translates to “pocket monsters,” and in the United States, the Pokemon franchise is advertised with the now-famous phrase, “Gotta catch ’em all!”

Pokemon trading cards launched in Japan in 1996, and were first issued in America in 1999. New sets of cards have been issued and reissued in the ensuing decades, but the first edition base set remains the most valuable, and serious collectors typically try to collect or assemble a complete set. The original set contained a total of 102 cards, and the first 16 cards in the series were holographic cards. These cards were noted for their fine artwork from artists like Ken Sugimori and Mitsuhiro Arita. The first-set cards and some in the second issue are noted for having a different design than the standard issue, or third series, which followed. The earlier cards are brighter overall in color, feature a thinner font than later cards, and are often called “shadowless” as they lack a shadow border around the pictures. The year 1999 typically appears twice in the copyright notice as well.

This set of the first issue of Pokemon cards from 1999 contains an example of each of the 102 that were issued.

Part of a complete set of first issue Pokemon cards from 1999, containing 102 in all.

Certain cards have cachet, and rare ones have set auction records and achieved staggering results. A Number 1 Trainer holographic card, reportedly one of only seven such cards printed, sold for $90,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Heritage Auctions in July 2020. This card, which has been compared to one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets, gave its original owner access to a secret Pokemon tournament held in the summer of 1999 in Tokyo. “Owners only found out the location of the private game after winning one of these cards in one of seven regional tournaments,” according to Heritage Auctions.

Pokemon fans have their favorite characters, the best known of which is Pikachu, a cheerful, bright yellow creature with a tail shaped like a lightning bolt. But recent sales have shown that the most desirable ccards feature Charizard, an orange, dragon-like beast with wings. A first-edition Charizard card, graded 9 Mint, sold at auction in April 2021 for $31,000 plus the buyer’s premium.

A Pokemon Black Star Ishihara GX promo card brought $44,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2020 at Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers.

A Pokemon Black Star Ishihara GX promo card brought $44,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2020 at Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers.

There are many ways to acquire Pokemon cards, from buying booster packs and complete sets to just focusing on specific cards. “You can collect ungraded cards to complete your sets, or you can go for already TPG (third-party-graded) cards if you want to know you have the highest grade available,” said Kelly McClain, consignment manager at Hake’s Auctions in York, Pennsylvania. “Another way to collect is to buy unopened boxes or packs without really ever knowing what you will get — but that does have its own level of collecting excitement.”

US-issued Pokemon cards are generally more valuable than their Japanese counterparts, but McClain said there are a few exceptions, like the highly sought-after Pikachu Illustrator card.

Buyers can learn what kind of card they have, and its rarity, by studying the symbols typically printed in the bottom right or left corner. Common cards will be printed with a black circle, while uncommon cards sport a black diamond, and scarce cards a black star. “Shiny cards are usually rarer and more desirable,” he said. “Collectors should be aware that the smallest varieties can increase or decrease the value of the card significantly.”

“There is much to learn if you really want to get deep into Pokemon, and it is important to be informed,” he said. “If you are familiar with all of this, then you are set and ready to go in whatever direction collecting takes you. If you are a newbie, it is best to become as educated as you can so that you are buying just what you want and are mindful of values based on that exact card variety.”


Every day since June 1, 2021, Heritage Auctions has been offering packs from a 1999 Pokemon Unlimited Base Set Booster Box, which will be opened live on June 27. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

In the beginning, Pokemon cards were traded on playgrounds or in backyards, but now, they are part of a billion-dollar franchise that has spawned not just trading cards but television series, movies, video games, and more. The market for Pokemon trading cards continues to be strong, and the addition of Third Party Graders (TPG’s) such as PSA and CGC makes it even more so. “We have seen many record sales this past year, and I’m sure more are to come,” McClain said. “The prices really started to elevate when TPGs got involved. Once that happened, then all types of serious card collectors, investors, and even celebrities got involved.”

For serious collectors, obtaining the highest-graded example of the rarest Pokemon cards became a top priority. Ranking a close second on their Pokemon to-do lists is acquiring unopened boxes of cards. “Uncut sheets (like Hake’s has in its June 2021 auction) are the ultimate rarity, as these are very few and far between,” McClain said. “Having something as unique as this is the icing on the cake of any high-end Pokemon card collection.”

A 1999 Pokemon shadowless holographic uncut proof sheet will be offered in June at Hake’s Auctions.

A 1999 Pokemon holographic uncut proof sheet is one of the top highlights of  Hake’s June 29-30 auction. It is the earliest uncut Pokemon proof sheet ever to come to auction and comes from the collection of a Hasbro employee who received it as a gift in 1999. The pre-sale estimate is $100,000-$200,000

Nostalgia for one’s youth often comes into play when discussing what drives the market for collectibles. That holds true for Pokemon collectors, most of whom played with the cards as kids and return to the Pokemon realm as serious, moneyed adult collectors, but the cards have wide appeal, as McClain notes. “I think the demographic is largely a younger crowd, just because they are more connected to the subject matter, but there are plenty of collectors in all age ranges, playing and collecting all types of collectible card games and trading card games (CCG/TCGs).

“Some collectibles burn hot and bright as fads, but fail to develop long term value. Pokemon cards, on the other hand, show no signs of slowing down. At least not right now. As for longevity, that is not something I ever speculate on,” McClain said. “The market will stay strong as long as there are collectors, and that is true for any of the collectibles we have sold in our 54 years. There are ups and downs for sure, but I will say right now, Pokemon is on the uptick.”

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