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We’ll remember 2021 as the year the hobby “went totally nuts,” as longtime appraiser and expert Simeon Lipman put it. If you were watching closely, you know exactly what “totally nuts” means.

“Everything went through the roof,” says Lipman, who has coordinated auctions for Christie’s, Lelands and other auction houses. “Certain things have come back down to earth, as they had to, but people are still paying crazy prices. Even this month [February 2022], there were sales that were completely insane. A Zion Williamson card went for around $600,000 [at Goldin Auctions]! He hasn’t been able to stay on the court. And Jasson Dominguez — he batted .258 in Single-A ball last year, but his card sold for almost $500,000 the other night [also at Goldin Auctions].

“Things like that are lunacy, cuckoo,” Lipman continues. “It’s just ... nuts.”

Where the hobby in general soared to mind-boggling heights in 2021, so too did the online auction segment of the market. Online auction bidders showed no reserve (pun intended) when going after the cream of the crop in sports memorabilia.

That crop seemed to broaden regularly, encompassing an ever-growing stable of hobby heroes.

Also See: Top 10 sports cards of all time 

We’re never surprised by preemptive bidding on items featuring Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Tom Brady, Roberto Clemente, Mike Trout and Wayne Gretzky. But high-end bidders went deeper than ever. They widened the hobby’s uppermost echelon by paying Jordanesque prices for rarities related to Ronald Acuna Jr. and Shohei Ohtani, Patrick Mahomes II and Justin Herbert, LaMelo Ball and Luka Doncic. Jerry Rice, Josh Allen, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry also have climbed into or close to that stratosphere.

UNPRECEDENTED SALES

We got advance notice of this soaring marketplace in 2020. That’s when COVID-19 changed the way we work, live, interact — and collect. With people spending more time at home (and apparently with more money to burn), the hobby started percolating in 2020. By mid-2021, it was bubbling over. So we saw it coming.

Back to Lipman: “It was the perfect storm in 2020. Three things happened: Kobe Bryant died unexpectedly, resulting in a sudden demand for his cards and autographs. Then COVID hit. Then ‘Last Dance’ [the 10-part Michael Jordan documentary] aired on ESPN, and everyone was home to watch it. Those three things turned into this vortex of lunacy for cards.”

A 2001-02 SP Authentic Dual Signatures card of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Jordan and Bryant cards helped spark the sports card boom in 2021.

A 2001-02 SP Authentic Dual Signatures card of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Jordan and Bryant cards helped spark the sports card boom in 2021.

Also See: Kobe card sets record with $2M sale 

There were other factors that jolted the market, too.

“People were bored with the stock market, and this was a new asset class for them,” Lipman says. “Huge money was being poured into the market. You had the whole ‘fractional’ idea taking shape [where speculators pay a percentage of a card’s value for part ownership]. PSA got bought by a collector. And Goldin Auctions went from being an afterthought to the point where they’re regularly hammering down million-dollar items. All of that happened within a year.”

And all of it affected the online auction marketplace. We tracked no less than 65 eBay sports collectible auction listings that exceeded $100,000. Fifteen of those items climbed past $200,000, with one exceeding a half-million dollars and another coming close.

These types of highlights were once the stuff of major auction houses. You may remember when eBay and other online-only auctions were sources for bargains. No more. Sellers there generally are getting top-shelf prices. To paraphrase the classic Oldsmobile ad: This isn’t your father’s giant online yard sale anymore.

So without further ado, let’s get into our list of the top 40 items on eBay during 2021. We’ll group the first 20 here, followed by a few observations, and then we’ll pick up with the next 20. (Note: We track auctions only — not Buy It Now transactions where bidding doesn’t come into play.)

1. $555,988 on 100 bids: 2000 Playoff Contenders Tom Brady Rookie Ticket, auto (PSA 10)

A 2000 Playoff Contenders Tom Brady rookie card sold for more than $555,000 online in 2021.

A 2000 Playoff Contenders Tom Brady rookie card sold for more than $555,000 online in 2021.

2. $456,455 on 255 bids: 1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan (PSA 10)

3. $414,544 on 245 bids: 1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan (PSA 10)

4. $375,100 on 90 bids: 1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan (PSA 10)

A PSA 10 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan rookie card was one of the top-selling cards online in 2021.

A PSA 10 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan rookie card was one of the top-selling cards online in 2021.

5. $340,100 on 60 bids: 1958 Alifabolaget (soccer) Pele (PSA 8)

A 1958 Alifabolaget Pele card sold for more than $340,000 online in 2021.

A 1958 Alifabolaget Pele card sold for more than $340,000 online in 2021.

6. $251,101 on 57 bids: 2000 Upper Deck SP Authentic Tom Brady, #177/1250 (BGS 10)

7. $226,600 on 72 bids: 2018-19 National Treasures Luka Doncic, #30/99, auto (BGS 9.5)

8. $225,600 on 96 bids: 2003-04 Upper Deck Ultimate Collection LeBron James, #88/250, auto (BGS 9.5, auto 10)

9. $225,100 on 143 bids: 1986-87 Fleer Basketball wax box, 36 packs (BBCE)

10. $215,000 on 1 bid: 2009 Bowman Chrome Mike Trout Gold Refractor, #18/50, auto (PSA 10)

Also See: Trout, Ohtani cards set records in online auction 

11. $208,100 on 125 bids: 1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan (PSA 10)

12. $200,611 on 62 bids: 1957-58 Topps Bill Russell (PSA 8)

13. $200,200 on 105 bids: 2003-04 Topps Chrome LeBron James Refractor (BGS 10)

A 2003-04 Topps Chrome Refractor LeBron James card sold for more than $200,000 online in 2021.

A 2003-04 Topps Chrome Refractor LeBron James card sold for more than $200,000 online in 2021.

14. $200,100 on 72 bids: 1986-87 Fleer Sticker Michael Jordan (PSA 10)

15. $200,000 on 103 bids: 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky (PSA 9)

16. $188,989 on 58 bids: 1999-2000 Upper Deck Retro Wilt Chamberlain Inkredible Level 2, #11/13 (PSA 10)

17. $188,988 on 103 bids: 2017 Panini National Treasures Green Patrick Mahomes, #7/15, auto (PSA 9)

18. $187,100 on 77 bids: 2003-04 Upper Deck Ultimate Collection LeBron James, #15/250, auto (BGS 9.5)

19. $180,100 on 103 bids: 1980 Topps Rickey Henderson (PSA 10)

A 1980 Topps Ricky Henderson rookie card sold for more than $180,000 online in 2021.

A 1980 Topps Ricky Henderson rookie card sold for more than $180,000 online in 2021.

20. $175,100 on 60 bids: 2003-04 Topps Chrome LeBron James Refractor (PSA 10)

NOTES ON THE TOP 20

Let’s take a break in the listing for a few observations.

• Five of the Top 20 are Michael Jordan treasures. Another — an unopened 1986-87 Fleer basketball box — was driven by the prospect of pulling a mint Jordan or two.

• LeBron James took up four other spots, with Tom Brady accounting for two.

• Fifteen of the 20 items were active players (as we know, Brady has since retired). Among the five legends, surprisingly, neither Babe Ruth nor Mickey Mantle showed up. One of the legends, Pele, reflected a surge in soccer cards in 2021.

Also See: Babe Ruth rookie card, 1927 movie banner highlight auction 

• Two of the retired stars come from hoop history — Wilt Chamberlain and, fittingly, his longtime foil Bill Russell.

• The last card on our list this year brought $175,100. A year earlier, No. 20 was “only” $121,100. But like 2021, the 2020 list was heavily made up of Jordan and James — six James items and three Jordans.

And now, the second half of 2021’s Top 40 online auctions:

21. $168,600 on 112 bids: 2003-04 Topps Chrome LeBron James Black Refractor, #50/500 (BGS 9.5)

22. $167,177 on 118 bids: 2009-10 Topps Chrome Stephen Curry Gold Refractor, #4/50 (BGS 9.5)

23. $165,100 on 58 bids: 2019-20 National Treasures Zion Williamson Stars and Stripes, #2/30 (BGS 9.5)

24. $160,116 on 87 bids: 2003-04 Topps Contemporary Collection LeBron James Gold, #21/25 (BGS 9.5)

25. $155,201 on 65 bids: 1986-87 Fleer Sticker Michael Jordan (PSA 10)

26. $155,095 on 89 bids: 1986-87 Fleer Basketball complete set with stickers (PSA 9)

27. $152,100 on 140 bids: 2017 Panini Flawless Patrick Mahomes, #6/25, auto patch (PSA 10)

28. $150,100 on 84 bids: 2020-21 Panini National Treasures Green LaMelo Ball, #1/5, auto patch (ungraded)

An ungraded 2020-21 Panini National Treasures Green LaMelo Ball Auto Patch rookie card sold for more than $150,000 online in 2021.

An ungraded 2020-21 Panini National Treasures Green LaMelo Ball Auto Patch rookie card sold for more than $150,000 online in 2021.

29. $144,544 on 145 bids: 1961 Fleer Wilt Chamberlain (PSA 8)

A 1961 Wilt Chamberlain rookie card sold for more than $144,000 online in 2021.

A 1961 Wilt Chamberlain rookie card sold for more than $144,000 online in 2021.

30. $140,200 on 54 bids: 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky (PSA 9)

31. $140,100 on 45 bids: 2017 Panini National Treasures Patrick Mahomes Holo Gold, #2/10, auto patch (PSA 10)

32. $140,100 on 64 bids: 2020-21 Panini National Treasures LaMelo Ball, #3/8, auto patch (PSA 9)

33. $128,323 on 85 bids: 2003-04 Topps Chrome LeBron James Xfractor, #53/220 (PSA 9)

34. $128,109 on 256 bids: 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle (PSA 7)

The 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle cards was one of the top-selling cards in 2021. This PSA 7 sold for more than $128,000 online.

The 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle cards was one of the top-selling cards in 2021. This PSA 7 sold for more than $128,000 online.

35. $126,655 on 75 bids: 2009-10 Topps Chrome Stephen Curry Refractor, #87/500 (PSA 10)

A 2009 Topps Chrome Stephen Curry rookie card sold for more than $126,000 online in 2021.

A 2009 Topps Chrome Stephen Curry rookie card sold for more than $126,000 online in 2021.

36. $126,300 on 107 bids: 1986-87 Fleer Basketball complete set with stickers (all cards and stickers PSA 9)

37. $125,655 on 120 bids: 1986 Topps Jerry Rice (PSA 10)

A 1986 Topps Jerry Rice rookie card sold for more than $125,000 online in 2021.

A 1986 Topps Jerry Rice rookie card sold for more than $125,000 online in 2021.

38. $125,100 on 100 bids: 1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan (SGC 9.5)

39. $125,100 on 102 bids: 2009-10 Upper Deck Exquisite Michael Jordan Rookie Flashback, edition of 23, auto patch (BGS 8.5)

40. $124,200 on 26 bids: 2019-20 Panini National Treasures Zion Williamson Stars and Stripes, #18/30, auto patch (BGS 9)

NOTES ON THE NEXT 20

In the rest of the Top 40, three more LeBron cards showed up, as did three more Jordans. Plus, two of the entries were complete sets of 1986-87 Fleer basketball cards — home of Jordan’s rookie.

Also See: 75 years later, Jackie Robinson cards still attracting big dollars 

Again, there’s no Ruth in sight, but there is a Mantle sighting, thanks to a PSA 7 specimen of his rookie card that sold for the relative bargain price of $128,109. Without listing out the next 20 items, we can tell you that four more impressive-grade Mantle cards brought similar prices of more than $100,000.

Ruth didn’t show up until No. 78: a 1933 Goudey graded PSA 6 that sold for $92,990.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

So what’s next? The market did indeed settle down during the second half of 2021. The crazed action during the first half of the year created a classic domino effect: Hot bidding fueled seemingly limitless numbers of listings. At this writing, there are more than 50 million cards — 50 million! — listed on eBay alone. There are countless more listed at other auction sites, large and small.

Of course, we know what happens when there’s a glut of anything: Demand is more easily satisfied … and prices cool off. Lipman reminds us of 7-footer Greg Oden, the would-be star who captured collector attention upon arriving in the NBA in 2007. He ended up playing in parts of three seasons and missing four seasons altogether, retiring at age 26. (He played in only 105 games total, averaging 8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.

Greg Oden rookie cards were a hot commodity in 2007 before injuries derailed his career.

Greg Oden rookie cards were a hot commodity in 2007 before injuries derailed his career.

Collectors who overpaid for Topps Chrome Refractor and Upper Deck First Edition cards of Oden can now find those same cards for a few dollars, if not pennies.

That’s not to paint a doom-and-gloom scenario for the hobby’s future. It’s just a reminder that things are cyclical, that what goes up will come down, and that today’s can’t-miss prospect may actually miss.

And yet … look at the payoff for those who stocked up on Tom Brady’s rookie card in the year 2000.