The Most Valuable Sports Cards of All Time
The hobby of sports trading cards can trace its beginnings to the late 19th century. Although they're famously known for being part of packages that contained bubble gum, some of the earliest sports trading cards were used as advertising tools to get patrons, including young adults, to purchase tobacco products like cigarettes. Some early athletes despised this practice and would not allow their faces to adorn trading cards, making any cards upon which they did appear scarce and adding to their value.
That's not the only reason sports cards become valuable. The players themselves have much to do with it. The better a player is, the more valuable his ? and in a few cases, her ? card can become, especially their rookie card, which is the first time that a player appears on a card for a particular trading card brand.
Another reason sports cards can become valuable is when there is a limited run of them available. That is the case for many recent cards that have high-dollar amounts associated with them. Other cards become valuable because not many of them exist any longer. For whatever reason, certain cards from across many different sports have brought in astronomical figures when put up for auction in recent years.
Here's a look at 30 of the most valuable sports trading cards.
Honus Wagner (T206 Baseball Card 1909-1911)
Johannes Peter "Honus" Wagner is arguably the greatest shortstop to ever play professional baseball. Although highly adept with the bat (he amassed 3,430 hits on his way to a career batting average of .329 in 21 seasons), it was his fielding that set him apart from his peers. Nicknamed "The Flying Dutchman," there are many different stories related to his T206 card, which was produced by the American Tobacco Company between 1909 and 1911 to be sold as a giveaway on the side of packs of the company's cigarettes.
Some say it was because he didn't like the idea of young men buying cigarettes to get the cards, some say it was because Wagner himself was a nonsmoker, and some say that the company didn't offer Wagner enough money to use his likeness on a card. Whatever the reason, only slightly more than 50 of the T206 Wagner cards are thought to still exist, and one sold in August 2021 for $6.6 million. Other recent sales of T206 Wagner cards have sold for amounts of $3.75 million, $3.7 million, and $3.1 million.
Steph Curry (Panini National Treasures 1/1 Rookie Logoman Basketball Card Autographed 2009-10)
Everywhere you look, it seems like National Basketball Association star Stephen Curry is there. Naturally, during basketball season, you can find him on the court with the Golden State Warriors shooting three-pointers and leading his team to victory. Off the court, he is often found on the golf course, where is a scratch golfer. He's also the star of a current batch of Subway restaurant commercials as well as the hit ABC TV show Holey Moley. He's also the player with the most valuable basketball card currently.
His rookie card, produced by Panini as part of its National Treasures line, and which is a one-of-a-kind card, has both his autograph and a piece of a game-worn jersey featuring the iconic NBA logo. This particular card, graded near-mint-to-mint, sold for $5.9 million at a sale in July 2021.
Mickey Mantle (Topps #311 Baseball Card 1952)
Scarcity plays a key role in the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle #311 baseball card as well. The Topps Company was founded in 1938 and had its origins going back as far as 1890 but didn't begin producing cards related to baseball until 1951, a set that resembled playing cards (with red and blue backs) that had players' images on them. In 1952, the company changed tactics and produced a set of 407 cards with a player's image on the front and his statistics from the previous season on the back, putting them in packs with five cards each and, for the first time, a piece of bubble gum.
By that time, many of the card-buying public had changed its focus from baseball, and many of the packs in the last series, which contained the #311 card of New York Yankees outfielder Mantle (his rookie card for Topps) sat unsold for years in warehouses. According to legend, as many as 500 cases of these series two cards were loaded onto a garbage barge and possibly dumped into the Atlantic Ocean. In January 2021, a mint version of the card sold for $5.2 million. Others have sold for more than $1 million.
LeBron James (Upper Deck #78 Exquisite Jersey Patch Parallel Basketball Card Autographed 2003-04)
In recent years, these manufacturers have been adding value to these cards by including bonuses with the cards, such as autographs or pieces of game-worn jerseys. In the case of this card by the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar forward LeBron James, it has both.
In April 2021, a mint version of this NBA star's card sold for $5.2 million, making it the most expensive non-baseball trading card ever sold. Another card like this sold for $1.8 million in July 2020, and one sold for slightly more than $1 million in April 2022.
Luka Doncic (Panini National Treasures RC Auto Logoman 1/1 Basketball Card Autographed 2018-19)
Another autograph rookie card, part of the 2018-19 Panini National Treasures set, a Logoman autographed rookie card featuring Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic.
It was a one-of-a-kind card, and it sold for a whopping $4.6 million as part of a private sale in February 2021.
Patrick Mahomes (Panini National Treasures NFL Shield Rookie Auto 1/1 Card Autographed 2017)
This one-of-a-kind card, an autographed rookie card featuring Kansas City Chiefs quarterback, National Football League MVP, and Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes, sold for $4.3 million at auction in July 2021, making it the most expensive football trading card to ever change hands.
What's unique about this near-mint-to-mint graded card, which also has a uniform piece on it, is that the uniform piece features the NFL logo, adding to the card's selling points.
George Herman "Babe" Ruth (Goudey #53 Baseball Card 1933)
Considered by some to be the greatest baseball player of all time (and one who likely was responsible for both changing the game forever and helping resurrect it in the wake of a major gambling scandal), the "Sultan of Swat" was also a ruler when it came to marketing, getting his name on everything from movies to cereal boxes to candy bars.
He also appeared on several baseball cards during his playing career, and this was one of his last. Several cards produced by Goudey and its subsidiary, Sports Kings, featuring the legendary New York Yankees outfielder are extremely valuable, but this one tops them all, with a mint version selling for $4.21 million at an auction in July 2021.
Mike Trout (Bowman Draft Picks Chrome Prospects Superfractor Baseball Card Autographed 2009)
Another autographed rookie card, this one featuring one of Major League Baseball's current superstars, Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, sold for $3.93 million in August 2020 during an auction. This is a mint condition version of this card and is also considered a one-of-a-kind card.
Bowman is another long-time card manufacturer and actually produced trading cards before Topps entered the marketplace but went on hiatus for several years after Topps acquired the brand. Topps brought the brand back in 1989 and is now a major player in the trading card marketplace.
Wayne Gretzky (O-Pee-Chee #18 Wayne Gretzky Hockey Card 1979-80)
As the only hockey card to make this list, it's fitting that it features "The Great One," Wayne Gretzky, considered by many the best hockey player of all time. O-Pee-Chee is a Canadian subsidiary of Topps, and its cards resemble its American counterparts in every way. You may have to look at the fine print on the back of the cards to verify that they are made by O-Pee-Chee and not Topps.
Topps' versions of Gretzky's rookie card are also very valuable, but one of his O-Pee-Chee cards, one of only two that have been known to have been graded gem mint, sold for $3.75 million in May 2021 during a private sale.
Tom Brady (Playoff Contenders #144 Championship Rookie Ticket Football Card 2000)
Like Ruth and Gretzky, Tom Brady is considered to be a GOAT for his sport, which stands for "greatest of all time." It stands to reason that his trading cards, especially rookie cards, would be among the most valuable around.
In this case, this Brady card ? a near-mint-to-mint version ? sold for $2.25 million at auction in April 2021 and then was topped when a mint version sold for $3.1 million two months later.
Michael Jordan (Upper Deck Game Jersey Autograph Basketball Card 1997)
No mention of GOATs in team sports would be complete without mentioning Michael Jordan, who is well-represented on this list. In this particular case, it's not the Chicago Bulls shooting guard's rookie card but a card from his prime playing days featuring both his autograph and a piece of jersey.
This 1997 Upper Deck basketball card sold for $2.7 million as part of a private sale in October 2021.
Kobe Bryant (Metal Universe #4 Precious Metal Gems - Green Basketball Card 1997-98)
Considered one of the best NBA players during the past 30 years, the late Kobe Bryant, nicknamed "Mamba," was a key part of five NBA championship teams during his time with the Los Angeles Lakers. The shooting guard, who won the NBA MVP once and NBA Finals MVP twice, perished in a helicopter crash that also took the life of his daughter, Gianna, and seven others on January 26, 2020.
This card, one of only ten like it in existence, was graded as near-mint to mint-plus and features Bryant during his second season. It sold at an auction for $2 million.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Panini National Treasures Logoman Patch Card Autographed 2013-14)
From the same card series that brought the No. 4 ranking Luka Doncic card, this National Treasures Logoman basketball card featuring Milwaukee Bucks forward (and sometimes center) Giannis Antetokounmpo is also from his rookie year.
This card, which sold for $1.85 million in September 2020, also features his autograph and a piece of a game-worn jersey, in this case featuring the NBA logo.
Kobe Bryant (Topps #138 Chrome Refractors Basketball Card 1996-97)
Kobe Bryant makes another appearance on this list, which isn't really a surprise.
In this case, it's with a mint version of Bryant's rookie card produced by Topps, which sold for $1.79 million at auction in February 2022.
LeBron James (Upper Deck Ultimate Signatures Logos #USL-LJ Signed Logoman Card 2004-05)
As the second appearance of "King James" on this list, this card is of him while he was still with the Cavaliers but from his third season. It's another card that features the player's signature and the well-known NBA logo, which came from a jersey worn by James during an NBA game.
Graded as authentic, which means that the signature is authentic but with underlying issues with the card, such as it being miscut, it sold for $1.29 million in March 2021.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Panini Prizm #290 Prizms Black Mosaic Basketball Card 2013-14)
Antetokounmpo also appears for a second time on this list, this time on a different Panini card, part of the Panini Prizm Prizms Black Mosaic in the 2013-14 season.
This card, also a one-of-one card and numbered 290, was rated at gem mint and sold for $1.16 million in December 2020.
Roberto Clemente Topps #164 Baseball Card 1955)
Another sports star whose life was cut short tragically by an aircraft disaster, Roberto Clemente was one of the first stars from Puerto Rico to play professional sports once the color barrier was broken in 1947 by Jackie Robinson. A powerful-hitting and strong-armed outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Clemente collected his 3,000th hit in his last game of the season in 1972. On New Year's Eve that year, while on a mercy mission delivering supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, the plane he was on crashed just outside of San Juan, P.R., killing all aboard.
Many of Clemente's cards are highly valued as a result of his untimely passing, similar to Bryant, and a mint-condition version of his Topps 1955 rookie card sold at an auction for $1.1 million in March 2021.
Anthony Davis (Panini National Treasures #151 Logoman Patch Basketball Card Autographed 2012-13)
The NBA logo seems to add a great deal of value to some of these cards, and that holds true for the Panini National Treasures Logoman Rookie Patch autographed basketball card featuring then-rookie power forward and center Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Hornets.
This is also a one-of-a-kind card and sold for $1.045 million at an auction in January 2021.
Reggie Jackson (Topps #260 Baseball Card 1969)
Known by many as "Mr. October," Reggie Jackson was a larger-than-life outfielder and designated hitter who played for four teams, most notably the Kansas City/Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees. The Baseball Hall of Famer did everything big from striking out to hitting home runs to making his presence felt on the field and off.
Although he played briefly in 1967 and a full season in 1968, his appearance on the 1969 Topps baseball card set was his first, and his card is one of the most sought-after in that set. A gem mint version of the card sold for $1,005,000 at an auction in February 2021.
Jackie Robinson (Topps #312 Baseball Card 1952)
As mentioned previously, Jackie Robinson is known for breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball when he took the field at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, in Brooklyn.
As a result, many of Robinson's cards are valuable, but none as much as his1952 Topps card, which was part of the second series that went mostly unsold. There are only nine near-mint-to-mint versions of his card that have been graded, and one of those cards sold at an auction in March 2021 for $984,000.
Stephen Curry (Panini National Treasures Century Platinum Rookie Card Autographed 2009-10)
Curry makes his second appearance on this list, this time with another rookie card but from the Panini National Treasures Century Platinum collection.
This one, which changed hands at an auction in January 2021, sold for $960,000.
Mike Trout (Bowman Chrome Draft Red Refractor Baseball Card Autographed 2009)
A slightly different version of Trout's Bowman rookie card makes its appearance on this list. In this case, rather than being a one-of-a-kind card, it's one of five-of-a-kind.
This one, graded gem mint, sold at an auction for $922,500.
Michael Jordan (Metal Universe #9 Precious Metal Gems - Green Basketball Card 1997-98)
This card is part of the same collection that the $2 million Bryant Metal Universe Precious Metal Gems Emerald basketball card came from. The first 10 cards were green, and the remaining 90 cards were red.
This Jordan card is graded as authentic, meaning that the card is real but may have a sizing issue. Even so, it sold at an auction for $915,000 in December 2020.
LeBron James/Michael Jordan (Upper Deck Exquisite Collection All-NBA Access Logoman Card 2003-04)
Why settle for one all-time great when you can have two? That's what cardmaker Upper Deck thought when it created this card featuring two of the NBA's GOATs: Jordan and James.
It's also a one-of-a-kind card that features images of both players and NBA logos taken from each one's game-worn jerseys. A near-mint-to-mint version sold for $900,000 at an auction in February 2020.
Larry Bird/Julius Erving/Magic Johnson (Topps #34 /#174/#139 1980-81)
Then again, why settle for two all-time greats when you can have three? Actually, that's not quite right. While, technically, you have the Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird, Philadelphia 76ers forward Julius "Dr. J" Erving, and Lakers point guard Earvin "Magic" Johnson together on one card, it wasn't meant to be one card.
The Topps 1980-81 set features 264 standard-sized cards that were perforated in thirds and meant to be turned into three cards instead of one. However, because this particular card had both the rookie cards for both Bird and Johnson and an important league leaders card for Erving, many collectors left them intact. A gem mint version of this card sold at an auction in August 2021 for $861,000.
Patrick Mahomes (Panini National Treasures #161 Black Rookie Patch Card Autographed 2017)
Another Panini National Treasures rookie card featuring Mahomes, this autographed card that also features a swatch of his game-worn jersey, is one of five made like it that year.
It was graded mint and sold at an auction for $840,000.
Kevin Durant (Upper Deck Exquisite Collection #94 Parallel Patch Card Autographed 2007-08)
A star forward who began his career with the Seattle SuperSonics in 2007-08, then went with the team when it relocated to Oklahoma City for the next season, Kevin Durant has also played with the Golden State Warriors (with Curry) and the Brooklyn Nets. He's been part of two NBA Final championship-winning teams and was the NBA Final MVP both seasons as well as being the league MVP in 2013-14.
This Upper Deck card is from his rookie season and features Durant's autograph and a piece of a game-worn uniform. This card sold at an auction for $799,500 in March 2021.
Luka Doncic (Panini Prizm #280 Gold Prizm Basketball Card 2018)
Doncic's second card on this list, it's also from a different Panini line of cards.
This version of Doncic's rookie card, which was graded in gem mint condition, sold for $780,000 at an auction in January 2021.
Babe Ruth (M101-5 Sporting News Baseball Card 1916)
As far as the collecting world knows, only a few of these Ruth cards exist today, making them among the rarest when it comes to memorabilia related to "The Great Bambino." Not everyone knows that Ruth was a great pitcher before he became known for hitting towering home runs, and this card celebrates him as a pitcher during his rookie season with the Boston Red Sox.
In August 2016, a near-mint version of this card sold for $717,000. It's estimated that if a near-mint-to-mint version were to ever go up for sale, it would sell for at least $3 million.
Rookie Stars Featuring Pete Rose (Topps Baseball Card 1963)
Although he's currently banned from baseball and may never be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, there's no denying the impact that Pete Rose had on the game of baseball. For 24 seasons while playing for three different teams, "Charlie Hustle" was one of the game's biggest stars, ultimately becoming Major League Baseball's all-time hit king with 4,256 base hits.
His Topps rookie card, which features his image along with three other players ? Pedro Gonzalez, Ken McMullen, and Al Weis ? has always held high value. A gem mint version of this card was sold at an auction in August 2016 (the same auction as the Ruth M101-5 Sporting News card) for $717,000.