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Investing in Yu-Gi-Oh Cards - A Collectibles Cautionary Tale

If you've been following the collectibles world lately, you probably know that certain categories, like trading cards, have been very popular. Sports cards have been selling at record high prices, led by the 1952 Tops Mickey Mantle rookie card, which sold for a whopping $12.6 million back in August. Pokemon cards have also made headlines, with the record holder selling for $4 million also this past August. Pokemon cards, in general, have risen spectacularly in the past few years and, on average, are worth 4 times what they were just three or four years ago. This kind of steady and notable recent rise has been noticeable in other similar categories such as comic books, sports memorabilia of all kinds, and some toys.

With this in mind, I have been on the lookout for items in these categories when visiting yard sales, second-hand stores, and estate sales. So imagine my thrill when I recently had not one, not two, but three binders full of Yu-Gi-Oh cards fall into my hands at a local second-hand store. I did have to pay up for this collection as the owners knew there was potentially significant value in these cards. But before I bought the collection, they asked if I might be interested in appraising them, so they let me take one binder home overnight before buying, which allowed me to research the cards. I did some preliminary checking of recent sold prices on Ebay and elsewhere and was fairly confident there was good value in these binders. I paid over $300 for the group and brought them home, intending to list them on Ebay.

Now, before I proceed, let me say that one of the best parts to this story is the opportunity it provides to emphasize, once again, the importance of condition as a contributing factor to value. No one wants to buy used clothing that is torn or stained. You won't get much for a cracked vase, even if it is a Tiffany vase. And a warped copy of the Beatles' White Album, even if a first pressing, probably should just be used as a skeet target. As it is with collectible cards, perhaps even more so than in many other categories. In fact, the market now relies on third party grading services to render an "objective" opinion as to the condition of a card. These opinions are generally expressed using a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 often referred to as "Gem Mint." One usually needs a magnifying glass to tell the difference between grades 8, 9, and 10, but the difference in value can be 200-300%. So, please keep in mind when you are considering your kids' or grandkids' trading cards. If you don't get them graded, they have no chance of bringing three or four figure (or higher) sales.

Knowing that grading was key, I picked out a dozen or so cards that with the most potential and sent them off to the Certified Guarantee Company (CGC) for grading. The cards returned a few weeks later, sealed up in the hard plastic cases that protect graded cards from any further changes in condition. I was disappointed not to have any "10s", but did have a couple of 9.5s, and a few 9s and 8s. Only two were real duds - a 5.5 and a 6 - grades low enough that they probably aren't worth trying to sell. By the way, the grading service is not cheap. To get these twelve graded, I spent over $250. It is crucial that you take this into account before sending anything off to be graded. You have to have a good idea that the grade returned will be a good one in order to recoup the price of the service itself, not to mention the price you paid to obtain the card in the first place.

Another thing I have learned in this process is just how difficult the card game market can be. For example, any given card likely has several variations. The Ancient Fairy Dragon card you have in your hand may be the one that sold for $1,200 or it may be the one that only sells for a dollar depending on not much more than a series of identification numbers on the card front. The same card was released in different sets at different times and this changes the value. Why? Ah, glad you asked!

Rarity! Another of the key determinants of value. Collectors tend to prefer (value more highly) those parts of a set that are more rare. This comes into play in nearly every category of collectible, including art and the decorative arts. When an artist makes a print run of 100, the prints, all else being equal, will be worth more than prints from a run of 1,000. The original (one of a kind) is likely worth the most of all. The same principle holds true in trading cards.

But even more is involved with trading cards. I frankly haven't figured it all out myself. To take another example, however - there appear to be both English-language and Japanese-language cards, presumably representing the same "character" in the game. Different collectors collect each, or both. Ebay may or may not always be the best market, which may owe something to the increased desire among buyers to be sure they are getting exactly what they think they are. Ebay has added authentication services recently to try to address this (as they have with tennis shoes!) but since different buyers have different levels of concern, it just means that the market signals are not always clear.

Having difficulty perceiving exactly what my cards should be priced at, I listed two of them using the auction feature on Ebay. You may know how unusual that is these days. For some years, Ebay has been almost exclusively a "Buy it Now" site, notwithstanding its origins as the first online auction-based marketplace. I sell regularly on Ebay and only resort to auction listings when not sure what the "right" price should be but suspecting that the price could go high if the right buyers got involved in a bidding war. As it turns out, the auction style listing was a m

istake. One card received two bids, while the other received three. In neither case did I recover the cost involved in getting it graded! D'oh!! Rest assured, the remaining cards will be listed at fixed prices. It might take a little longer to sell, but I can be more assured of making a profit.

In general, my take away here is to be very wary of trading cards. I am not sure whether I will send any more to be graded. Either way, I will be left with scores of "commons" that I will struggle to make more than $1 each. The time involved to list them will render my return on investment very low indeed. This is a perpetual problem for resellers on Ebay. It is a constant learning process and I can be grateful for having learned this lesson. Hopefully, you have learned something about valuing trading cards and can make a more educated decision about how to proceed with your collection.


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