Sotheby's, Fanatics to partner on auctions for high-end sports cards

Auctions will feature cards worth $100,000 and up, starting with Jackie Robinson 1948 Leaf card

Cover Image for Sotheby's, Fanatics to partner on auctions for high-end sports cards
Sotheby's and Fanatics hope to tell the stories behind some of the most valuable cards in the hobby. (Credit: Getty Images)

Two of the biggest names in collectibles are partnering on a new series of high-end auctions focused on trading cards worth $100,000 and more.

Fanatics and high-end auction house Sotheby’s will launch a new business together, coinciding with Fanatics rebranding its newly acquired PWCC Marketplace to Fanatics Collect.

Fanatics Collect CEO Nick Bell told cllct the goal is to “build out a high-end auction that creates these pinnacle moments around some of the best cards in the hobby.”

Since acquiring PWCC last year, one of the common questions from high-end consignors was how their cards would stand out among thousands of others across weekly and monthly auctions. Sotheby’s has the reputation of selling top-priced sports memorabilia, having recently sold a Michael Jordan game-worn NBA Finals jersey for $10.1 million, six of Jordan's game-used Finals-clinching sneakers for $8 million, six Lionel Messi-worn World Cup jerseys for $7.8 million and a game-worn Kobe Bryant jersey for $5.8 million.

The first auction between Fanatics Collect and Sotheby's will include a Jackie Robinson 1948 Leaf PSA 8. (Credit: Sotheby's)
The first auction between Fanatics Collect and Sotheby's will include a Jackie Robinson 1948 Leaf PSA 8. (Credit: Sotheby's)

In the past three years, Sotheby's has gone all in on sports, thanks to the push to acquire and sell the best of the best from the firm's head of modern collectibles, Brahm Wachter.

Wachter has used storytelling and over-the-top presentations to send the game-worn market into the stratosphere. He says he is confident he can do the same for cards.

“We thought that there was a way that we could bring cards to a museum-quality setting, which combined with our ability to tell stories, would make this offering stand out,” Wachter told cllct. “As part of this, one thing we’re planning on doing, amongst a lot of other things, is having dedicated exhibitions where we really tell the stories.

“We’re going to make beautiful settings to showcase these cards, not just as cards, but as works of art, and they’re going to be displayed alongside jewelry and watches and fine arts, and we’re going to expose our clients that are collecting those categories to trading cards.”

Sotheby's definitely has a wealthy database of clients. The question is whether those clients will want to invest in cards. The other question is whether Sotheby's can take its model of selling unique, top-of-the-line, one-of-one items and do it with sports cards that have a higher population.

Wachter says Sotheby’s has seen tremendous overlap between categories with collectors that typically focus on contemporary art or high-end watches often bidding in its NBA game-worn auctions.

Sotheby's has previously dipped its toe into the high-end card market, most famously in 1991. At an auction in March of that year, it had its first American auction featuring sports memorabilia, 70 percent of which was cards. In that sale, the auction house sold a Mickey Mantle 1952 Topps card for $49,500 and the famous T206 Honus Wagner card for a record $451,000 to Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall and Wayne Gretzky.

The Wagner, the first card graded by PSA, turned out to be trimmed and the co-organizer of the auction, Bill Mastro, eventually went to jail for shill bidding and faking items outside of what was done in Sotheby's.

Sotheby's went big again in 1999 and generated more than $20 million from the sale of some of the most precious items from famed collector Barry Halper.

Some of the items turned out to less than the best provenance, including the one that got the most attention, a Mickey Mantle glove that was bought by "61*" director Billy Crystal for $239,000. None of the gloves came with letters, and the piece was advertised as a genuine Mantle from 1960. Years later, it turned out the glove was used in Mantle's injury-riddled 1966 season.

The finger pointing from authenticators made Sotheby's take a step back on sports memorabilia overall. The auction house lacked expertise in the category and didn't want it to sully its sterling reputation.

But Wachter realized sports could not be avoided and took extra care to study provenance and establish official relationships with the likes of the NBA.

“So much has changed in terms of authentication over the years that allowed us to be much more comfortable with the category,” Wachter said.

Technology and photo-matching are two major contributors, Wachter said, in helping Sotheby’s have confidence in the sports vertical once again.

The first fruits of the partnership between Fanatics Collect and Sotheby’s will come together in September. The auction will be headlined by a Jackie Robinson 1948 Leaf in a PSA 8. Estimated to sell for between $275,000 and $350,000, the Robinson example has a population of 40, with just eight graded higher.

Sotheby's has proven itself in adding a ton of value when there is no comp, but the company has less history in a land of cards, where comps come monthly, even on the best cards.

Are there stories in cards that haven't been told? Does Sotheby's have an advantage with clientele that doesn't want its bank information with other auction houses and is willing to pay a premium for exclusivity?

Fanatics Collect marketplace, which will launch later this summer, will feature online auctions and fixed-price listings, and its partnership with Sotheby's will yield up to four physical exhibitions a year.

Fanatics Collect will take over all services previously provided by PWCC, including all auctions, vaulting and authentication through its new mobile app. Additional features to come includes peer-to-peer trading, AI-powered concierge services, card scanning and digital collectibles.

“PWCC, as it stands today, has been focused very much on the transaction aspect,” Bell said. “Fanatics Collect will be about trying to provide value for collectors at all stages of their collecting journey with a view that it creates a connected ecosystem that helps collectors with everything they want to do.”

Ben Burrows is a reporter and editor for cllct.