Pokémon cards are hot again, now that Charizard can make you rich

When Twitter user Vidya Research was a kid, he did what you’re supposed to do with collectibles: wrap them up so they’re kept safe. His dad traveled with the Air Force, and every so often he’d send back a pristine holographic-foil Charizard card from overseas. All of these went into a metal lockbox that stayed with Vidya, even as he moved houses.

Fast-forward to 2020. He’s still got the lockbox from his childhood, but there’s a big problem. “I couldn’t remember the code for the life of me,” Vidya recalled to Polygon in a Twitter message. But he was determined to get in there, given the Pokémon gold rush that is booming right now.

YouTuber Logan Paul has made headlines after buying a Charizard card for $150,000 from a collector who swears that even Justin Bieber is hounding him to buy those very same cards. Rapper Logic, meanwhile, recently shelled out $183,000 for an old-school Charizard card. The thirst for Pokémon cards is so high, one group was willing to pay $375,000 this year for an unopened box of old trading cards. While the transaction turned out to be a hoax, the fact anyone would go through the trouble of making fake Pokémon cards — or spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for a chance at a rare Charizard card — is emblematic of a larger trend in nerd spaces right now.

Everyone is into Pokémon cards again — or at least, into the idea that they could make a good buck out of them. I recently called my mom up to see if there was a chance we might still have that giant bag of Pokémon cards I started collecting over a decade ago, when the Japanese monster-catching series first blew up in the states. We have no idea where this stash might be now, or if we still have it, but still: We’re looking.

While collecting anything always comes with the distant promise of one day having an asset that has appreciated in cost, the sheer ubiquity of old Pokémon cards made it easy to be careless with them as well. I never took the extra step of putting my cards in sleeves or binders, nor did I try and keep track of my cards. Based on conversations with dozens of fans who at one point owned Pokémon cards, I’m hardly alone in this.

Some are still sifting through stuff, with no clue where their old collection might have gone. Did they give the cards away? Throw them out? An incredible number of people Polygon spoke to recently are kicking themselves right now, because they can remember the exact moment a fortune might have slipped out of their hands.

“I gave them away years ago and I don’t want to hear about my non-existent children’s nonexistent college fund,” Twitter user Matthew told Polygon.

So, what is it that people are looking for? While there are a variety of different desirable cards at different price points — including newer cards — perhaps the most coveted types of cards are “shadowless.” The term refers to early printings of Pokémon cards with no drop shadow propping up the artwork. These, along with first-edition cards, are what folks want the most right now.

To wit: Google searches for Pokémon cards, and Charizard card prices in particular, have gone up dramatically this year. Derek, a worker at a comics and games shop in Pleasanton, tells Polygon that over the last couple of months, foot traffic has increased as people come in and try and figure out what their cards are worth. The shop had to train its workers to appraise the cards. Sometimes it’s a matter of finding out what a good price tag might be. Other times, clients don’t want to go through the trouble of selling on eBay or other online options. Certified stores will do all that work for you, in exchange for a cut of the eventual sale.

“People have been coming in and buying a lot of the old sets: Base set, first edition, fossil, jungle,” says Derek. Should a card turn out to be worth something, knowledgeable folks like Derek can then send the cards to get graded, which can help increase the total value of the card, depending on its condition (Ten is the highest rank a card can get.) After the collectibles are ranked and assigned a serial number meant to track the card, the card gets sealed to preserve its value. The process “can double the value of cards ungraded,” Derek says.

Having a well-preserved card is not always enough to command a good price, however.

“Cards can even be gem mint or pack fresh and [appraisers] can give them [an imperfect score] for not being centered enough or the corners not being cut correctly,” Derek says. Minor imperfections that are not obvious to the casual observer can mean the difference between having a worthless cardboard rectangle versus owning a valuable asset.

But it’s not all about ancient cards that might be gathering dust in someone’s attic. Charizard cards released in 2020 are in demand these days, too.

“Right now the Charizard VMAX Rainbow goes for about $350 or more,” says Eric Doty, CEO of Loupe, an app where people sell sports cards and other collectibles. According to Doty, there’s been an uptick in people using Loupe to buy and sell Charizard cards. “The Shiny Charizard V goes for $200-350ish on eBay. A graded card, especially rated 9.5 or 10 can go for over $1,000.”

Part of what’s driving the frenzy is the advent of YouTube and Twitch, where opening old boxes of cards becomes a spectacle for viewers. Many can’t help but get swept up in the chatter. One Twitter user told Polygon that their social media timeline was lit up with people suddenly talking about Pokémon cards, or people who were livestreaming their card openings. Seeing the excitement around it made them wonder what their cards are worth now. But that’s a question that won’t get answered until they can actually find their old cards, a conundrum that seems to be plaguing many casual collectors.

Sometimes, it happens almost by accident. Games journalist Sam Greszes (who has written for Polygon) was recently packing up for a move, when he stumbled on an old stash that his girlfriend had amassed a while back. So, he figured, why not look them up? Greszes used TGCPlayer, an online marketplace that can appraise cards, and found out that the answer was not much — or at least, not enough to warrant getting rid of something that still holds pleasant memories.

“The nostalgia factor is worth more than the $20 the cards are,” Greszes told Polygon over Twitter.

While most people aren’t walking away with bags of money, many seem happy to just have an excuse to indulge and share a childhood joy with others who grew up on pocket monsters, too.

“I was very into Pokémon as a kid, and grew out of it like most,” says Twitter user Brian Redmon. “The recent popularity of the cards and crazy prices is what intrigued me, but I have got back into more for the nostalgia than the prices.”

But perhaps it’s easy to say that when you happen to find a card worth $1,000 laying around.

As for Vidya Research’s plight, he did, eventually, open up the lock box. Luckily, his dad — who always figured the cards might end up being worth something — remembered the code, because of course he did.

The saga “took forever,” he told Polygon over Twitter messages. In the end, some of his cards were allegedly worth a few hundred dollars. But, he’s not running to cash out just yet. Maybe he’ll donate them. Or maybe he’ll do as his dad once did.

“Now I have a daughter that loves Nintendo,” he said, noting that she is currently three years old. “She might get into Pokémon at some point, so I guess it’s a good thing they’re still sitting around.”

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