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Skyrocketing Trading Cards

Skyrocketing Trading Cards

This is the third edition of a multi-part blog series produced in partnership with Altan Insights on the key events and factors shaping the modern music memorabilia market. Altan Insights provides data and quantitative analysis to help collectors and businesses navigate the emerging collectible asset markets.
The trading card boom of late 2020 and early 2021 invited huge sums of cards into grading facilities to join the circulation of a suddenly red-hot market. Those sums created bottlenecks that slowed the progress of cards into their cozy acrylic slabs, but now that we’re multiple years removed from the spark that lit the flame, shifts in collecting tastes are becoming more clear. It’s also becoming clearer what was popular before the boom and what was only more recently discovered.

In the latter category?

Trading cards of various superstar musicians.

Now let’s get this out of the way up front. Music trading cards themselves are not a new phenomenon in terms of popularity. Key Beatles and Elvis cards from the 1950s and 1960s have seen very little population growth over the last two years, with collectors previously coveting these issues. However, that existing interest served as evidence that cultural icons are indeed coveted and collectable, whether those icons ply their trade on a field or on a stage. .
What’s interesting though is that the cards of many star musicians both young and old were already out there long before the market for trading cards exploded. They just weren’t targets of widespread collector interest, at least as it pertains to graded examples.

Let’s take for example one of the more well-known musician “rookie” cards: Jay-Z’s appearance in 2005 Topps Basketball. When GemRate began tracking the population of the set back in April of 2021, there were just 22 PSA-graded copies of Jay-Z’s base card. Today? There are 450. That’s nearly 2000% growth, which makes the 340% growth of the overall set look extremely modest.

For reference, at the time of writing, PSA has graded 1,958 of the 2005 Topps Chris Paul base card, the most of any card from the set. In the last twelve months, the total population of the PSA-graded Paul rookie has increased 36% from 1,435 a year ago. In comparison, the graded population of the Jay-Z Topps card has climbed 64% over that same period.

22 graded copies will seem like a glut compared to some other “newly” discovered music cards. A little under two years ago, there was just 1 PSA-graded copy each of Nirvana’s and Snopp Dogg’s rookie cards from the 1995 Panini Smash Hits Stickers set. Today, there are 278 and 235 respectively. Given the humble starting point, there’s no need to even compare the growth to other mainstream sports sets from the period.

The story is similar for a fun card from 2011 Topps American Pie, which depicts Taylor Swift and Kanye West in the midst of the infamous VMA speech interruption. “Taylor I’m gonna let you finish…”

He did NOT let her finish. Shockingly, two years ago, just three of those cards were graded by PSA. Today, it’s 107. Over that same period, the overall 2011 Topps American Pie set grew in population by 415%, juuuust a hair shy of the 3,467% growth of “Miss Americana’s” card.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, another trio of examples can be found in the 2013 Panini Black Friday HRX set, featuring cards of Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg, and Tupac. Two years ago, the total set population was 10 cards. Today, it’s 357.

It’s not just modern cards lost in a post-millennium supply glut, though. Lesser-known cards from the 60s and 70s are also finding their way through the doors of PSA facilities and into the limelight at a greater rate, though the growth is not as explosive as for the modern issues. 

What about a Jimi Hendrix “rookie”?  The Hendrix entry from 1968 Panini Cantanti has grown in population by 75% over the last two years. Viewed against the 4-5 figure percentage growth of the cards we discussed previously, 75% may not seem like much. But consider the growth of sports sets of that same year over the last 24 months. 1968 Topps Baseball and Football grew in population by just 12% and 8% respectively. Even the premier rookie card of the 1968 baseball set, the Mets Rookies card featuring Jerry Koosman and Nolan Ryan, has only experienced a 20% increase in PSA population over that two-year period. 

Bob Marley was included in the 1978 Swedish Samlarsaker set, but only 5 of those cards had been PSA-graded two years ago. Fast forward to August of 2023, and 62 Marleys have found a new plastic home. Sports issue populations from that year have more commonly grown in the low double-digits.

In terms of values, while some of these cards have held their ground in recent years, it won’t be surprising to learn that many of them have followed the path of the broader market, which makes even more sense in light of the sharply rising populations. Over the last 12 months, CardLadder’s Entertainment Index is down just 44%, not dramatically better than the markets for Basketball and Football. Over the last two years though, it’s down just 2%, which compares very favorably to the Basketball Index’s -46% performance. The market for these cards demonstrated some lag before enjoying their moment in the sun and eventually returning to earth, which makes sense given their delayed discovery.

Nonetheless, it’s possible that a sea-change has occurred in the last two years, as collectors took increasing notice of off-field cultural icons and their global appeal. That appeal is no longer exclusive to Elvis or the Beatles. Perhaps cardboard isn’t the best vehicle to express their collecting appeal, or to induce non card-collecting fans to become collectors. Maybe it’s stage-used material, concert posters, or rare concert merch. In any case, it seems we’re just in the “sound check” phase of the collecting pursuit of global music icons.

Authenticate and Elevate

Authenticate and Elevate

This is the second edition of a multi-part blog series produced in partnership with Altan Insights on the key events and factors shaping the modern music memorabilia market. Altan Insights provides data and quantitative analysis to help collectors and businesses navigate the emerging collectible asset markets.

As the dollar values go up, the stakes for authentication get higher. And as standards of authentication grow stronger, the dollar values tend to go up. 


This chicken-or-the-egg conundrum is a driving force behind the maturation and increased sophistication of various collectible categories. Often though, it is the egg, or in this case, more rigorous standards of authentication, that takes a collectible asset class into a new price tier. 


Love it or hate it, card grading played an immense role in elevating card collecting from a pure children’s hobby to a booming marketplace. While card authentication and grading is certainly important, ultimately, what’s authenticated is whether or not cardboard is indeed a certain type of cardboard, printed in the right factory by the right manufacturer. We don’t mean to minimize those stakes, but in comparison to verifying whether an item was actually worn or held by a person of influence, it starts to sound quite trivial.


The value of a memorabilia item – whether in sports, music, film, or history – is based in its interaction with the person. Without that interaction being verifiable, the value is severely impaired. As you quickly learn by studying memorabilia markets, verifiability – at least to date – is not a binary quality. It lives on more of a spectrum, with some sources of authentication offering greater credibility than others, and others offering greater credibility than no authentication at all.


For the longest time in most memorabilia categories, effectively the only standard of authenticity was LOA or COAs. An LOA (letter of authenticity) is a written assertion accompanying a piece of memorabilia, affirming that the memorabilia was indeed used or worn by the person of interest. 


It might come from the person themselves, a manager, a family member, or someone else somehow affiliated with the person or the moment. It might already be apparent: credibility of the signer declines quickly as degrees of separation from the person themselves increase. Unfortunately, it’s more often the case that an LOA comes from some tangential party rather than the actual person, weakening the strength of the authentication to begin with. 


Then, there’s the fact that this piece of paper is in no way inextricably linked to the item itself. There are typically no incontrovertible identifiers tying the item to the LOA. Put more simply, there’s plenty of room for shenanigans. The risk only increases the further away in the chain of provenance the item gets from that initial LOA signer.


As prices for memorabilia swelled into six-figures throughout the 1990s, the increasingly lucrative market was in desperate need of better authentication protocols. Demand for concert-played guitars and game-worn jerseys became so significant that federal agencies started policing as much as their budgets would allow. Their work, while limited in both scope and scale, provided some of the first data-backed estimates on just how fraudulent the memorabilia sector was. Take for example, an FBI report released in the late 1990s that estimated between 50% – 60% of all memorabilia sold across secondary markets was, in fact, fake. 


Let’s use sports as an example to understand how authentication has evolved. The use of LOAs and COAs was common, but then specialists emerged to provide more rigor around evaluation of an item’s use. MEARS is a well known provider in this space, examining an item to see if it matches the material that would’ve been used by a player or team at that specific point and evaluating it for characteristics that exhibit game use. Generally, where these evaluations fall short is pinpointing specifically the games in which a jersey was worn or a bat used, unless that information is highly verifiable via provenance. In terms of visual confirmation, though, it’s somewhat limited.


Enter photomatching. Using high-resolution images – typically from a reputed provider like Getty Images – a photomatching service will deeply examine the material worn by a player in a specific game and compare that to the material in hand. They’re looking at extremely intricate details like thread placement, mesh hole patterns, blemishes, and markings to conclusively determine that the piece of memorabilia is the very same one worn or used in the photo. The proliferation and acceptance of these services has recently pushed the sports memorabilia market to new heights. 


In 2022, the top 25 game-worn or used sports memorabilia auction sales were up an astonishing 118% over 2021. 


A big factor in that rise? The ascendancy of photo-matched material. Of those top 25 items sold in 2022, 19 were advertised as being photomatched. This meant a far greater number of jerseys and uniforms reaching new heights than in years prior. In fact, just one year before, the difference in results was stark.


Of those top 25 items in 2021, only 11 of them were advertised as being photomatched. Absent a greater volume of high-quality photomatched material, it was items like vintage, game-used bats that took up a significant swath of the rankings. This is not surprising, as those items also feature a well-known and well-regarded authentication standard from PSA/DNA. Absent stronger authentication, seemingly high-quality items like a Larry Bird rookie  jersey and a Kobe Bryant rookie sneakers find themselves outside of the top 25, relying on MEARS authentication or provenance alone.


While it’s difficult to pinpoint perfectly apples-to-apples comparisons, here’s an illustrative example of the difference in results for rigorously and less rigorously authenticated material. In June of 2022, a photomatched, signed, and inscribed 1998 Michael Jordan jersey sold for $540,000. Three months later, a signed game-worn jersey from the same season with robust signature authentication but no photomatching sold for just $74,400.


The raising of the bar isn’t exclusive to sports. At this year’s Propstore Entertainment Memorabilia Live Auction, despite there being 20% fewer lots than last year overall, 94 lots featured “screen-match” in their title versus just 33 in 2022. That event featured significantly more depth of strong results than the year prior.


The point here isn’t to exalt photomatch or screenmatch authentication as the one and only viable method, but rather to show how a market can take to new levels when a more stringent standard is applied. Music memorabilia is certainly a category in need of greater stringency.


To date, it’s been host to a preponderance of LOA-based authenticity, with a smattering of amateur photomatching. There is no clear standard that has elevated the space, leaving most items to trade a lot like that LOA-based Jordan jersey: money left on the table. Worse, provenance is often murky, further complicating things. 


The increased circulation and sales volume through the 20th century has only muddied the waters for those committed to improving the integrity of these large markets. If more than half of all music memorabilia sold in the 20th century was fake as the FBI report suggested, how can auction house provenance be trusted as a primary source of authentication? In the 2010s, PSA/DNA released shocking estimates that only 6% of all autographed Beatles memorabilia sent to the company is actually authentic while more than 75% of all Elvis signatures submitted were forged.


Today, multiple Kurt Cobain-used guitars have sold for seven-figures, but that market was born from humble beginnings. As the music memorabilia market – and the market for these rare and prized strings – materialized in the early 2000s and 2010s, a greater number of collectible Cobain guitars took to the auction block. One such example emerged in 2007 when a 1953 Martin Acoustic appeared on the block at a major auction house. The mid-century guitar was said to be Cobain’s first Martin D-18, which would become his preferred acoustic brand throughout the 1990s. The auction lot description mentioned that Cobain’s then girlfriend, Mary Lou Lord, had sold the guitar to a collector, and its authenticity was backed by a grainy color photo of Cobain playing the guitar. 


What should have been a breakout sale was shrouded in unanswered questions. For starters, Mary Lou Lord stated that she had gifted the real original D-18 to Cobain before sharing it with other artists after his tragic death in 1994. Lord also stated that the guitar was not actually sold but instead donated to the Martin Museum. Additionally, the grainy photographs showed differences in the guitar’s features and wear. Worse, in the photo, Cobain is holding the guitar left-handed, but it’s strung right-handed. Collectors clearly had their concerns, and the guitar only sold for $29,875 at a time when expectations would have valued the memorabilia in excess of $80,000.


Anecdotes like this one had become all too commonplace in the industry. After years of a ‘wild west’ market, collectors now called for substantial evidence to support claims made by sellers, and without it, prices would hit a ceiling. 


It’s only when an item is able to be verifiably “placed” on the celebrity, athlete, or performer that a greater number of bidders have a greater amount of confidence to engage. Nobody wants to spend five-figures on a Michael Jackson glove only to be left wondering if they were duped by a Smooth Criminal. You’d have to look at the Man in the Mirror after a decision like that.

Rock and Roll never forgets

Rock and Roll never forgets

This is the first edition of a multi-part blog series produced in partnership with Altan Insights on the key events and factors shaping the modern music memorabilia market. Altan Insights provides data and quantitative analysis to help collectors and businesses navigate the emerging collectible asset markets.

The music hasn’t stopped in rock and roll memorabilia markets

In fact, you could argue we’re in the middle of a pretty epic guitar solo. It might not be the kind that makes Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar drop to their knees and shout “we’re not worthy!”, but there’s still music being made.

Back in early May, Sotheby’s conducted the massive $3.9 million sale of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar from the Hot For Teacher music video. Trophy asset sales are not at all uncommon across categories in 2023, so while this was a standout result, it didn’t necessarily say a lot about the rest of the music memorabilia market.

May’s large Music Icons event at Julien’s Auctions, though, provided a broader indicator. While headline numbers were down, a look beneath the surface suggests that despite missing a few notes, the market is still humming.

The event generated $4.9 million in total sales volume. That’s a far cry from 2022’s $13.7 million. The gap, though, isn’t as large as it seems at face value. For example, the 2022 event featured the $4.7 million Smells Like Teen Spirit Kurt Cobain guitar, as well as a massive consignment of memorabilia from Rush’s Alex Lifeson (more than $3.5 million in sales).  Backing those out reduces the total to $5.4 million. There are episodic events and outliers in almost any auction, so completely discounting those unique sales is perhaps not appropriate, but it still hints at normalized sales totals that are holding up better than they seem in 2023.

Notably, the 2023 Music Icons total was up 6% over 2021’s tally of $4.6 million. There aren’t many collecting categories where that would be the case, given how red hot speculation was in the spring of 2021.

Some of the sales highlights from the event:

  • Nearly $1.7 million in guitar sales alone, led by Kurt Cobain’s smashed guitar from Nirvana’s “Nevermind” era. The guitar was estimated to sell for between $60,000 and $80,000, but ultimately fetched $596,900. 
  • $955k in John Lennon memorabilia sales, including $676k consigned directly from Julian Lennon. The lots included Beatles Gold Records, handwritten lyrics, sketches, instruments, animation cels and more.
  • $279k in Michael Jackson memorabilia, consisting primarily of stage-worn clothing.

What types of items comprise these music memorabilia sales? If you look at the top 100 sales, here’s the breakdown:

  • 31 awards or gold records
  • 31 instruments or pieces of musical equipment
  • 18 artist-worn or owned pieces of clothing or accessories
  • 6 handwritten lyrics, documents, or sketches
  • 2 original records
  • 2 concert or album posters
  • 10 miscellaneous items (how does one categorize John Lennon’s Honda Monkey Bike?!)

When we analyze some of the specific sales in greater depth, we get a better sense of how the market is evolving over time. While this event had a lot of fresh-to-market material, we can still find trends. Let’s take some repeat sales for example. These are items that have sold at Julien’s previously and returned to auction this past weekend.
  • Back in 2015, a pair of drumsticks custom-made for Ringo Starr and used by the legend sold for $3,250. Those sticks returned eight years later to a vastly higher price of $22,100 (against an estimate of $2,000 – $4,000).
  • From the OG teenage sensation (The Beatles) to a newer edition (One Direction), an acoustic guitar believed to be Niall Horan’s very first used in lessons last sold in 2015 for $6,875. It nearly doubled in value, reaching a $12,700 price at this weekend’s event.
  • Elvis Presley’s 14K gold Crucifix ring notched a price of $3,200 at last year’s event. Whether that sale was consummated or not is unclear, but the ring was up for grabs again this year, and this time the price was much steeper at $9,100.
    There are also data points that don’t reflect a precise repeat sale, but still give us a feel for price action.

    • Back in 2016, when Abbey Road Studio Two was under construction, 210 bricks were removed, cleaned, restored, and placed in a presentation box. Number 15/210 sold back in 2020 for $3,520. At the recent sale, number 16/210 was up for bidding, and with an estimate of $300-400, it sold for $11,700.
    • Olivia Newton John cleaned up at the American Music Awards in the mid 1970s. Back in 2019, the 1974 and 1975 awards for “Favorite Pop Female Vocalist” sold for $10,240 and $8,960 respectively. This weekend, the 1974 and 1975 awards for “Favorite Country Female Vocalist” sold for $13,000 and $15,875. 
    • An Eddie Van Halen signed and stage-played 2004 Charvel sold for $114,300. Stage-used and signed Charvels have more commonly occupied the $40-60k range in recent years, so it appears there was a post-Sotheby’s sale bump.
    Music memorabilia is not an emerging category, but it does seem it’s now beginning to enjoy a more proportionate share of interest and demand than it had in years past.

    You’ll notice, though, that – Niall excluded – much of the action is concentrated firmly in Boomer territory, with some movement across the border into Gen X.  If you look at the taop 100 sales, the music of all the artists featured remains quite popular for the most part. But, the popularity of only two individuals amongst the top 100 sales actually originated after the turn of the millennium: Niall Horan and Amy Winehouse. That’s it. 

    Or look at the various awards sold. Just two of them date to award shows that took place after the year 2000: VMAs for the Beastie Boys in 2005 and for Moby and Gwen Stefani in 2001. “Ch-check It Out” and “South Side” are great songs respectively, but you might not expect them to motivate younger bidders.

    The concentration in the music of older and middle-aged generations is of course logical given the stage of life those generations are in, but it will be incumbent upon auction houses and marketplaces to reach younger fans and consumers to forge more active markets for “active” artists.

    If and when they do, Niall’s first acoustic guitar might be heading in only One Direction: up.