CINCINNATI — Dean Hanley has a collection of over 1 million sports cards and just as many smiles accompanying it.
The sports card market is hot. And there seems to be no end in sight.
"Nobody has ever seen anything like this," Hanley said. "The prices have just been increasing pretty steadily for the last -- I don't know -- five, six, seven years. And you know you're just like, 'Wow.' This stuff has really gone up. And then this last year it's just over the top."
Hanley is the founder and president of Dean's Cards, an online sports card company he has operated since 2001.
The company has an 8,500-square-foot office in Fairfax but conducts all of its sales online.
January was the best sales month ever for Dean's Cards.
Those sales included two Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) graded 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle cards, considered the premier post-World War II baseball card.
A PSA 2 Mantle went for $33,280 and a PSA 3.5 went for $63,554, according to Hanley. A PSA 3 sold in early December for $40,040.
"We've been growing 30% a year consistently for the last five years," Hanley said. "Some of these prices on these hall of fame graded cards are five, 10 times what they were a year ago."
Adam Wolter, owner of Sports Investments in Montgomery, said the popularity is from all time periods.
"The vintage cards (pre-1980) have always really dominated the market as far as demand and price," said Wolter. "Today, the modern cards are in extremely high demand, which just helps to pump up all cards from all time periods, like a snowball rolling downhill. I believe this trend is entirely due to the coronavirus. People were stuck at home and quarantined for an extended period of time and looking for something to fill that void."
No slowdown in sight
The card market continues to receive national media attention as prices reach new milestones.
"I keep waiting for the bubble to burst, but it just keeps going and does not seem to be slowing down," Wolter said.
A PSA 9 Mantle set an all-time record for an individual card when it was purchased for $5.2 million in January.
That surpassed the previous record of a reported $3.93 million for a 2009 Bowman Chrome Superfractor autographed card of Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout in August.
"Now it's kind of become a little bit mainstream where it's almost ho-hum when a card sells for a million dollars," said Sports Collectors Daily editor Rich Mueller.
"I don't know how many million-dollar card sales we've seen in the last couple months. But it's really interesting to see this end of things, and fun for me to see the interest from all around the world in something that 10 years ago was nothing like this."
The pandemic has played a factor, along with increased interest in these collectibles as legitimate investments.
"I think the other thing -- it's become more of an asset class, where the stock market is at record highs, gold is at record highs," Hanley said. "So instead of investing in art or coins or something like that, people are going with these baseball cards."
Basketball cards emerge as front-runner
Mueller, who launched Sports Collectors Daily in 2006, has noticed a steady increase in website traffic, with people paying close attention to the industry and discovering what is trending on sites like eBay.
He also has noticed growth in the basketball card market over the past 12 months.
A number of factors led to that growth, including the 2019 NBA Draft class of Zion Williamson and Ja Morant.
The tragic death of Kobe Bryant, ESPN's "The Last Dance" documentary featuring Michael Jordan and another NBA title for LeBron James last fall also placed a significant focus in 2020 on some of the NBA's most legendary players.
"I think this used to be a baseball card hobby first and foremost," Mueller said. "And now it's become a basketball card hobby. And I think that's maybe the thing that nobody would've predicted maybe 10 years ago -- that basketball drives the market."
An autographed 1997 Upper Deck Michael Jordan game-used jersey card sold for $1.44 million earlier this month. Two 1986 Fleer PSA 10 Jordan rookie cards recently sold for $738,000 each in late January.
A 2003-04 Upper Deck autographed game-used jersey card of James garnered $1.8 million in July 2020.
"I think some of this has some staying power because you're seeing a lot of people who have been looking for an outlet that's maybe a lot different than sports gambling," Mueller said. "A hobby that maybe they enjoyed when they were kids and they want to get back into it. And there are so many people that seem to be committed to it for the longer haul just for fun."
Fun is the operative word. Not everyone can bid on these rare and expensive cards and that's certainly OK, Hanley said.
At its core, collecting coincides with being a follower of a certain sport, athlete, team or era.
"People say, 'What should I collect?'" Hanley said. "Collect what you like. If it's your team or if it's a particular year or what have you. You don't have to come in at the high end of this market and invest tons and tons of money. Collect what you like and keep it simple."