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Pokémon TCG expert talks the collecting boom, celebrity fans and why your cards probably aren’t worth anything

“Almost everyone thinks they have something of value.”

Steve Aoki holding a Pikachu Pokemon card
Image credit: Steve Aoki

“I like to think of myself as a treasure hunter,” Jared Mast tells me over Zoom, before proudly displaying one of his treasures: a sealed original copy of The Lion King on VHS, complete with a sticker declaring “First Time on Video!”

Mast is consignment director at Goldin Auctions, the auction house making a recent push from its traditional sports trading cards business into the world of trading card games. We’re speaking ahead of the auction house’s first event dedicated to TCGs, along with comics and video games, taking place this month. Among the items under the hammer is a Pikachu Pokémon card made of solid 24-karat gold, released in 2016 for the card game’s 20th anniversary, as well as other valuable cards from Yu-Gi-Oh! and Magic: The Gathering.

“The biggest difference with sports and non-sports - a TCG - is that they're not playing in season,” Mast contrasts. “You know, Pikachu is not gonna break its leg. It's more about the IPs; the IPs put out the products, different products then push different elements of the IPs.

“It's just more about how much people enjoy these characters or these games, like Magic versus Pokémon. Magic is a game that people enjoy. Pokémon cards, they more so enjoy the cards. It's not really about the game. A lot of people love the game, but it's more the cards are collectible where Magic on the other side is so, so table-driven - a lot of people who play it are the collectors and there's really no in-between. Where in Pokémon a lot of the people that are collectors don't play the game.”

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The Pokémon TCG has seen an explosion in popularity and value over the last year, fuelled by a number of record-breaking sales of rare Pokémon cards. Mast is more than an opportunist jumping in on the game’s recent success. He was the first person to sell a complete set of original 1999 Pokémon cards in gem-mint condition, long before the current collecting fad. The first-edition base set, comprising all 103 cards evaluated at a perfect 10 by grading company PSA, sold for almost $100,000 at auction in 2017 - among the most money paid for the Pokémon TCG at the time.

“At that time, no-one put together the set and I was always just thinking in my head: ‘It's always about catching them all,’” he says.

Magic is so, so table-driven - a lot of people who play it are the collectors and there's really no in-between. Where in Pokémon a lot of the people that are collectors don't play the game.

Among those exchanging increasing sums of money for Pokémon cards in more recent months have been a number of celebrity fans, ranging from DJ Steve Aoki (pictured, main) to YouTuber Logan Paul. The first-edition shadowless Charizard sold last autumn to rapper Logic for a then-record sum of $220,000 - the figure has since been topped repeatedly - was Mast’s own personal card. (“When I first started trading them, they were $18,000,” Mast says of the sought-after shiny. “That was, like, unheard of. People thought I was insane.”) He considers the headline-making sale as the starting point for the current level of excitement, with the growing presence of celebrities in the hobby helping garner widespread attention.

“They've been in this a little bit longer than you would think - it just wasn't that cool,” Mast says of Aoki and Paul. “They were even doing it before they were really showing it off. And then when they started to show it off, they realised how many people enjoy it and how cool it is to most people. That's really what made it explode. It wasn't the fact that they just started - they actually were in it a little bit longer than people have known - it's just that it started to go viral.”

Charizard First Edition 1999 #4 Holographic Pokemon card
The first-edition shadowless Charizard sold to rapper Logic in October 2019 set a new record for the card game - and helped spark the current excitement around collecting. | Image credit: Iconic Auctions

The last time Pokémon cards saw such a significant rise in interest was in the wake of Pokémon Go, the hugely popular mobile app that became the summer phenomenon of 2016. “We do have spikes about every four years, it seems like,” Mast observes. Even so, the combination of celebrity collectors generating mainstream hype with rising interest during the COVID-19 pandemic has sent trading card game collecting “into a new stratosphere”.

“The influencers have kind of set the base of the pyramid for the rest of everything to be built on,” Mast says. “And to show that it's not a weird thing to be into Pokémon, or TCG, or Magic, or Yu-Gi-Oh!, or Dragon Ball, or any of these things. It's something where actually a lot of people have the same interest and just maybe before they weren't talking about it. That's really what I think the biggest change has been.”

One of the parts of my job that's unfortunate is I have to crush people's dreams.

Unsurprisingly, the six-figure sums splashed across news sites and social media have sent many a former Pokémon fan delving back into dusty binders and shoeboxes in search of a life-changing find. Mast calls the common misconception that every collection will have a card worth thousands “the number one battle I face”.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people think it's gold, which is another reason why I think it goes viral,” he says. “Almost everyone knows someone who has a Pokémon card, whether or not it's graded or valuable or not. And so almost everyone thinks they have something of value. So that kind of creates buzz too. One of the parts of my job that's unfortunate is I have to crush people's dreams.”

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Pokémon’s enormous popularity and the thousands of cards released over the last 25 years means that most people looking to sell cards aren’t familiar with the market. Mast recommends would-be sellers speak to an independent specialist - while most cards aren’t worth anything, the few that are can end up undervalued by a vested interest or lack of knowledge.

“If you ever have something that you think is valuable, it's always best to ask an expert,” Mast says. “Obviously do some of your own research. I would look at the numbering on the bottom, the years that are involved on the bottom - you can kind of Google those things. That will give you a little bit of an idea of what you have, even if it's not an American card. That would kind of be the start point.

“If you do think you have something of value, I would always make sure that you speak to somebody who is an expert, because I have heard stories and seen things where people have undersold things grossly. Particularly I heard about a first-edition booster box case, which is worth a lot of money, that was drastically undersold because somebody had no idea what they had.”

Not all of the cards fetching high sums are old - this 'rainbow rare' Charizard from 2017 set Burning Shadows is worth more than $3,000 in perfect nick. Image: The Pokémon Company

Not all Pokémon cards worth money date from the game’s earliest days. The game’s leap in popularity and value has meant that rare cards from recent sets have also sparked a collecting storm - sometimes with shocking consequences. Mast highlights the ‘rainbow rare’ Charizard-GX from 2017 expansion Burning Shadows as one such modern treasure; the colourful card reportedly fetches over $3,000 in perfect gem-mint condition, but is estimated to appear in only one in 3,000 booster packs.

I have heard stories and seen things where people have undersold things grossly.

“It's just more about the artwork to me with the modern stuff, because obviously they're obtainable. People really, really like the artwork, they seem to connect with the product. And for that reason, things go nuts,” he says.

“I would recommend, with the modern products, maybe giving it a little bit of time after they come out to buy them as far as the strategy [goes]. Because a lot of times the hype does build really quickly, and then it fades. What was popular in 2016 might not be popular now. It's just one of those things where if you're investing and not collecting, you don't want to be on the wrong end of that.”

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Pokémon isn’t the only trading card game that has seen cards go under the hammer for record numbers lately. Earlier this year, an autographed Black Lotus - widely considered the rarest Magic: The Gathering card of all time - sold for over $500,000, seemingly making it the most valuable TCG card ever sold at auction.

I don't see Magic: The Gathering ever overtaking Pokémon, or even being in the same breath as Pokémon.

Mast describes Magic: The Gathering as the “most hardcore following” in terms of trading card collecting, with many fans holding on to rare MTG cards to play with, rather than trade.

“I even know people that will buy graded Magic cards, crack them out of the case and play with them. We're talking totally different than Pokémon,” he says. “It is an area that I have a lot of respect for. But I don't see [Magic] ever overtaking Pokémon, or even being in the same breath as Pokémon.”

MtG Expensive and Rare card Black Lotus autographed card
A Black Lotus autographed by designer-illustrator Christopher Rush sold for over half a million dollars earlier this year, making it the most expensive Magic: The Gathering card of all time. Image: PWCC

Meanwhile, anime spin-off Yu-Gi-Oh! has a much smaller community - something Mast ascribes to a lack of marketing in comparison to Pokémon and MTG - and has been heavily affected by a large number of counterfeits, known as proxies, resulting in hesitancy around sales of valuable Yu-Gi-Oh! cards.

“We just had a Yu-Gi-Oh! Legend of Blue Eyes [White Dragon], first-edition case. Those don't exist. Maybe once every five years, they turn up. So what I did is I had the experts in Yu-Gi-Oh! come in and open it, which usually you would not do because it's unopened and it's original. But because it is something where it is highly faked and there are proxies, especially with Yu-Gi-Oh!, that is one of those things where we're on top of it, we do the best we can.”

The rising value of cards has led to a growing number of fakes for every game, including Pokémon. "I deal with counterfeits almost every day," Mast says. The increasingly elaborate attempts to con unaware buyers even extends to fake cases based on the acrylic protectors provided by card grading services such as PSA. Mast says that auction houses such as Goldin have increased their authentication process and restricted who they accept sealed items from in order to weed out increasingly convincing proxies, but admits even experts in the community have been caught out on occasion.

"You've got to got to be careful," he warns. "Because if you just go on eBay and go spend thinking you're getting a good deal on a sealed box - if it's over a couple grand and you're buying the cheapest one possible, and it's significantly cheaper - I will almost guarantee you it's fake."

The Charizard card in 2016 set XY Evolutions is visually similar to the sought-after 1999 base set version, but costs a fraction of the price. Image: The Pokémon Company

Despite the number of record-breaking sales in recent months, Mast is confident the Pokémon card bubble won’t burst. He expects cards will continue to steadily rise in value as younger players of the original games are increasingly able to invest their own money in increasingly pricey nostalgia.

“The long-term future of Pokémon is very good,” he says. “When you walk around the card shows, there's just as many kids playing with Pokémon as there are playing with sports cards. It's literally neck and neck. When I was growing up, it wasn't like that. It was all sports cards, and then Pokémon came in. And a lot of people played them. But at the same time, it was still something where sports cards were kind of still dominant. Now I would argue it's 50-50.”

When you walk around the card shows, there's just as many kids playing with Pokémon as there are playing with sports cards. It's literally neck and neck.

While celebrity fans are able to drop sums that would make most players' eyes water, meaning that certain cards will remain in the realm of super-collectors - a worrying sign for the wider accessibility of trading card game collecting - Mast insists that doesn’t leave regular fans unable to pick up their favourite Pokémon in one form or another.

“The nice thing about Pokémon is there's so many different variations,” he says. “I mean, even if you wanted a 2016 Evolutions Charizard PSA 10, that looks very similar to the base set. That's something you can kind of supplement but, at the same time, you're not getting into that realm of that first-edition PSA 10 Charizard anytime soon.”

Mast advises that the most important thing to consider when dropping cash on a Pokémon card is whether you want to have it hanging on your wall.

Investors will continue to buy and sell Pokémon cards for as long as the game commands such staggering figures. For everyone else, Mast stresses that the love of the game and its world should always come before profit when choosing what to pick up - especially when serious money is involved.

“Always look for the artwork,” he says. “If you really enjoy the artwork, that's my number one thing. Like, there's the Pokémon X Mario cards that are really cool that came out in Japan, and I love that artwork. There's even like a Pokémon Scream, like a painting mock, that they did a card work of that's really cool.

“You want to enjoy the artwork - it's something you like to look at - because ultimately you might have to stare at this thing for a little while.”

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