A $500 pack of cards? How Upper Deck's Exquisite set changed the hobby forever

Lifted by LeBron James, the 2003 basketball set ranks on "Mount Rushmore" of iconic card series

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The 2003-04 Upper Deck Exquisite set ushered in the modern era of high-end cards

The origins of the modern card market can be traced to a single moment.

It was when Upper Deck’s Karvin Cheung first saw the LeBron James “Chosen One” Sports Illustrated cover in February 2002.

Cheung had faced pressure from Upper Deck’s sales team to integrate the rookie patch autograph (RPA) into a basketball product ever since the company pioneered the concept in 2001 SP Authentic football.

“The RPA will come ... it’s just a matter of when, where, I don't know yet,” Cheung told them.

But after seeing LeBron’s face on that SI cover, Cheung had his answer: “This could be the guy.”

A case of sticker shock

Collectors have long lamented the commodification of the hobby.

Some point to the COVID-19 pandemic, when big money poured in and priced out the little guy. Maybe it was earlier, back in 2016, when Topps Transcendent was released to the tune of $25,000. Perhaps it was the advent of grading companies. Or box breakers. Or influencers. Or the over-production of “1-of-1s.”

But more than any other gripe, it’s the overpriced nature of the hobby that gets by far the most criticism.

That last complaint has been echoed for at least two decades, and never as loudly as on the day Upper Deck released its inaugural Exquisite basketball set at $500 per pack.

It would become the standard-bearer for modern sports cards.

“I think it’s one of the most important sets of all time,” said Jason Simonds, consignment director at Heritage Auctions. “There's ’52 Topps, there's the T206 set, and I don't see why 2003 Exquisite isn’t on the Mount Rushmore for most important sets of the sports collecting community.”

The Exquisite cards were sold in a high-end, lined wooden box. (credit: eBay)
The Exquisite cards were sold in a high-end, lined wooden box. (credit: eBay)

For their money, collectors received five cards nestled in an elegant, plush-lined wooden box, nearly double the price of the previously most expensive product on the market.

“If you want to buy these basketball cards, mortgage the house. Sell a kidney. Get a second job, and a third,” a reporter for The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis wrote about the price of the set.

The Philadelphia Inquirer proclaimed, “flipping sports cards has a new meaning” in its coverage of the set, assuring readers the $500 retail price was not a mistake: “There’s no decimal point there: It’s five-hundred dollars.”

Reactions in the media ranged from shocked to outraged, but generally, all agreed on one thing: Times had changed. And maybe things had changed forever.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported on the release with the headline: “Not your dad’s trading cards.”

Exquisite was far from the first expensive card product, particularly from the production floors of Upper Deck, which had burst onto the scene in 1989 with a brand new baseball set, famous for card No. 1 featuring Ken Griffey Jr.’s rookie.

Coincidentally, it was the Griffey Jr. card that originally caught the eye of Cheung, the future Exquisite creator. “What Upper Deck did was they raised the standard of what trading cards should be, and everyone else started following.”

Even though Upper Deck had already released its Ultimate Collection in 2000-01, clocking in at $100 a pack, each containing four cards and a distinct 14 card rookie checklist (six autographed), it didn’t quite capture the zeitgeist.

But even that didn’t prepare the hobby for the bombshell that came two decades ago in the form of Upper Deck 2003-04 Exquisite Basketball, the sports card equivalent of a Rolls Royce.

The product featured a base set serial numbered to no more than 225, with deluxe autographed and patch-embedded rookie cards of James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and other top prospects, limited to a scant 99.

That was just the base checklist. Base parallels such as the Gold and Rainbow were serial numbered to 25 and 1, respectively.

The result was not an immediate hit among the entrenched collector community, with some dealers telling Upper Deck they wouldn’t take on any inventory due to the high risk. Others, according to Upper Deck’s “An Exquisite History,” refused on “principle.”

'The product has to be an experience'

Cheung’s vision remained steadfast.

He was originally set on the name “UD Black.” Black was “in” at the time, according to Cheung, who cited Regis Philbin’s all-black suits worn on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and the American Express Black Card as evidence.

For one reason or another, the name wasn’t approved, giving Cheung two days to rename the upcoming set. “I went through all the trademarks and all that. I said, ‘OK, Exquisite' ... I wasn’t even in love with the name.”

Everything about the 2003-04 Exquisite set needed to be top of the line. (credit: eBay)
Everything about the 2003-04 Exquisite set needed to be top of the line. (credit: eBay)

With a name so evocative of luxury and pride, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. If it’s going to be called Exquisite, it better actually be exquisite.

The chase card was always going to be the RPA. That much was clear from the jump. But there was so much more work to be done to build a set worthy of its name.

Cheung was convinced he understood his audience better than the card-shop owners or Upper Deck executives.

“I knew all along that the basketball card consumer had less resistance toward higher price points,” Cheung explained. “I used to rip anywhere from a case to 20 cases of every product released from Fleer, Topps, Upper Deck. ... So there is no college degree to go into building training cards, but that's what I did.”

He studied the secondary market, searching for those special cards that stopped collectors dead in their tracks. The type of card so beautiful, so well-appointed, a hobbyist can’t help but say, "I want to own that card."

“The product has to be an experience,” Cheung explained. “So, when you open the product, you have to feel like every card really mattered when you opened it.”

Thicker stock cards, unique looks for each card, all autographs hard-signed. The 2003-04 Exquisite basketball product was designed to be an experience, not a pack of cards.

Details were everything and presentation was paramount. Even the smallest decisions were treated like a matter of life or death. At one point, the design team wanted to put a gray border around the card. Cheung fought tooth and nail to forbid it.

“People say collectors don’t see that kind of thing,” Cheung said. “How would you expect that I'm the only person with an eagle eye that sees these elements? It's impossible. There's no way. I'm sure other collectors see it.”

This is what Cheung came to California to do, having moved from Canada and taken a 70 percent pay cut to join Upper Deck and conceive collector-focused products.

Cheung might have had complete faith in his vision, but that didn’t mean he was without his naysayers. One moment that stands out to him was the time a card shop owner challenged him “You guys can't get a $100 pack product correct, so what makes you think that $500 will work?”

One can only wonder what they would have said if Upper Deck green lit Cheung’s original idea, which involved game-worn jerseys in every box and a $2,000 price tag.

“It separated the modern collecting community into haves and have nots,” Jason Simonds said.

An immediate hit

It didn’t take long for sentiment to shift.

In 2004, a high school junior named Nat Turner walked into Igor’s Dugout store in Houston and looked at the $600 pack in the wooden box behind the counter.

“I obviously couldn’t afford it back then, but I so vividly remember being blown away by the quality of the autos and the concept of the serial numbers,” said Turner, now the president of Collectors, the parent company of PSA, and the largest owner of Exquisite cards.

Card shops quickly began pre-selling packs before they arrived, according to Upper Deck’s director of East Coast sales Mike Phillips, who spoke to the Philadelphia Inquirer on release day in 2004.

By the time packs arrived at card shops, the writing was on the wall: Collectors were salivating. Those who could manage the $500 price tag lined up at retailers across the country with the type of blind optimism usually reserved for the Powerball.

The luxury nature of the product was more than a ploy, it was the result of an astute understanding of consumer behavior.

“Upper Deck realized that if we spend a lot of time and effort creating what truly is a beautiful product, and we spend time making it an exclusive product that has quality cards and not just filler, then we can tap into an audience that doesn't want to sift through hundreds of base cards to find that autographed card, and we'll just cut to the chase,” Simonds said. “It changed the game.”

The chase cards

Even among the premium product, one card seemed to stand above the rest: the 1/1 LeBron James/Michael Jordan Logoman.

The card featured the recently-retired Michael Jordan, pictured in his Bulls uniform rather than from his more recent stint with the Wizards.

The Michael Jordan/LeBron James Logoman card was the set's first chase card. (Credit: eBay)
The Michael Jordan/LeBron James Logoman card was the set's first chase card. (Credit: eBay)

“Up until Exquisite, every Jordan auto we had seen recently was with him on the Wizards,” Turner said. “When he retired, Exquisite brought it back to the Bulls.”

The James/Jordan Logoman was estimated to be worth more than $100,000 and became the ultimate chase card from the set.

Orlando Macias, a collector from Santa Rosa, California, was the lucky winner, having pulled the card from a pack in July. He soon placed the card, embedded with logos from both players' respective jerseys, on eBay. After the first auction ended with a non-payer, Macias tried again. This time, it ended with a high bid of $150,100, according to unverified accounts from the time.

However, that auction was never completed either, as a Fresno collector Rick Mirigian ended up acquiring the grail in a private sale.

Orlando Macias sored the first chase card in the set when he pulled the LeBron James/Michael Jordan Logoman. (Credit: Akron Beacon Journal)
Orlando Macias sored the first chase card in the set when he pulled the LeBron James/Michael Jordan Logoman. (Credit: Akron Beacon Journal)

This wasn’t the first time Mirigian made headlines during the Exquisite release, however.

In June, shortly after the set’s release, the then-27-year-old Mirigian — who had been buying and selling cards ever since he was 7, dealing Garbage Pail Kids on milk crates in front of a liquor store — received a call from his local hobby shop.

“Look, this is the most expensive stuff I've ever seen in my life and we have to pre order it. I only get action at one three box case. Do you want to buy a box?” he was asked.

It was an easy yes. “Put me down for one box,” Mirigian told him.

Soon, Mirigian was in the same shop where he had spent countless hours (and dollars) ripping sealed wax with his $500 box.

“I did the teasing routine that we all do, sliding the card left to right,” Mirigian said, describing the popular practice used by card breakers on social media to reveal pack pulls. “I saw the Lakers logo, I saw the Cavs logo … And at the time, I had no idea what was in those issues. I didn't look at a checklist. And so I'm thinking, OK, you know, I've got a Kobe potentially, or even a LeBron. Maybe it's just a game jersey, but I’m in the money somehow.”

Then, as Mirigian continued to reveal the card, he saw it was the Kobe/LeBron Logoman.

Rick Mirigian made headlines when he pulled the Kobe Bryant/LeBron James Logoman card. (Credit: Fresno Bee)
Rick Mirigian made headlines when he pulled the Kobe Bryant/LeBron James Logoman card. (Credit: Fresno Bee)

If Upper Deck measures a product’s success by media attention, then it was nothing short of a miracle one of the premier chase cards ended up in the hands of Mirigian.

“I went home and I wrote a press release, and I spammed that thing to every sports reporter, business reporter, MSNBC, anything I could find,” Mirigian said. “Fresno man unearths one-of-one grail out of the most expensive card pack.”

The media ran with it. Mirigian used the attention to his advantage, aligning an eBay auction timed with his moment of fame. The PR-savvy club owner leveraged exposure from ESPN, local news and Upper Deck to maximize his return.

“My angle was not to sell it to a collector,” Mirigian said, explaining his strategy. “The pitch was to non-collectors, and it was, ‘buy this card’, the amount of press and PR you're going to get for purchasing this card because it’s the largest modern sale will draw attention to whatever business you may be in."

Mirigian believes his non-traditional approach is responsible for the card ultimately selling for a then-record $62,100 to Kerry Bird, who told The Fresno Bee at the time that he was not a collector or even a sports fan.

“The guy that ended up buying the card was the exact person I targeted. He was a businessman that owned a chain of fitness gyms from Louisiana,” Mirigian said. “He wanted to bring attention to his business.”

As for the LeBron/Jordan Logoman bought from Macias, Mirigian sold it privately for around $60,000.

It went through a number of collections through the years, before finally ending up with Nat Turner.

Turner bought the card, graded BGS 8.5 by Beckett in January 2020, for $900,000 in a deal brokered by Goldin Auctions.

It became the most expensive basketball card or modern trading card in history (again).

Exquisite Legacy

It’s hard to ignore the money when it comes to Exquisite. After all, that $500 price tag was the big headline. But its impact and legacy goes so far beyond record sales and big flips.

“It was on another level. It was like you've been driving a Toyota your whole life, and all of a sudden someone sticks a Bentley in front of you, and you've never seen one before,” said Mirigian, who at one point owned multiple of the most valuable cards in the set. “That's what that exquisite was when you first saw it, it was like someone just dropped this fully loaded Bentley in front of you, and you never had access to see one, or even thought they existed. And it was incredible.”

For Upper Deck, it was a triumph and another notch in its belt of innovation.

“A $500 pack of cards was seen as pretty insane and pretty groundbreaking," Upper Deck president Jason Masherah said.

"High end is pretty well accepted now, but for our product to take that chance to do something super high end and different and anchored around that rookie class was was pretty amazing and pretty groundbreaking at the time."

The release remains a hallmark of the company’s history.

“Up until then, there was really nothing that cost more than $3.95 a pack and then you had this big, cool mysterious thing with an outrageous price tag,” Turner said.

While Exquisite might not have been the first premium product, it is certainly remembered as such, and, perhaps more importantly, it’s success cemented it as the pioneering set in the category.

As the company finds itself in difficult waters, having lost licensing deals for the NBA (as well as the MLB and NFL) in recent years, it’s had to find new ways to innovate while capitalizing on the strength of the Exquisite brand.

“We celebrate it on a year to year basis. We use that design for new players, and they're inserted into the Goodwin champions product every year,” Masherah explained.

Though not gone, it’s undeniable the magic of the product has fizzled. But what was once so groundbreaking two decades ago has become common practice in the industry, even if the products go by different names and are produced by different companies.

Look no further than National Treasures, Panini’s high-end product which first debuted in 2006 for the NFL and later launched for NBA cards in 2009-10. After securing the NBA license, Panini launched the inaugural National Treasures set with an undeniably familiar configuration: Base cards /99 and autographed memorabilia cards for rookies (RPAs).

“We have National Treasures and Flawless only because Exquisite came before it,” Turner said. “It gave us the first modern $1 million card in the LeBron RPA and pretty much gave us every record, too.”

Today, the RPA is National Treasure’s calling card. Logomans are a constant chase card. Base cards /99. A spiritual successor if there ever was one.

The notion of the quality of the draft class — especially LeBron's arrival — playing a huge role in Exquisite's success is likely true.

However, we have learned that as draft classes come and go, premium products seem to remain — albeit at exceedingly higher prices.

“With some of these high-end products like National Treasures or Flawless, you see $20,000 per box or $5,000 per box and can pinpoint the exact moment when the hobby changed back to 2003 Exquisite basketball.” Simonds said. “Whether that’s good or bad is another discussion. ...

"It certainly brought a lot of people and money into this hobby, but it’s polarizing because people look at that and are frustrated.”

Whether the prices of modern high-end boxes, which clocked in at $15,000 for 2022-23 Flawless FOTL basketball and $3,624.95 for National Treasures FOTL, are a result of the success of Exquisite or merely an unavoidable consequence of the industry can never be answered.

Cheung, for his part, isn’t willing to concede much to today’s brands.

“There are elements of Exquisite that you see in multiple different products But as a product of the overall experience and quality, I don't think anything matches it,” Cheung said. He points to major collectors and the sets they target as proof. “They’re all going back to collecting Exquisite.”


Whether it’s a retail pack from Target or a multi-thousand dollar hobby box, it’s never going to be a positive expected value from a financial sense.

2003 Exquisite is about as close as you can get to challenging that rule. Even an empty box — completely lacking any cards whatsoever — sells for $50 today.

Sealed boxes? On the few occasions the very scarce population of unopened original boxes sell publicly, they tend to fetch $50,000. That’s a 100x return for displaying unparalleled restraint.

Even base cards of veterans and stars often sell for more than enough to recoup the $100 needed to break even per card. Often five times as much as the entire $500 box itself.

Base cards (/225) of Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Steve Francis, graded 7s and 8s, all sold in June 2024 for prices ranging from $1,130 to $2,780.

Even rookies who had unremarkable careers, such as Luke Walton, sell for thousands in the 2003-04 Exquisite set. (credit: eBay)
Even rookies who had unremarkable careers, such as Luke Walton, sell for thousands in the 2003-04 Exquisite set. (credit: eBay)

That’s not even including rookies. RPAs can fetch thousands, even for players with unremarkable careers. Luke Walton’s rookie parallel, printed /4 (his jersey number) sold for $8.466 in 2023. The reason? It’s extremely scarce and set collectors will go to war over rare parallels from this release, regardless of the player on the card.

As for the big names, the prices are among the highest in modern card collecting.

In the pandemic, one of LeBron’s top cards — limited to his jersey number of 23 — sold for a record $5.2 million. CardLadder displays at least 15 sales of LeBron cards from this set for over $1 million.

While he dominates the top list for sales, Jordan’s Limited Logos parallel, serial numbered to /75, sold for $780,000 in July 2021. A Kobe Limited Logos sold for $360,000.

The most valuable Wade card ever sold belongs to his 2003 Exquisite RPA, which sold for $223,860 in April 2021.


There’s no question Cheung is a perfectionist to the nth degree. There are still cards from Exquisite that he can’t stand. To Cheung, even a sloppy autograph spoils his creation.

Despite the obvious passion and creativity Cheung brought to the creation of the set — which was partially inspired by Jackson Pollock — he balks at the notion he could be considered an artist.

“I know a lot of people say cards are modern day art, but I’ll never think of it as artwork. Cards are cards,” said Cheung, who comes from a family of artists. “I can’t sketch, I can’t do any of the stuff that comes from traditional art.”

Yet, even while he refuses the label of artist, it’s hard not to think of Cheung in terms of his favorite artist, Pollock. Just like Pollock, whose works were completely innovative, outside the box, yet incredibly precise and controlled, Cheung pushed the boundaries beyond what anyone believed was possible, all the while keeping tabs on even the smallest of details.

Ever since Cheung left Upper Deck in 2010, his profile among the die-hard Exquisite collectors has risen. Having had the chance to meet the people who have been collecting his cards for 20 years — truly, his fans — Cheung finds it humbling.

“At the end of the day, all those battles, it was well worth it, because I have people that appreciate my body of work. It motivates me to want to do it again.”

Will Stern is a reporter and editor for cllct.