This article originally appeared on VICE France.
Pokémon cards have come a long way from the innocent days of playground trading. Nineties kids probably didn’t see it coming, but the cards have now reached a collector’s item status similar to wine or fine art. “There’s an incredible boom happening now,” says Idir, a long-time collector from France. “Cards that sold for €70 (£60) back in January 2020 are going for €1,000 (£858) now. This market is just wild.”
Idir said the seeds of revival were planted in 2016 with the Pokémon Go craze. That same year, Pokémon also released the Evolutions card series, designed to be similar to the originals, in celebration of 20 years of the franchise. But 2020 was a big turning point. “Suddenly people had a lot more time to get into it,” Idir said. “And money to burn, with cinemas, concerts and museums shut down.”
Then, celebrities got involved. Back in October 2020, YouTube star Logan Paul live-streamed himself unboxing a rare Pokémon card set he claimed to have bought for over €165,000. The video, originally a fundraiser for mental health awareness, racked up 11 million views. Since then, Paul has posted more videos about his collection, which he says has cost him over €1.6 million. On the 27th of February, 2021 – the 25th anniversary of the franchise – he live-streamed “the most epic Pokémon box break ever” where he unboxed €840,000 worth of Pokémon cards.
Since his first video, the price of untouched Pokémon cards has skyrocketed. The most valuable card, the Pikachu Illustrator – of which there are an estimated 39 copies in existence – is currently listed on eBay for €2.5 million (£2.1 million). The second-most sought-after card is the holographic first-edition Charizard, which YouTuber and rapper Logic bought for €190,000 (£163,100) in December 2020.
If you simply cannot wrap your head around these numbers, here are the basics of how trading works. Pokémon cards are sold in boxes, each containing 36 sealed “booster packs” with 11 cards in them, for a total of 396 cards per box. Collectors can either buy a whole box or single booster packs. The rarer the card is, the more valuable it becomes.
First edition cards are the most valuable – they were only manufactured for a short time in 1999 – and have “1st Edition” printed on them. Holographic “1st Edition” cards, special editions, limited runs and cards with errors are the absolute jackpot. For instance, the Pikachu Illustrator was a special edition created only as an award for the winners of a drawing contest in Japan in 1998.
Debuting in 1996, Pokémon is the highest-grossing media franchise of all time – estimated at over €80 billion, which puts it well ahead of Star Wars and Hello Kitty. “Pokémon are cultural icons,” said Nasser, 35, a collector living in Germany. “They’re like Mickey Mouse. And like Mickey, they’re here to stay.” Nasser began collecting cards as soon as they came out and held onto them over the years, occasionally logging on to fan sites in the early 2010s. Then, in 2016, he gave into the nostalgic appeal of the Evolutions series and dived back into collecting.
“A lot of people are jumping back on board,” said Vincent, another collector in the Paris area. “People who were kids back when Pokémon first came out mostly have a job now and disposable income to spend on childhood memories.”
And that’s no coincidence. Millennials have been highly targeted by nostalgic marketing, with brands leveraging memories of “the good old days” to get them to spend money. It’s the franchise’s ability to monetise nostalgia that has kept it relevant. Pokémon is by far not the only company doing this – Disney is one of the most successful examples, with its endless reboots and recognisable movie formats.
Some people have even turned their Pokémon childhood memories into a full-time job. Professional Pokémon card collectors spend five to six hours a day picking through auction sites in search of deals. About five years ago, Idir decided to devote herself to the hobby. She started by poking around at flea markets, purely out of nostalgia, but her search gradually became more serious. “It’s like owning war memorabilia,” she said. She now values her collection between €10,000 (£8,600) and €20,000 (£17,100), not far from what she says her parents make in a year.
“It’s the revenge of the nerds,” said French rapper Florian Ordonez, also known as Bigflo. “In school, people looked down on them for years, so they just did their own thing. Ten years later, and boom – that ‘thing’ is exploding, and everyone wants in on it.”
A huge Pokémon fan “since forever” – he even has a Magikarp tattooed on his arm – the rapper recalls his first investment back in 2016: a €120 Charizard card. “My buddies made fun of me – even I thought it was kind of silly, but I really wanted it,” he said. “Today, it’s probably worth about five grand.”
But it’s easy to get ripped off. In October, the investment collective Dumb Money bought a box of cards for over €310,000 which turned out to be fake. It’s why lots of people rely on brokers, who put buyers in touch with sellers and get a cut. It’s also a good idea to only buy cards that have been appraised by grading agencies like PSA, which evaluate them on a scale of one to ten based on authenticity, condition and other factors.
If you think you have a few gems in your attic, you might want to look into an official appraisal, too – they’re usually free. Not to burst your bubble, but keep in mind that used cards are basically worthless. To get a vague idea, you can check what it’s selling for on Ebay or PWCC, a leader in the card auction and trading industry.
Long-time collectors are split on last year’s card boom. Lots are happy their cards are now worth loads, but they’re also watching their passion being co-opted by wealthy investors. And the frenzy over nostalgic collectables is bound to expand to other franchises, too. Time to track down that dusty old box of Yu-Gi-Oh! cards.