When Fleer released its 1986-87 basketball cards, cases of the product were dirt cheap.
Veteran card dealer and Baseball Card Exchange (BBCE) owner Steve Hart remembers cases selling for $80 to $120 back in the 1980s.
“Even at that price, nobody really wanted it,” Hart told Sports Collectors Digest. “When that case got to a few thousand, people sold them. When the case got to $10,000, a few more got sold. When the case got to $100,000, the few that were left got sold. When something that nobody wanted went from $100 to $2,000 to $10,000 to $100,000, people took the profit on them.”
Let’s say a case sold for $100 back in the day, that equates to 23 cents per pack. Think about that.
Obviously, the explosion in price is because the 1986-87 Fleer product is stacked with some of the top rookies from that era. As any collector knows, the Michael Jordan rookie is the crème de la crème of the product. But that year also features rookie cards of Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler, Dominique Wilkins, Isiah Thomas, Hakeem Olajuwon, Chris Mullin and Joe Dumars.
The last time a case of 1986-87 Fleer Basketball was up for auction was in 1999 when it sold for $100,000. Individual boxes of the product are going for nearly that price today.
Hart said many hobby veterans wondered if another case of the product even existed. All doubt was put to rest recently when a case surfaced. It was owned by longtime, reputable card shop Larry Fritsch Cards, LLC. The rare case had been at the Fritsch shop in Stevens Point, Wis., since the ’80s.
Shop owner Jeremy Fritsch decided now was the right time to put the case up for auction, using Collect Auctions in Waupaca, Wis.
“The hobby is on fire during this pandemic for a lot of different reasons. ‘The Last Dance’ escalated the prices even more, and (the Fritsch family) just figured why not,” Collect Auctions owner Steven Bloedow said. “Every item has its time to sell and if you can pick your spot when prices are peaking, then that’s great.”
Great is right, because on Aug. 6, the case sold for $1,789,717, according to the Collect Auctions website.
“I’m thrilled,” Bloedow said. “I think it’s a great price. I was hoping in the $1.2-$1.5 million range – that’s a pretty absurd number per box from a sealed case price.”
That amounts to just over $149,000 per box.
By mid-July, the case had already surpassed the $1.5 million mark with three weeks left on the auction.
“It was weird because it got up there so quickly that both (Jeremy Fritsch and I) were in the same boat as far as, c’mon, maybe it’s worth a lot more,” Bloedow said. “Is it just going to sit there? Then we got a few more bumps. It exceeded both of our original expectations by $300,000.”
Following the close of the auction, Blowout Cards tweeted out that it won the case. It was purchased for a private collector, who wants to remain anonymous and is planning to keep the case unopened.
Keeping the Case in the Family
Larry Fritsch was a legend in the card collecting business. He opened his shop in 1970 and passed away in 2007. His son Jeff then took over the family business. When Jeff died in 2017, his son Jeremy took control of Larry Fritsch Cards.
Bloedow, who has run Collect Auctions since 2011, had talked with Jeremy Fritsch for a while about selling the case at some point.
“We’ve casually discussed it for years and he mentioned it to me,” Bloedow said. “With me, right away, the wheels start turning about PR and just the bare bones execution of selling this and maximizing the sale price.”
Having an item of this magnitude surface is huge for the hobby.
“It should get national headlines,” said Bloedow, who sold a box of 1986-87 Fleer Basketball for $33,065 in August 2015. “It’s just a major find. People had been wondering if one of these cases existed for 20 years, and they’re getting to see there finally is one.”
Bloedow doesn’t know exactly how an extra case of 1986-87 Fleer Basketball stayed unopened at the card shop. Larry Fritsch never discussed that before he passed away. Bloedow figures Fritsch ran out of cases when the product came out and ordered a few more and one didn’t make it to the shelf.
When Bloedow first saw the case, he couldn’t believe it’s condition. It has good corners with original, 34-year-old tape.
“The outside of the case is exactly the way you want it – all the tape seals are intact. There’s a couple surface scuffs on the outside of it where the white outer coating is scraped off a little bit, but it doesn’t affect anything inside,” Bloedow said. “I wouldn’t sell something like this without fully disclosing if there was anything wrong with it. It’s got general handling wear, which is always expected. It’s in great shape, though.”
On the outside of the box, two labels are displayed stating the distributor was Holiday Wholesale, Inc. in Wisconsin Dells, Wis. The case ended up 80 miles down the road at Fritsch Sports Cards.
With the auction in full swing on July 18, Jeremy Fritsch and Bloedow drove from Wisconsin down to BBCE in Schererville, Ind., to get the case authenticated and shrink-wrapped by Hart.
“It should take away any last thread of doubt or any ability for anyone to throw stones at it and question it,” Bloedow said. “Fritsch Cards was literally the first hobby store and gives this case all the provenance you would ever need.”
It was a sight for sore eyes.
“Getting to see if for myself in hand, it looks like it was just shipped out from Fleer yesterday,” said Hart, who had never authenticated a case of 1986-87 Fleer Basketball. “Obviously, it was stored in a perfect environment for a very long time.”
In Hart’s 10 years authenticating and wrapping unopened materials, the case is the best product he’s ever had come into his shop.
“We have had some pretty cool boxes come through, some from the 1950s and 1960s,” Hart said. “But this is by far the best piece we have encountered.”
As the authority in unopened products, what does Hart believe the case is worth?
“I guessed $2.25 million,” he said, a couple weeks prior to its closing sale price. “I only come up with that based on the rarity of the case itself. What it’s worth on the inside would come down to condition/centering. If opened and the cards were all 70/30 centered, it would probably be worth $200,000. If the cards were all perfectly centered, now you’re talking millions.”
Consider the facts about what could be inside the case. There are 36 packs in a box and 12 regular cards per pack. That’s 432 cards per box. There are 132 regular cards in the set, so on average, there are 3.27 Jordan rookies pulled per box. With 12 boxes in a case, that equates on average to just over 39 Jordan cards that could be in the unopened case.
That doesn’t include the 11-card sticker series in which Jordan appears. There is one sticker per pack, so there are 432 stickers in the case as well. That means on average another 39 Jordan rookie stickers could appear in the case.
With so much hoopla over the 1986-87 Fleer Basketball case surfacing, that begs the question again, is this the last remaining case or could another one exist?
“Maybe one day a widow will sell her abandoned inventory from when her and her husband ran a candy wholesale business,” Hart said. “The 86-87 Fleer case does not have a year listed on the outside of it, so maybe this abandoned inventory just has a case of it mixed in with 1987 Fleer, Topps and Donruss cases.”