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A Bull(s) Market

ESPN’s documentary ‘The Last Dance’ has Michael Jordan collectibles soaring
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Key participants of “The Last Dance” hold the five NBA trophies won by the Bulls before their 1997-98 swan song. Photo: Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images

Key participants of “The Last Dance” hold the five NBA trophies won by the Bulls before their 1997-98 swan song. Photo: Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images

Michael Jordan autographed rookie cards don’t come up for auction too often, so when one did, it caught Scott Mahlum’s eye.

A 1984-85 Star Company card No. 101 signed Jordan with a dual grade from Beckett Grading Service (BGS) -- a near-mint 8.5 card with a 9 autograph -- was on the clock at SCP Auctions in late April/early May. Mahlum, who owns Mill Creek Sports in Mill Creek, Wash., was confident he could nab the card for $25,000.

Mahlum has been in the card, memorabilia and autograph business for over 30 years. Even with all that knowledge and background, Mahlum’s estimate wasn’t close to the final cost.

“I was actively bidding on that the last day and I woke up Saturday morning (May 2) and I was outbid on it,” Mahlum said. “I watched it throughout and it closed down and it was just a couple bucks under $43,000.”

The final figure was an eye-popping $42,955 after the buyer’s premium. That’s a new record for a signed Star Co. Jordan card.

“That just tells me there’s a new level,” Mahlum said. “You could have had that card for $12,000 to $15,000 a couple months ago. That’s what we’re seeing, we’re seeing stuff like that.”

Jordan cards and memorabilia have exploded in price since mid-April. A huge reason is the exposure of Jordan on ESPN’s 10-part documentary series “The Last Dance,” which chronicles Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty, and their run to a sixth NBA championship in 1997-98. The first two episodes aired on April 19 and averaged 6.1 million viewers.

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“We’re all longing for sports and this `The Last Dance’thing just came at the right time, it really did,” said Derek Grady, Heritage Auction’s Sports Vice President and Director of Grading.

“It’s a combination of several things,” Mahlum said. “The documentary’s huge. We have no other sports to watch, so that’s been a big, big thing. The second thing is the virus; there’s so many people at home. We thought we were going to be in kind of lean times with no sports, millions of people unemployed – we thought the economy was going to shut down. But it’s been quite the opposite. We’ve actually been busier than like the holiday times. It’s been a boom for online sales across the board. The other thing is there’s no signings taking place right now. There’s no shows, there’s no signings and people are scrambling to buy product.”

Mahlum believes another factor in the surge of Jordan items is fans who got to watch Jordan in his prime are now at the age where they have money and can afford to buy Jordan pieces.

“We saw the same things happen with Mickey Mantle 20-25 years ago,” Mahlum said. “Mantle stuff boomed because the kids that watched him play all of a sudden were middle-aged and they were successful and they had money to spend. They were going back and gobbling up all the Mantle stuff. It’s kind of carried over to, like Griffey right now is unbelievably hot in baseball. It’s the nostalgia and that era where kids can go back and finally buy whatever they want.”

Michael Jordan memorabilia from the Upper Deck Store. Photos: Upper Deck

Michael Jordan memorabilia from the Upper Deck Store. Photos: Upper Deck

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Grady believes “The Last Dance”has shown a new audience – 20-somethings and younger – how MJ took over basketball in the 1980s and ’90s.

“I was in college during those Bulls years and high school during Jordan in college and he was God in the pros and super highly collectible in the ’90s,” Grady said. “I think people now with ‘The Last Dance’and LeBron James and people are comparing LeBron to Jordan, and I think ‘The Last Dance’is showing people that didn’t get to see Michael Jordan what he did.”

Growing up in Chicago, Steve Grad used to be an autograph chaser of Michael Jordan. Working for Chicago radio stations back during Jordan’s prime, Grad figures he watched Jordan play in person 250-300 times. Once Grad became one of the most recognizable authenticators in the industry, he had first-hand knowledge about Jordan autographs and cards and what they are worth.

“Maybe in the last like four-five years before this, his stuff had kind of, I thought it kind of petered out, personally. It reached like this plateau,” said Grad, who is an authenticator at Beckett Grading Service (BGS). “Upper Deck stuff was kind of like, eh. It was OK, but you get it for a good price. Jerseys were going for cheap, depending on which one. And, all of a sudden, the last two-three years his stuff has been climbing. And with this going on, I think honestly, this coincided with a terrible tragedy, obviously, but at the same time with no sports, it’s like the hottest thing going right now, Jordan and the Bulls. It’s almost like being back in Chicago in the ’90s.”

Vice President of Beckett Grading/Authentication Jeromy Murray said Jordan cards have been coming in at a regular pace for grading.

“Not sure if people are trying to sell these items while Jordan is top of mind or if collectors are just diving back into their collections as they relive the glory days of Jordan,” Murray said. “I think it is a little of both, especially when you see what Jordan items are selling for right now, cards and autographed items.”

Jordan Prices Going Through the Roof

Jordan’s 1986-87 Fleer card has always been designated as his true rookie card for collectors despite the Star Co. releasing its product two years before.

That iconic Fleer card shows Jordan soaring through the air, catching the essence of Air Jordan.

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The price of that rookie has always been strong, especially for a base card in a 1980s product. But now the figures are soaring through the roof.

“Jordan trading card values are flying as high as the man himself dunking over Ewing or

Mutombo back in the day,” said Matt Cassidy, who has been running jordancards.com since 2009.

On April 19, the first day “The Last Dance”aired, a Professional Sports Authenticators (PSA) gem mint 10 Jordan rookie went for a record $51,600 through Robert Edward Auctions. On May 7, Heritage Auctions had a PSA 10 Jordan sell for a whopping $96,000.

Those are staggering numbers compared to the prices last decade. According to PSA’s website, a PSA 10 Jordan sold for $8,280 in 2012 and the next year went for $10,463. By 2016, a PSA 10 brought in $23,900.

Since PSA started in 1991, it has graded 17,850 (as of May 6) 1986 Fleer Jordan’s and only 312 have been designated gem mint 10. There are 2,705 graded 9.

As for BGS, it has graded 10,921 (as of May 5) Jordan rookies, with only six grading a pristine 10. There are 515 that grade 9.5 and 1,543 at 9.

With a PSA 10 going for over $50,000, PSA 9s are fetching $10,000.

“These were cards not that long ago that you could buy as many 9s as you wanted for $2,000 a couple years ago,” Grady said.

Mahlum said a 1986 Fleer PSA 8 was selling for $3,000 a month ago, now they’re at $7,000.

“It’s ridiculous,” Mahlum said. “What’s going on is hard to fathom.”

Cassidy still kicks himself daily since he had a few golden opportunities to purchase Jordan rookies a decade ago and passed.

“I was offered a PSA 8 ’86-87 Fleer rookie card for $800,” Cassidy said. “I turned it down as the range was closer to $500-$600 at the time. It’s now selling 10 times that at $5,000-6,000.”

Andrew Bergman, who owns Bergie’s Sports Card Dugout in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, has been selling Jordan rookies for 25 years. He isn’t surprised perfect 10 cards are fetching over $50,000.

“I’m more surprised that a 7 or an 8 or a 7.5 that are $3,000 to $6,000 for average grade ones,” Bergman said. “An 8 is a nice grade, but most Jordan rookies were kept in a good shape, and I would say that most Jordan rookies are 7s or 8s. It’s not like a ’52 Mantle where there’s tons of 1s, 2s and 3s, and next to no 7s, 8s, 9s, 10s. Jordan rookies from Day 1 were well kept and a collectible since Day 1.”

Bergman said Jordan rookies aren’t his only cards in demand. Any shiny base cards and inserts from later in his career are also hot.

“Cards that were $5 a couple months ago are now $40 and $50,” Bergman said. “Fleer Metal, stuff from ’95 and ’96 that are shinier. Topps Finest, which are shinier.”

“It doesn’t surprise (that) some of the cards in the five years following the ‘86-87 Fleer have exploded in value,” Cassidy said. “They represent an opportunity to own a piece of history and are as close as many collectors may get to the rookie era.”

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But it isn’t just Jordan cards that are on fire, it’s anything with Jordan’s name attached to it.

In the same spring auction through Robert Edward Auctions as the record-breaking PSA 10 Jordan 1986 Fleer rookie, a 1992 Olympic Dream Team signed and game-used Jordan jersey sold for an astounding $216,000.

“Stuff is doubling, tripling, quadrupling,” Grad said. “I’m seeing Upper Deck signed basketballs going for $3-4-5,000, where two-three years ago, you could usually find those for $1,800 to $2,200-$2,300.”

Jordan has had an exclusive signing contract with Upper Deck since the 1990s. The company is trying to keep up with customer demands during this Jordan craze.

“We are seeing enhanced interest in his UDA signed memorabilia, available at UpperDeckStore.com,” said Chris Carlin, who is head of customer experience at Upper Deck. “As more episodes of the documentary air, we anticipate this, ‘Last Dance Effect’ will continue to cause a heightened demand for Jordan collectibles, and Upper Deck will be there to provide them to fans.”

Grad said some personal checks signed by Jordan were available a few years ago for $600-$700. Now he figures they’re going to fetch $3,000-$4,000.

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According to Grad, Iconic Auctions is going to have a Jordan love letter to his girlfriend in college available for purchase in the near future.

“I’ve authenticated a bunch of those in the past,” Grad said. “I think that stuff is really collectible. Obviously, the game-used stuff is going through the roof. If you’re a collector looking to spend a little money, you can still find nice stuff out there, you’re just going to have to spend more for it. It’s out there.”

An oddball piece of Jordan memorabilia that Mahlum has sold hundreds of are pieces of the floor of old Chicago Stadium from Jordan’s last game in the arena. They go for $199 and $299 framed.

“They’re just flying, about 10 times better than before,” Mahlum said. “We’ve sold signed rookie cards for $20,000, a Fleer rookie. It’s been across the board on everything. Unsigned, signed, and it’s just hard, you can’t replace the stuff right now, it’s going up so fast.”

Along those same lines, Bergman had pieces of the floor of Chicago Stadium that are team signed and certified by BGS along with a letter of authenticity from the Bulls. Prior to the Jordan hype, the items sold for about $4,000. That price doubled in early May.

Grad recently had some old buddies contact him and ask him to authenticate some of their stuff.

“I’ve done a bunch the last two or three weeks,” Grad said. “Guys are realizing like, holy (smokes), this is worth a lot of money. I better get rid of it.”

To get a true gauge on the insanity of the Jordan memorabilia, Grad said he recently saw two people sell uncertified signed cards from the 1990s for $1,000 apiece. That’s saying a lot since Jordan is one of the most forged autographs. Jordan fakes were the impetus behind the FBI’s Operation Bullpen, which was a large-scale sports memorabilia fraud investigation.

“I’ve literally not seen a guy forged for a modern athlete more than Jordan. It’s out of control,” Grad said.

Jordan has a unique and artistic autograph. Authenticating Jordan-signed items is right in Grad’s wheelhouse since he got about 30-40 signed items directly from Jordan during his playing days. Grad knows exactly what to look for in examples.

“The sizing, the speed, the flow,” Grad said. “He always has a quick signature. Even the stuff he does on Upper Deck products. He always has a nice, gracious, big flowing signature. Forgers get him wrong all the time. I’ve probably seen going back let’s say the last six, seven years, I’ve seen so many fake Jordan signed rookies.

“The forgeries of Jordan are as good as I’ve seen on anybody in my life.”

Not Just Jordan Has Hot Cards

Jordan, of course, was the centerpiece of the Bulls’ championship runs, and he has also been the main attraction in “The Last Dance.”

But other Bulls players during that era have been highlighted in the documentary, including Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, John Paxton, Steve Kerr and Horace Grant. Those players’ items have also shown a spike in prices.

“People are actually certifying all the other guys lately – Paxton, Steve Kerr stuff,” Grad said. “Anybody that’s involved in (the series), that’s kind of similar. Horace Grant, I just did a few yesterday. Anyone that is kind of semi-related to that series. Ron Harper, I did Ron Harper yesterday. People are just putting them out there because they want to get rid of them.”

Pippen and Rodman both have their rookie cards in 1988-89 Fleer. That product has really skyrocketed, noted Grad.

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“It doesn’t surprise me that Pippen and Rodman trading cards are also seeing renewed interest,” Cassidy said. “The trio was unstoppable and ‘The Last Dance’has thoroughly covered how well they complemented each other. I’m certain Jordan fans would have a new appreciation for those guys and may be considering starting personal collections, especially considering the prices of some Jordan cards may now be out of reach for many collectors. It’s also likely people see Pippen and Rodman trading cards as potentially still undervalued and are looking to invest.”

According to Mahlum, Pippen rookies in a PSA 10 went for about $600 on eBay in February. Now, that same grade is selling for $2,000 to $2,700.

Rodman, who played his first eight seasons in the NBA with the Detroit Pistons, had his PSA 10 rookie going for roughly $400 earlier this year. One recently sold during “The Last Dance”for $1,025.

Mahlum was even surprised that Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf has gotten into the mix of being popular. Mahlum sold a couple autographed photos of Reinsdorf that had been sitting on his website for six or seven years.

Hot wax

Known in the business as the only guy to certify unopened wax packs and boxes, Baseball Card Exchange (BBCE) owner Steve Hart has been slammed with products coming in.

Hart hasn’t been just overwhelmed with submissions for basketball cards and Jordan, it’s everything unopened. He said baseball and football are as hot as ever.

“I’ve never seen the unopened market explode like this in six weeks,” Hart said.

In the last few weeks, Jordan-led basketball products have been king at BBCE.

“Especially the cheaper stuff, like ‘89-90, ‘90-91 Fleer, because anything with Jordan right now is so hot that even the cheaper stuff is coming in like crazy for authentication,” Hart said.

The most common boxes being sent to BBCE are 1989-90 Fleer basketball. Those are packs that Hart never used to get in.

“It’s great for the business to see this reenergizing and resurgence of the ‘80s wax,” Grady said.

Just before “The Last Dance”premiered, Hart had an abundance of 1987-88, ’88-89 and ’89-90 Fleer boxes. He had 10 boxes of ’87-88 and sold them all to one person for $5,800. Right after “The Last Dance”episodes of V and VI, Hart figured the price tag went up to about $9,000. Hart had 15 boxes of ’88-89 and sold those all to one person for $1,500. Those are up to about $3,500. Hart had some boxes from a sealed case and was selling them for $189 apiece. Now, they’re fetching $400.

“I used to not pay $100 for a case,” Hart joked.

“Junk wax is no longer junk wax,” Bergman said.

It’s rare for Hart to get in boxes of 1986-87 Fleer because they don’t come around much anymore. Right when “The Last Dance”started, Hart sold a box for $109,000.

“It was from a find we made four, five years ago that had seven boxes still in the case and the boxes were absolutely untouched and perfect,” Hart said. “One of the packs had a Jordan on top showing.”

At the National Sports Collectors Convention in Rosemont, Ill., last year, Hart had a box of ’86-87 Fleer list at $70,000, so nearly $2,000 per pack.

“I think based on the population and (whether) the card can come out centered, if you get a good run and open some packs,” Grady said, “there’s three Jordans usually (in a box), between two and four. And if they come centered, you can get 9s and 10s, and boxes are $80,000.”

That’s not a bad price considering one card out of a box could fetch between $50,000-$60,000. Is that the new standard price for a perfect Jordan rookie?

“I think that’s the new plateau, I really do,” Mahlum said. “There’s just too much money out there and it’s just too strong of a market. I don’t see it going back down, I don’t.”

Grad believes there are a lot of different factors—some unthinkable—that could drive up the prices even more.

“It’s kind of the sky’s the limit on Jordan stuff,” Grad said.