Anatomy of a fall: Why 2003 LeBron James Topps card is plummeting

Cllct explains how a card that sold for more than 200k in 2021 went for just over $20k this weekend

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The 2003 LeBron James Topps Chrome Refractor was a pandemic phenomenon.

The card that best signifies the pandemic bubble is the 2018 Luka Dončić Panini Prizm base.

The price of that card, in a PSA 10, rose from $200 to a height of $2,500, despite having a graded population of more than 20,000.

But there’s one card that popped during COVID that is still free-falling.

On Saturday, a 2003 LeBron James Topps Chrome Refractor, in a PSA 10, sold in Memory Lane’s auction for $21,259.

This 2003 LeBron James Topps Chrome Refractor sold for $21,259 on Saturday, a far cry from his high during the pandemic.
This 2003 LeBron James Topps Chrome Refractor sold for $21,259 on Saturday, a far cry from his high during the pandemic.

On March 6, 2021, the button was pushed on eBay to buy this LeBron card for $300,000. Whether it was paid for or not is anyone’s guess, but the card fetched a price of more than $200,000, multiple sellers confirmed to cllct.

The 2003 James Topps Chrome Refractor is a cautionary tale of the game behind the game going wrong.

When cards go up as fast as they do, there are often the more well-heeled buyers who buy many of the same cards to prop up the market.

eBay power-seller Rick Probstein, for example, gets credit for making sure the 1986 Michael Jordan Fleer rookie card in a PSA 10, didn’t fall below $140,000. Any time one of those cards could have fallen lower, Probstein swooped in as the buyer. At one time, he owned 31 PSA 10s, nearly 10 percent of the population.

What happened to this LeBron card?

“Guys ran of money,” Probstein said. “You can’t protect everything, and the main problem with this card is high-end collectors didn’t think it was worth protecting.”

When the card came out in 2003, it was a couple hundred dollars and was not taken seriously. But around 2015, collectors wanted to have something to compare LeBron to Kobe with, and Bryant had the 1996 Chrome Refractor. Right before COVID hit, the LeBron card was up to $40,000.

“I remember thinking at the time that that was a good value,” said Dave Amerman, head of revenue at Goldin.

Amerman wasn’t surprised at the rise of the card, but when it started to fall, he said he also understood.

“A lot of people made money on LeBron for the last 20 years,” Amerman said. “But there were also a lot of novice collectors who invested in him over the last four years, and they got burned, and they can’t even look at this card or maybe are out of the hobby forever.”

The plunging price has nothing to do with any massive rise in population. The LeBron Chrome Refractor has been graded only 755 times and 23 percent of those (177) are PSA 10s. Compare that to to the 1986 Jordan rookie, graded 26,715 times and 323 in PSA 10.

For one collector, who goes by “The Basketball Card Guy” on Instagram, the Chrome Refractor is just the wrong card.

“Many of us grew up wanting the Michael Jordan 1986 Fleer,” he said. “No kid dreamed of having the 2003 LeBron Chrome Refractor.”

He has a point. If there’s a LeBron chase card, it’s the 2003 Exquisite rookie patch auto.

“If guys want to invest in LeBron, they are investing in that card or the Logoman,” Probstein said. “They aren’t investing in the Chrome Refractor.”

But Probstein, as a buyer and seller, is generally concerned about LeBron.

“Jordan was a 'Republicans buy sneakers, too' guy, and LeBron is not that,” Probstein said. “He has made his voice heard, he has alienated people, and he has been polarizing. When a massive collector in Ohio, who has spent millions on LeBron all of a sudden says, ‘I’m done,’ the market feels that.”

Amerman thinks LeBron’s 2003 Chrome Refractor is a Top 100 card in the hobby and will bounce back.

“I think it’s a staple that people are going to want to have,” Amerman said.

Probstein disagrees.

“When the card fell to $80,000, there were a couple guys who won auctions whose idea it was to protect the card price,” Probstein said. “There was a bunch of non-payments. It has fallen from there. I don’t see this care booming again. It’s a sinking ship.”

Darren Rovell is the founder of and one of the country's leading reporters on the collectible market. He previously worked for ESPN, CNBC and The Action Network.