At a collector convention in late June, a happy Megan Piotrowski carried a happy handful of a Pokémon booster box set called “Chilling Reign,” which was released earlier that month. The box was still factory sealed and is an expansion set she loves. Walking hand in hand with her friend Jake Rogers, he, too, found his own Pokémon Zacian Sword & Shield Elite Trainer Box Plus, which was released in November.

Piotrowski and Rogers aren’t 10 years old. She’s a 25-year-old middle school teacher in the Dallas metroplex, just like Rogers, who happens to be 24. He happily paid $60 for his set and Piotrowski paid $120 for hers (which isn’t bad since you can find a sealed set on eBay for between $200 and $700).

“We like the nostalgic thrill,” Piotrowski said. “It’s sentimental.”

“I’m able to connect with my kids on a different level. When there’s a break in class, I’ll play with them on Pokémon GO app,” Rogers said of the 2016 augmented reality mobile game.

Megan Piotrowski and Jake Rogers

Middle school teachers Megan Piotrowski and Jake Rogers happily hold factory-sealed Pokémon card sets for their growing collections.

The two are part of a new wave of a Pokémon craze that has gone mainstream during the past 18 months – one that’s attracting adults who played the game as kids in the 1990s and are now willing to pay investor-level auction prices for a single card or an unopened box
dating from their youth.

World record prices are popping up at auction houses across the nation. Heritage Auctions sold the world’s most expensive first edition booster box when it hammered for $360,000 in November of 2020. It shattered the record just two months later when a factory-sealed box from 1999 ended at $408,000. The winning bidder is now entertaining offers of $612,000 or more. A full year before that, Weiss Auctions of Lynnwood, New York, sold a Nintendo Pokémon “Pikachu Illustrator” trainer promotional hologram trading card in October 2019. Graded in Mint 9 condition, the card was given to a winner at the 1998 CoroCoro Comic illustration contest in Japan. The card hit $224,250, a still-standing world record.

Pokémon First Edition Base Set Booster Box

Pokémon First Edition Base Set Booster Box: $408,000 at auction

Pokémon was first introduced in Japan during the mid-1990s and quickly turned into a global phenomenon. Professionally graded “Gem Mint 10” cards, First Edition Booster Boxes, video games, vintage toys, basically anything Pokémon has been selling for record numbers these days. These pieces are not just becoming a “part” of large collections but centerpieces.

A new “Pokémania” is here to stay, say dealers and auction experts. Who would have guessed that 22 years after it was first released, nostalgia would drive the market to six-figure heights?

Back in 1998, a company called Wizards of the Coast, which was already distributing an already highly popular card game known as “Magic: The Gathering,” received approval from Nintendo and started distributing Pokémon cards in 1999.

Charizard Hologram card 1999

Pokémon Charizard #4 First Edition Base Set Rare Hologram Trading Card (Wizards of the Coast, 1999) PSA GEM MT 10 sold for $300,000 at auction.

The original collectable card game set known as the Base Set included a total of 102 cards, with the first 16 cards being holographic. Demand for those first cards are tinder for a blaze that is now consuming every booster pack, expanded box set and various storyline cards Pokémon released in Japan and the United States from 1998 to 2005.

That’s the sweet spot for the most valuable cards being traded today, however higher values are swiftly creeping into sets released just a few years ago, although prices haven’t hit four digits – yet.

“It’s classic nostalgia,” said Ryan “Lord” Rush, of DFW.Pokémon, an online retailer of all things relating to the game and its assorted spinoffs. “It’s in the collectible art form of cards. With appreciation, collectors have learned that it is definitely a collectible art.”

DFW.Pokémon, an online Pokémon retailer.

DFW.Pokémon, an online Pokémon retailer.

The cards are graded on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being considered GEM MINT in the hobby. Cards of this condition are usually found inside sealed packs and haven’t been played with. However, there is a quirk that increases the value of Pokémon cards that is actually shunned in other trading card circles: miscut Pokémon cards are worth more than those that are properly clipped.

“In Pokémon, a miscut card can increase its value by 10, say 20 percent,” said Gary “King Pokémon” Haase, who owns the world’s leading trading card collection estimated at $20 million. “In sport cards, a miscut card is just a killer on your value. Pokémon is much different. Miscut cards are considered rare and the more “off” the cut the better.”

Demand for both miscuts and GEM MINT cards has led to a massive boom, which has even led to violence. On May 7, in Brookfield, Wisconsin, a man reportedly pulled a gun outside a Target store during a parking lot argument with fellow collectors over sealed packs of cards. Both Walmart and Target stopped selling the packets (as well as baseball cards and more) just after the Brookfield incident to “ensure the safety of guests and team members.”

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The policy was short-lived because sales resumed in early June – with a hitch: Shoppers would only be able to buy two items per visit. Collectors resolved that two is better than none and peace returned to the trading card aisle (and parking lots). The zany market, however, just continues to gain steam.

Most everyone credits the spike in card prices to three main factors: the COVID-19 shutdown (which led to pent-up demand), nostalgia (“Let’s remember better days!”) and good ‘ol market speculation (Pokémon, the 1990s are calling).

But Pokémon trading card experts say this time the market demand is real and has established itself as a serious category genre thanks to a generational shift in collecting.

Take for instance, an extremely rare Pokémon SM Black Star “Ishihara GX” promotional trading card produced in 2017. It is one of only about 60 copies in existence and just the fourth copy to ever reach the market when it sold for $50,600 in December 2020 at Weiss Auctions in Lynbrook, New York. The card was the sale’s top lot and was more than seven percent of the auction’s total take.

Black Star Pokemon card

Rare Pokémon SM Black Star “Ishihara GX” promotional trading card produced in 2017: $50,600

The Pokémon Black Star card was only given out to Pokémon Company International employees, at President Tsunekazu Ishihara’s 60th birthday celebration. Ishihara personally handed out the cards. So far, most of the cards remain in the hands of employees who are not permitted to sell them.

Given this new-found demand has already set up a strong springboard into the secondary sales market, what should the inexperienced Pokémon buyer look for when finding folders of cards at thrift shops or garage sales? Should they buy or pass?

“Look for three things (in this order): if the card is holographic, a card’s edition and its condition,” says Jesus Garcia, Director of Trading Cards at Heritage Auctions. “In a complete set, about 85 percent of the total value is in the holographic cards, so this is what I always look for first.

Jesus Garcia

Jesus Garcia, Director of Trading Cards at Heritage Auctions.

“The edition is also very important as the price gap between a first edition and an unlimited printing is quite large, this can be identified by a “1 Edition” symbol below the image area. And finally, condition! This is possibly the most important as mint-graded cards are far more valuable than near-mint copies.”

Garcia said most all cards are worth at least $100 or less but, as collectors and dealers know, condition is king.

“Most [cards] are worth under $100 but if they grade GEM MINT 10 that number of available cards greatly decreases,” Garcia said. “A majority GEM MINT 10 cards from the earlier years will go for more than $100, with several more modern cards joining the mix.

He said it’s difficult to say what percentage of cards are worth more than $500 because condition plays such an important factor in the value.

“If I looked at a general grade, let’s say “near mint-mint 8,” I would guess about 10 percent [of all cards] but if the increase the grade you’re looking at a higher percentage.”

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