I originally collected Pokemon cards as a kid during the boom of 1999, before returning to collecting in 2009 once I had some disposable income and started to learn about graded cards. Since 2009, I’ve been fortunate enough to have made many good investments, but I’ve also made some poor decisions along the way. I’ve learned some important lessons over that time, and I have condensed those lessons into the following rules.
7 Rules That Will Help Collectors Make Smart Decisions
1 - Trust your gut. In 2009, $700 was a very meaningful amount of money for me (not that it isn’t still). So spending $700 on a single card (a PSA 10 1st edition Base Set Charizard) seemed like madness. And yet… I remembered what a big deal Charizard was for every single 90s kid. I truly believed that within that population of millions upon millions, some of those kids would grow up, earn some money, and have a desire to recapture some bit of their childhood essence. I felt this would happen because I was one of those kids, and I believed I couldn’t be alone. The bottom line here is that I had to trust my gut over the advice that other people were giving me. Back then, I made threads on forums asking people for their opinion as to whether or not I “should” spend $700 on a Pokemon card. At best the advice was mixed. And surely if I had asked anyone in my personal life, they would have scoffed at the suggestion. But ultimately I trusted my gut and purchased that Charizard and many other 1st edition base set cards that year, and it has paid off in a huge way.
2 - Understand Independent Value vs Set Value. Some cards have great value independently (Pikachu Illustrator). Other cards have value only as part of a set (Base Set Item Finder). And some cards have value both independently and as part of a set (Base Set Pikachu). This is a simple concept but it goes a long way towards making smart decisions as a collector.
3 - If a card’s price does not make sense, the market will eventually correct. What do I mean by a price “making sense?” It’s an inexact science, but broadly speaking you should be at least vaguely aware of a card’s true supply and demand. Most market inefficiencies are subtle, but occasionally they can become severe. For example, a few months ago a PSA 10 1st edition Wartortle (with a pop of 24) sold for around $1000. Around the same time, a PSA 10 1st edition Growlithe (with a pop of 25) sold for around $200. Certainly, one has to consider that Wartortle has more independent value or even more set value (because some collectors who are not interested in the entire Base Set may still be interested in collecting just the 9 cards associated with the Generation 1 starters). But while these variables may indeed account for some of the difference in price, a wise collector would realize that the bulk of the value of these two cards is connected specifically to their set value as part of the complete 1st edition Base Set. Since both the Wartortle and the Growlithe had a nearly identical supply, it stands to reason that the market value of these cards should be somewhat similar. As a collector, you want to be buying those Growlithes, but holding off on those Wartortles until there is a market correction. To back the point, the most recent market value of the cards has shown that’s exactly what happened, as the value of Wartortle fell off and the value of Growlithe rose to the point that the two cards are now priced similarly.
4 - Always be aware of a card’s TRUE supply. We all know that a card’s long-term value will be tied to the supply and demand of the card. Yet as the Wartortle/Growlithe case demonstrates, people are probably not always as aware of population reports as they should be. A card’s population report is a living, breathing thing, and it needs to be monitored as a physician monitors the health of their patient. Additionally, a card’s population report is not always representative of a card’s true availability. I learned this the hard a few months ago. At the time, I noticed that the PSA 10 population of 1st edition Jungle cards was extremely low. My gut instinct told me that these cards would always have high demand (being one of the three sets needed to complete the original 151 Pokemon cards) and combined with the low population I figured there was a market opportunity in buying some Jungle boxes and grading the cards within. However, I ignored that a large number of 1st edition Jungle booster boxes were being sold. This was an indication that even if other people didn’t have exactly the same idea I had (which they did), there was certainly a large supply of unopened Jungle boxes out there just waiting to be opened. Essentially, the market was waiting to correct itself. As the prices of Jungle cards did, in fact, start to spike, the market suddenly became flooded with newly graded PSA 10 1st edition Jungle cards, and the prices soon fell dramatically. Overall, my efforts were wasted, and I lost a fair bit of money on this proposition. While the opportunity still exists for Jungle cards to recuperate their value (I do believe my gut instinct about the demand for the cards was proven right), the cards will not reach their heights from several months ago until Jungle booster boxes stop being sold with such great frequency.
One more point on this, but the importance of this lesson cannot be underestimated. I reiterate - a card’s population report is not always representative of a card’s true availability. I’ll use one more example to demonstrate the importance of this lesson. In late 2016, the PSA population of Nidoking was 60, while the PSA population of Lass was sitting at 19. As interest in obtaining a complete 103-card 1st edition Base Set began to surge, the value of Lass and other Trainer cards with low pops started to increase exponentially. Lass reached heights of $2,000while many of the actual holos in the set remained under $1,000. The problem here was that some buyers were not recognizing the true supply of these cards (in the long run). For starters, this would require recognizing that all non-holo rares in the Base Set were printed with double the frequency as the holos. The only reason for the disparity in the population report is that for a long time people did not think it was worth grading the non-holos. So, as new boxes were opened, new Lasses started to appear with twice the frequency of new Nidokings (and this time the Lasses were not neglected). Additionally, while the pool of ungraded gem mint Nidokings just sitting in random collections had already long since drained into the PSA population, that was not the case with Lass. The market corrected itself. And while there hasn’t been much change in the Nidoking population, the Lass population has more than doubled in less than a year. The tables have turned and now the last Lass sold for well under $1000 while the last Nidoking sold for $2000. I believe these trends are likely to continue. A card like Lass can sustain high values for a fairly extended period of time simply on the basis of recent Sold Listings, but ultimately the market corrects, as the holos reassert themselves as the dominant cards of the Base Set. (Note: On the flip side, as the population of loose gem mint Trainers spills into the PSA population, their huge population growth will eventually slow down. Ultimately the rarer ones will still be very valuable, just not on the same planet as the holos)
5 - Stay Patient. This is pretty straightforward - patience is essential in this hobby. Why did the Lass originally sell for $2000 in the first place? Because a collector who wanted to complete the PSA 10 1st edition Base Set was probably feeling impatient in their quest and felt that, with a population of under 20, it would be a long while before they had another opportunity to purchase a Lass. As I have explained, it stood to reason that the price of the Lass was not reflective of its true supply, therefore a patient approach would have led to a much better deal for the buyer. And of course, patience is helpful across the board. Sometimes cards are simply not available at reasonable price points. It may take quite a while to find the card you want at the price you want, and that requires a lot of patience, not to mention constant monitoring of the desired card (I use eBay email alerts for this purpose which allows me to monitor the market without spending too much time perusing eBay).
6 - Be Ready to Pounce. Know what you’re willing to pay for a card, and be ready to buy the card as soon as it becomes available at that price. While it may be worth trying to haggle a price down in some cases (if a card is right on the edge of what you are willing to pay for it), if a card’s price is truly in your zone, just buy it. If you find the price is right, there’s a pretty good chance someone else will too. Ultimately, you’ll regret missing out on the card you wanted for a reasonable price more than you will regret not having tried to haggle the price down a bit more. The rarer the card, the more important this becomes.
7 - Don’t be afraid to be the buyer who sets a new all-time high price for a card. This may be the hardest lesson for some people to learn, the one that goes against one’s instincts and sense of safety. It’s okay to take the plunge and pay more for a card than anyone has paid before. Yes, humans are mournful, sorrowful creatures. Someone who had the opportunity to buy a PSA 10 1st edition Blastoise a number of years ago for $200 may be reluctant to buy one for $1000 because of their lament for their previously missed opportunity… and when the card goes up to $2000 they may pass yet again because the painful memories of having not purchased the card for $1000… but before they can blink that card’s going up to $6500. Sometimes, paying the most anyone has ever paid for a card may be the best deal anyone is ever going to get for that card again. About a year ago, I set a new record price for the PSA 10 Trophy Kangaskhan in a big way, and I think it was one of the best decisions I’ve made as a collector. So, going back to rule #1, trust your gut. If you back that up with due diligence and a little reason, you’ll probably have more hits than misses in your collecting endeavors.