On a pleasant, early summer Sunday afternoon, a crowd of two hundred gathered around a stage in a corner of the Grand Ballroom at the Embassy Suites hotel and convention center in Frisco. They were there for Collect-A-Con, and they were about to watch four men open a box.
Across the ballroom, dealers from around the Metroplex had set up tables in labyrinthine rows to display pop culture treasures. Some women in cosplay outfits and families wandered the convention, but men who appeared to be in their late twenties to early forties made up the bulk of the crowd. Need a copy of Amazing Spider-Man number 252 in mint condition, or a Dirk Nowitzki rookie card, or a pair of limited-edition Miles Morales Nike Air Jordans? Collect-A-Con was the place.
The box on the stage in the corner of the room held 36 unopened 1999 Pokémon Unlimited Edition “booster packs,” each of which contained eleven random trading cards. The packs had been auctioned off in advance by Dallas-based Heritage Auctions, each going for about $880. Every pack contained ten ordinary cards and one rare card. That card could be incredibly valuable: a dozen of the packs in each factory-sealed box contained a premium “holo” card, a hard-to-come-by character printed with a shiny foil overlay (material that was cutting-edge in 1999).
Depending on which set it’s from and which Pokémon character it depicts, a holo can sell for thousands or more. At an auction in January, a card from the game’s first edition, which depicted the golden dragon Charizard and was graded in perfect 10.0 condition, sold for $300,000. The most expensive cards from the “Unlimited” edition wouldn’t fetch quite that much, but a lucky buyer could still find himself with a card that would buy him, say, a mid-range sedan.
Or the pack could turn out to be a mere pile of cardboard, worth just a few dollars. “That’s the fun of it,” one of the four men on stage, Joe Maddalena, told me later. Maddalena is a lifelong collector: when he was twelve years old, he organized the first-ever baseball card show in his home state of Rhode Island. When we met, he had a few days’ stubble, and he was wearing chunky glasses and a polo shirt with the Heritage Auctions logo—he’d recently joined the company as executive vice president.
I asked Maddalena if the buyers that day were gambling, spinning an $880 roulette wheel. He explained that “gambling” is a mischaracterization of what the auction winners had come for. Sure, they all hoped for that Charizard card, but the collectors were chasing a thrill they hadn’t had since they were children, when they might have put their allowances into opening the same sealed booster packs they had bid on that afternoon. For many, the dream of opening a Charizard card was one deferred from childhood.
The actual pack-opening would be done by someone else, though, to make sure the reveal was properly framed for the livestream. Maddalena opened the first pack. He’s a camera-ready guy—he used to host a reality show on SyFy called Hollywood Treasure—but there was a murmur in the crowd when he did it: Why that guy, when he was sitting next to a veritable celebrity within this extremely niche world? And so the next 35 packs were opened by a 67-year-old collector from Las Vegas known to the hundred thousand or so followers he’s amassed on YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter as King Pokémon, owner of a hundred Charizards. He thumbed through each pack as the auction winner stood behind him. He built drama with each card he revealed, passing over each pack’s “energy” game token while the crowd chanted “energy … energy” before the big reveal of whatever—maybe a big-dollar holo, maybe just another copy of a card that nobody wanted back in 1999 either.
The unboxing ended in under an hour. Nobody had pulled a Charizard, but the buzz of the audience was undiminished. They stalked back out onto the convention floor, ready to haggle over more cards and old Pokémon Nintendo games.
Maddalena looked exhilarated. “If you and I go out for dinner, and we pop a great ’86 Château Lafite Rothschild, we spent $800 on a bottle of wine,” he said. “Is there any difference between that and this?”
Since the start of the pandemic, the pop culture collectibles market has been growing at a staggering pace. Sports memorabilia, comic books, movie artifacts, and all manner of ephemera are fetching astronomical prices. In December 2010, Heritage sold a copy of 1939’s Detective Comics number 27 in 7.0 condition—impressive shape for an eighty-year-old comic book—featuring the first appearance of Batman, for just under half a million dollars. It was a princely sum for a book with a cover price of ten cents, and last November the same copy sold again for even more—three times more.
The video games category, which barely existed as a market just a few years ago, is now in the midst of an exponential price boom that mirrors cryptocurrency’s: A copy of Nintendo’s 1998 game Super Mario 64, sealed in its original box and graded in 9.4 condition, sold in September 2020 for $5,520. In January, Heritage sold a copy of that same game for $38,400. In July, it sold another copy, in slightly better condition, for $1.56 million.
“It’s nostalgia,” Maddalena said. The collectibles market has always been a function of nostalgia, but in a society more saturated than ever by pop culture, collecting those artifacts holds a greater appeal than ever before. “There’s no difference between me buying an Action Comics number one comic book or the guy buying a Monet painting,” Maddalena said. “The impulse, the desire to own, the pursuit—they’re the same.”
In 1976, when Heritage was founded, nobody expected the collectibles market to balloon to the size it has—not even co-founder Jim Halperin. Halperin had gotten his start as a coin dealer, but he grew up reading comic books. In the 1960s, starting when he was eleven years old, he even sold extra copies of comic books that he bought via mail order. He advertised them in the backs of self-published comic book fanzines.
Through the late nineties, Heritage was a middling coin auction house. But then Halperin saw Amazon, at the time just an online bookstore, and he realized that the future of his company was on the internet. He and his team created a searchable archive that listed prices; this made the coin market accessible to a public that might previously have been intimidated.
“We went from being the fourth-largest coin auction house to not just the largest, but more than half the market, in a year and a half,” Halperin said. We were sitting in the living room of Halperin’s Highland Park estate, which is decorated with both fine art—Halperin and his wife collect work from the early-twentieth-century bronze sculptor Harriet Frushmuth—and the occasional rare pop culture artifact, like a mobile from sixties alternative comix artist Robert Crumb that hangs over a kitchen window.
Flush with success, Halperin continued, he persuaded his partners at Heritage to expand the company’s offerings beyond coins in 2001, staking its entry into the comic book market by listing half a million dollars’ worth of comics from his personal collection. Other auction houses had dabbled in comic books—venerable players such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s traded about $5 million in comics each year—but Heritage quickly surpassed them in the space, selling $15 million worth of comics in 2002. From there, things really took off. Heritage added new categories regularly: sports cards and memorabilia, fine art, natural history, movie memorabilia, historical memorabilia, movie posters, and more. Heritage has sold everything from a 1937 game-worn Lou Gehrig jersey ($2.6 million, in 2019) to a Joseph Christian Leyendecker oil painting that was used as a 1917 Saturday Evening Post cover ($4.1 million, in May). The company has also dabbled in other markets where Christie’s and Sotheby’s still dominate, such as wine and real estate.
These days, Heritage’s business is primarily focused on a handful of key categories: coins, comics, currency, and cards make up nearly 37,000 of the 48,000 items the company has on auction at the moment, and those areas are booming, especially since the pandemic. “It’s absolutely noticeable, within all of these categories, that people are now looking at them as part of their assets, and not just as a hobby,” Halperin said. He thinks a few factors are driving the growth of investment collecting. Chiefly, he believes that the coronavirus pandemic gave many would-be collectors more free time to learn about things they’d always been interested in. Assets like stocks and real estate also skyrocketed in price during the pandemic; collectibles seem to be in an early stage of growth. “As expensive as they are, they’re still cheap, compared to how important they are,” Halperin said.
Maddalena hates thinking about collecting in terms of asset classes and institutional investors. “I cringe when the investment world comes into collectibles,” he said at Collect-A-Con. “Buy ’em because you love them.” He pointed to a crowd of diehards who had come to the convention dressed as their favorite Pokémon trainers and anime characters.
But Maddalena does understand why Wall Street types, for instance, are suddenly bidding on collectibles. Those perfect copies of the best cards and comics are so rare—and they’re relevant to enough people with enough disposable income—that they’re essentially blue-chip investments. There are, he says, fewer than 130 first edition Charizard cards in perfect 10.0 condition, and a lot of very rich people want them. “If you buy the best of anything, you’re probably safe,” Maddalena said.
That’s more or less true in the short term, but the long-term value of collectibles is more capricious. Maddalena knows that better than most. He was born into the world of collecting as the son of antiques dealers—he spent his childhood packing into the family van to scour flea markets for rare furniture or vases. When his folks died, though, he became responsible for their collection, and he was forced to confront a harsh fact: much of what they owned just wasn’t worth much anymore. “I remember the sobering effect of looking at a piece of furniture that was once a quarter of a million dollars, that would have been the pride and joy of any great American museum, and no one wanted it,” he recalled. He eventually donated the 18th century tiger maple piece to Brown University.
Younger folks who hope to sell heirlooms such as the family china will quickly learn that there aren’t many takers. For instance, Heritage sold one china collection in 2015 for almost $14,000; last month a collection in the same pattern sold for just $8,000, a contrast from the growth in other categories.
“It’s the evolution of life,” Maddalena said—younger collectors are interested in items that connect to their own nostalgia, not that of their parents or grandparents. There’s a joke around the office at Heritage: if you go to stamp collectors’ conventions today, the average age of the collectors will be 80, and if you go back next year, the average age will be 81. (Heritage exited the rare stamps business a few years ago.) Conversely, at the convention in Frisco, Maddalena pointed out how much room there is for the pop culture side of the market to grow. “We’re just in the beginning of this collectibles thing—if you come here and look around, the average age is, like, thirty,” he said. “Some of these people are going to go on and have amazing careers, and this stuff is what they love. Their interests aren’t going to change.”
Looking around the convention center, he saw dozens of consumers who, in addition to an affinity for Marvel movies and Pokémon, probably also have Robinhood accounts and cryptocoin wallets. “What’s changed, I think, is access,” Maddalena said. “I think we’re seeing that across the board. It’s all tied together, because it’s all so easy to get into.”
Investors are even selling fractionalized stakes in the highest-end pieces, as happens with real estate and Bitcoin. If you aren’t prepared to spring for your own collectibles, you can buy 1/12,000th of a 9.4 copy of X-Men number one for $20 from a company like Rally Road, or a share of a Tom Brady rookie card from Collectable.com.
The stigma around these collectibles—historically the territory of the uncool—is also fading as the prices go up. Logan Paul, the celebrity YouTuber and boxer, chose to enter his June fight with Floyd Mayweather wearing a 10.0 Charizard, which he bought from King Pokémon himself, around his neck. And former Astros all-star Hunter Pence showed up outside the Giants’ stadium in July with a Magic: The Gathering Black Lotus card on a chain. Rappers like Post Malone and Logic have also flaunted high-dollar collectible card game acquisitions.
Pop culture collecting was destined to go mainstream: We’re in a golden age of nostalgia (witness the nineties fashion trend on TikTok), previously niche superheroes are now globally beloved intellectual property worth billions, and absurdly wealthy celebrities, looking to out-bling one another, are making even the most obscure totems of nerdiness into sought-after status symbols.
All of this is great news if you have a collection you’re looking to sell, or if you’re a dealer or an auction house whose margins have gone way up over the past few years. It’s less great if you’re a hobbyist collector whose dreams of finally obtaining the childhood treasure you’ve long coveted are dashed, over and over, by the newcomers who are outbidding you.
Some collectors wouldn’t mind if the pop culture collectibles market cooled off. Video game collectors, who’ve seen the prices of their acquisitions increase by an order of magnitude, gather on Reddit forums to fantasize about the day when the bottom falls out and prices revert to pre-2021 levels. (The conspiracy-minded among them maintain that Heritage encourages “investors posing as collectors” to drive up prices.) “Magic: The Gathering” players have begged the game’s publisher to offer new printings of the game’s oldest and most expensive cards, just so they can put them in their decks.
In July I called up Buddy Saunders, a 74-year-old comic book retailer who opened his first Lone Star Comics shop in Arlington in 1977, building the store into a mail-order empire with seven locations throughout the Metroplex before selling it in 2013 to launch MyComicShop.com. “The serious reader-collector, he would almost welcome the market collapsing,” Saunders told me, “because then all the books he can’t afford anymore, he could get more.” Saunders thinks a market collapse is a ways off, but he does believe prices will level off soon.
Saunders began buying and selling comics as a kid in the early sixties. He said the collecting business has been good to him—he even looks back fondly on the bad deals he made along the way. “I’m the only comic retailer living in the world today who’s sold a Fantastic Four number one in mint condition for twenty-five cents,” Saunders told me with pride of a book that, in 2021, could probably fetch half a million dollars or more.
When you really love collectibles, every trade you make is a win.