Hidden economies: Catch the Pokémon card craze

The rarest and best quality Pokémon cards now fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars.

• Pokémon card craze is growing and driving prices for the rarest and most sought after cards to stratospheric levels.

• Avid collectors and eager YouTubers drop hundreds of thousands on a single card. 

• “A lot of the people purchasing to resell now are not fans. They are depriving the real collectors of the items and ruining the experience for many.”

A man in the United States may be taking an expensive passion for Pokémon cards straight into jail. The case, which has attracted a fair amount of attention, may be an extreme side-effect of the almost feverish trade in the collectible cards and their potential profitability.

Prosecutors say Vinath Oudomsine, 31, who lives in the state of Georgia, made fraudulent claims about his company’s gross revenue and number of employees to seek relief funds from the Small Business Administration in July 2020. He received $85,000 in August meant to help him survive the pandemic. Instead, he spent $57,789 on a single Pokémon card.

Oudomsine pleaded guilty and could face up to 20 years in jail and $250,000 in fines.

Authorities did not say which card Oudomsine bought but trading card selling platform PWCC Marketplace shows that a base set first edition shadowless holo Charizard card with a 9.5 grading sold for exactly the amount in the case.

The characteristics that make it such a sought-after card are many. The card is a first edition, meaning it was from the first print run of the set. ‘Shadowless’ indicates that there is no drop shadow behind the artwork box of the card. The 9.5 grading is the rating given for its condition, print placement and quality among other factors as judged by professional collectible organizations such as the Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA).

A burning passion for Charizard

The Charizard card has fetched record amounts before.

The same first edition, shadowless Charizard, albeit with a PSA 10 Gem Mint grading, set a record after being sold by PWCC for $350,100 on eBay on December 2020. The owner of the card said in an Instagram post (which has since been deleted) that he had bought the card for $700 in 2009.

That record did not hold for long. The very next day, Goldin Auctions sold the very same card for $369,000, the highest recorded price so far for a Charizard.

Two months earlier, rapper Logic dropped over $220,000 on the same card of the fire Pokémon in October 2020, keeping the Pokémon card craze in play.

“When I was a kid I absolutely loved Pokémon but couldn’t afford the cards. I remember even trying to trade food stamps for theirs and now as an adult who has saved every penny he has made being able to enjoy something that I’ve loved since childhood now as a grown man is like buying back a piece of something I could never have, it’s not about the material it’s about the experience,” he said in an Instagram post.

Fast forward

Prices have held firm in recent times. A Charizard with the same PSA rating went for $311,800 in March 2021. PSA has only given 122 cards this grading distinction, out of 2,600 cards that had been rated.

Charizard is the mascot for Pokémon Red, one of the original titles in the Pokémon game franchise, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2021.

“It is one of the most coveted trading cards ever produced. Widely considered one of the holy grails of the Pokémon world, this Flame Pokémon is poised to show continuous returns for years to come and become a premier investment piece for any portfolio to have,” said PWCC in a video that showcased the record setting Charizard.

The company added that Pokémon has “far exceeded Star Wars and any other brand” in terms of recognition.

A look at past sales confirms that prices have indeed rocketed. The Charizard with a flawless 10 grading sold for $14,908 in June 2019, a steal compared to recent market rates. So, fraud claims aside, Oudomsine may have had the right investment instinct.

A YouTuber recently made headlines with a video for making a statue using the card, albeit a faux version, as the base of the creation.

Video connection

But it’s not just Charizard that has collectors dropping serious coin.

At the start of 2021, a rare card of Blastoise sold for $360,000. It’s the highest amount so far for a single card. It is one of two presentation cards, test prints produced by Wizards of the Coast. The status of the second card is currently unknown.

A box of first edition cards also sold for $408,000 around the same time.

In fact, YouTube for channels dedicated to purchasing and unboxing rare box sets have become popular. In March 2021, Logan Paul unboxed 12 holographic cards from 36 first card packs that he bought for $200,000 in one such a video. Goldin Auctions valued the 12 cards at ten times that much.

“I’m still stunned at how three stadiums full of people watched a grown ass man open pieces of cardboard for three hours straight,” Paul said on Twitter.  “Pokémon has a fascinating way of bringing together and captivating people of all ages and backgrounds, regardless of their knowledge of the hobby.”

In October 2021, YouTuber Leonhart also made waves when he pulled a shadowless Charizard during his last pack in an unboxing stream. The collector was so excited he declared multiple times in the video that he was about to faint.

But not all such videos end happily.

Chris Camillo, host of YouTube channel Dumb Money, bought a box of first edition cards for $375,000 only to find out during the unboxing stream that it was a fake.

On the flipside, Twitch host Chance Morris drew over 1.2 million views on a stream where he destroyed rare Pokémon cards by dunking them in lube, setting them on fire and rolling them in dirt among other things.

Other rarities

Other cards have the potential to quickly ramp up those credit card balances.

The No. 1 Trainer card, the first-place prize at the 2002 Pokémon World Championships, previously went for $31,200. A 1999 Pokémon Japanese Promo Tropical Mega Battle Tropical Wind sold for $65,100 in October 2020.

One that is seen as a holy grail for collectors is the Pikachu Illustrator card, which was awarded to the winners of several illustration contests in Japan. It is said only 40 or so of these cards exists. It reportedly sold for $250,000 in 2020, a jump from the price of $195,000 it fetched in 2019. There is an eBay listing of the card now that has it available for a mere $3 million.

At an event in 2017, an Italian collector traded a package of nine different Charizard cards and three drawings by the Pokémon card illustrator Mitsuhiro Arita worth $900,000 for a Pikachu Illustrator card from a Japanese collector.

“Charizard is fantastic and I had the best Charizards ever made, but it’s nothing compared to the iconic Pikachu,” the Italian collector known only as Marco told PokéBeach in 2020.

“It’s the Honus Wagner (the card of the eponymous baseball player that sold for an astounding $6.6 million) of Pokémon. I consider the card not only nostalgic, beautiful, and historical, but also a fantastic investment.”

There are still new rarities being added to the collecting game. As part of its 25th anniversary, the Pokémon Company collaborated with artists like Katy Perry, Post Malone and J. Balvin for its P25 music program. The three artists were gifted with cards of their image with a Pikachu, Butterfree and Dragonite, as well as Charizard respectively.

However, the Pokémon Company has since stated that those cards are one-of-a-kind thank you gifts to the artists and will not be made for public distribution. If any of the artists were to auction their gift off one day, it would be a real catch for any Pokémon trainer.

Fight for your right to buy

The Pokémon Company is more than aware of the hype for these cards. For the 25th anniversary, they reissued the original card sets and prices immediately tripled or more in secondary markets after being sold out immediately.

Scalpers have become a huge problem for traders. In fact, Japanese stores have even had to take measures, such as going by reverse order for queues and holding quizzes to determine ‘true fans’, to deter price gouging buyers.

Japanese retail chains like Mickey and Yodobashi Camera have even tried to cool the market by making new items ‘used’, by removing packaging shrink wrap and such, to stop customers from ‘flipping’ the items. Items that are in ‘used’ condition can be harder to sell.

In Hong Kong, shops that do not normally sell the cards have started stocking them, be it convenience stores like 7-11 or even opticians. Toy stores have also started selling new box sets at market rates, rather than recommended retail prices.

In the US, it’s not much better. Prospective buyers have become violent, with one even pulling a gun during a dispute in Wisconsin.

To stop their stores from being overwhelmed, retail chain Target eventually declared they would only be selling the cards on Fridays. But after too many disruptions, the retailer pulled the plug entirely.

When McDonald’s decided to add Pokémon cards to their Happy Meals recently, so many people were mass buying the meals that the fast-food chain had to put restrictions on the number for each customer.

Another food brand trying to get Pokémon fans was Oreos. When the company announced there would be a ‘rarity scheme’ for Pokémons printed on the cookies, listings appeared almost instantaneously for the rarer chocolate sandwich cookies that featured the Pokémon Mew selling them for hundreds of dollars.

The collector perspective

“I’ve loved Pokémon ever since I started playing the first games. The card game took off during my primary school days, so there is definitely an element of nostalgia involved in this,” said Ng Qing Yi, a collector of the cards in Singapore. He has played been an avid fan of the pocket monster franchise since its inception in the 90’s.

“The cards carry value, so I don’t see it as wasting money because there is resale value in them. But it’s the nostalgia and sentimental value that is most important.”

Ng is such a fan of the cards that he is even considering pre-ordering his copies of Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, the latest games for the series out on November 19, 2021, for the Nintendo Switch, from Hong Kong. The Hong Kong editions of the games come with pre-order gifts of trading cards featuring Leafeon and Glaceon, the two Eevee-lutions introduced in the original Diamond and Pearl games from 2006.

He explains that nostalgia is likely the driving factor for the Charizard card’s popularity, despite the fire Pokémon not actually being particularly useful in competitive play.

Ng’s favourite cards in his collection are two from a collaboration between the Pokémon Center and the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, inspired by Edvard Munch’s classic painting The Scream.

He was in Tokyo when he learnt of the collection and rushed to the museum to obtain them. Unfortunately, they were already sold out by the time he got there.

In the end, he found a couple of them (Mimikyu and Pikachu specifically) through the secondary market for $200. Even though their original prices were $5, he has no regrets about his investment.

Pokémon card craze

“Right now, the ungraded ones go for $1,000 to $2,000. Properly graded ones go for higher,” said Ng.

Like other collectors, he has had his frustrations with the rush of scalpers buying up stock in this hobby.

“A lot of the people purchasing to resell now are not fans. They are depriving the real collectors of the items and ruining the experience for many,” said Ng.

Plus, many of these coming in for the gold rush might end up disappointed.

“So many people are buying and trying to ‘flip’ the goods. But there aren’t enough buyers that are willing to drop the insane amounts that they are asking for,” said Ng.

“People shouldn’t be collecting for money. Other conventional investments have better yields. You should only go into it if you appreciate the franchise.”

Some other collector hobbies, like Tamagotchis, have seen their share of scalpers that try to artificially inflate prices by manipulating auction prices. Ng believes the same happens with Pokémon cards.

He advises those looking to purchase to do their research by comparing the average for numerous sold listings, instead of relying on one overpriced example.

“There are definitely some crazy bids on auctions that are from pseudo accounts. If you want to learn the proper market prices, do your research. Join collector groups, look at listings and commonly sold prices, visit shops and check their prices. Those are the ones that are more realistic and closer to actual market rates,” said Ng.

“With newly released cards, don’t rush to buy the singles as they tend to drop after the initial release hype wanes. The Pokémon Company has already promised to release more waves of popular sets to meet demand.”

He has noticed that the Pokémon Centre in Singapore is doing its best to cool scalpers by removing the shrink wrap from newly purchased box sets, which renders them less than ‘mint condition’ on the secondary market. In Japan, he observed that new releases are now sold on a lottery basis. Even then, new releases are often sold out within a minute of listing.

Despite crazy competition and ever-rising prices, aficionados like Ng intend to continue collecting.

“Nostalgia is a powerful driver. Those of us who grew up with Pokémon will always cherish them. The COVID-19 pandemic has also made many who are staying at home during lockdown want to catch ‘em all,” said Ng, borrowing from the franchise’s popular catchphrase.

“Plus, these things will never be worthless. Even new cards will grow in value eventually.”

Even an auction house like PWCC admits that “nobody could have guessed that it would become what it became.”

Read more from Anticentric

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• Oppressed LGBTQIA+ communities find even ‘friendly’ places in Asia are scary – Part 2

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