CASTLE PINES VILLAGE – Brian Drent was 15 when he set up a table at a baseball card show in his hometown of Grand Haven, Michigan. He made $ 140 in collectible cards.

At the next show, he made $ 160. He was addicted.

When Drent attended Grand Valley State in Allendale, Michigan, where he was a shooting guard on the basketball team, he made money from playing cards and dealing cards. . And when he started making real money, he both impressed and bewildered his girlfriend, who later became his wife.

“We were just starting to date and Michelle asked me, ‘Is this even legal? Because I would buy something for X and sell it for Y. Drent said. “She was a little surprised. But she’s certainly happy about it now.

After college, Michelle, from Colorado, wanted to return to her home country, so the young couple moved to the Denver area in 1993. At age 29, Drent quit his job as a photocopier salesperson and moved on. is launched in the sports memorabilia business. time. Now, at 53, he’s riding a financial tsunami in the card business that peaked during the pandemic.

His Mile High Card Company, founded by Drent in 1996, on Thursday sold a near-blank Babe Ruth rookie card from 1916 in an online auction for $ 2.46 million. There were 43 offers, and while Drent hoped the card would net more than $ 3 million, the sale still set a record for a Ruth rookie card.

“I really can’t tell you anything more than to say that the new owner is a longtime enthusiast,” Drent said, adding that the quarterly Mile High auction sold $ 5.7 million worth of memorabilia.

“It’s always a rush to sell a card like this,” Drent said. “I still remember the first time I got my hands on a 1952 Mickey Mantle Topps rookie card. It was a rush. But I don’t care about cards. They are always, always, always for sale.

And there have been a lot of sales going on.

“The boom took off during the pandemic because people were sheltered in their homes, and they were like, ‘What can I do? “said Howard Epstein, a 64-year-old Charlotte-based wealth management consultant and avid collector since 1967.” So these people went to their attics or basements and decided to pull out their old cards. , and it all started from there. Really, the card industry has been gaining momentum for over 10 years, but now it’s really snowballing.

Drent’s company is regarded as one of the leading buyers, promoters, sellers and agents of high quality vintage sports cards. In 2020, the MHCC sold sports cards and other memorabilia worth more than $ 21 million, Drent said.

Mile High Card Company President Brian Drent holds a bat used by the 1929-30 Babe Ruth game in his Castle Rock office on Wednesday, November 3, 2021.

He sees himself as a seller, not a collector, although he has “a fair amount” of memorabilia. Think of the MHCC as an auction house, like Sotheby’s.

MHCC, through buyers’ bonuses and upfront consignment fees, pays a 20-30% commission on the items it auctions. However, on high-end items, such as the Ruth Card, negotiations for a smaller commission are common.

“The business has turned into a beast in its own right,” Drent said from his company headquarters, located in a shopping center just down the road from the prestigious Castle Pines Golf Club.

The walls are adorned with sports treasures: signed jerseys worn by Sandy Koufax, Stan Musial, Kobe Bryant and Joe Montana and a rare signed photo of Cy Young. Stored in a safe is a 1929 Ruth bat used for gambling, valued at $ 400,000 to $ 500,000. A Tom Brady jersey worn by the game can also be found in the safe. Drent predicts that he will one day make over $ 200,000.

“Collecting cards and keepsakes is no longer just a hobby,” Drent said. “It’s a complete and absolute industry. It has exploded beyond anyone’s imagination.

But it’s not just baby boomer nostalgia that is fueling the boom.

“The younger generation, those with the money, love alternative investments,” said Rich Mueller, editor-in-chief of Daily sports collectors, a website that follows the industry. “They would like to invest in something that they can buy and see. If they invest in a current player’s card, they can see what’s going on and sort of treat it as an action.

In August 2020, a rare 2009 Mike Trout rookie card was sold for $ 3.93 million. In February, a one-of-a-kind signed rookie card from Dallas Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic cost $ 4.6 million. In April, a 2003 LeBron James rookie card sold for $ 5.2 million.

Epstein has long been optimistic about sports memorabilia as an investment.

“After the 2008 recession, the sports memorabilia market exploded,” he wrote in a recent “white paper” urging investors and financial advisers to take a closer look. “Like the art market, the sports memorabilia market is seen and accepted as an attractive alternative investment. “

Another reason for the current boom is the inherent scarcity of contemporary sports cards. It’s a concept born out of lessons learned from the industry’s previous boom and bust.

When the sports card boom first hit in the 1990s, evidenced by interest in a T206 Honus Wagner card, fans who had thrown away the sports cards they had collected when they were children began to realize that maybe they had thrown away something of value. The search was on for the next rare find.

The card companies responded by flooding the market with millions of cards, only to dilute the interest and make most cards almost worthless. For example, Ken Griffey Jr.’s 1989 Upper Deck rookie card, once the hobby’s most popular card, has been reduced to just another card. It is estimated that Upper Deck produced over 2 million Griffey cards.

Today, scarcity, and therefore value, is an integral part of the card business.

The most valuable contemporary cards are produced in small batches – like fine wines – and are often accompanied by an authenticated uniform fabric sample. The authenticated signature of a player is also affixed to the card.

For example, in 2003, Upper Deck produced a singular rookie card for NBA superstar LeBron James under its Ultimate Collection imprint. The card – purchased in 2016 by a 42-year-old California investment manager for $ 312,000 – contained the NBA logo patch on James’ jersey, and James signed the card under a photo of himself in his crimson Cleveland jersey Rider. It has “1 in 1” written on the card. It is the only card of its kind.

The card is now worth at least 10 times its retail price, according to the New York Times.

Babe Ruth 1916 baseball card, left, ...
A 1916 rookie Babe Ruth baseball card, left, which sold for $ 2.46 million and a Babe Ruth game bat at Mile High Card Company in Castle Rock on Wednesday, November 3, 2021.

Social media has also kept sports cards in the spotlight, with a fad called “box breaks” lighting the way. A live box breakage basically happens when a group of people buy a box of sports cards and then split the cards. The seller, called a Breaker, opens the cards in a live online video session and buyers watch and hope to get a rare and valuable card that may be in the box.

It remains to be seen how long the craze will last. But rare old cards are expected to increase in value. Since February 2020, there have been at least a dozen sales of $ 1 million cards, including six cards sold for more than $ 3.75 million, according to ESPN.

But, like rare coins or fine art, sports cards and memorabilia aren’t just about dollars and good business savvy. Drent said that collectors who spend megabucks on rare cards aren’t just driven by desire and nostalgia. The male ego is part of the equation.

“A lot of it right now is a matter of prestige,” Drent said. “The guys are having a cocktail party and when someone comes to their house, they show off their stuff.

“They can say, ‘I just got a Babe Ruth bat used for the game. Or,’ I just got a Sandy Koufax jersey used for the game. ‘ Or, ‘come check out my baseball card game.’

“So, finally, what happens? The husband and wife will leave the party, get in the car and the guy will say, “You know, he had a jersey used by Sandy Koufax!” Wait a second, I’m more successful than him! ‘

“So it sometimes becomes this kind of machismo contest. It’s like a duel of swords. It’s like marking their territory.