Image: Heritage Auctions
Earlier this week, a sealed, 1st Edition booster box from the Pokémon trading card game’s base set sold at auction for $360,000. This raises the very important question of whether I made a mistake in selling my First Edition Charizard on eBay for $150 when I was 11 years old, my first real interaction with capitalism.
For those unfamiliar with the ins-and-outs of the Pokemon trading card game, each box comes with 36 sealed foil packs of cards. Within each pack there are 11 cards. Cards in Pokemon’s base set, released in 1999 by Wizards of the Coast, have three different rarities: common, uncommon, and rare. In each pack there are seven common cards, three uncommon cards, and one rare card. In the rare category there are normal rare cards and then the coveted holographic rare cards. Within any given set there are “1st Edition” and “unlimited” cards. 1st Edition cards were printed in limited quantities for a limited amount of time, immediately after the set was released. You can tell they are 1st Edition because they have the words “1st Edition” stamped on the side of the card. Unlimited cards were printed in greater quantities but are not literally unlimited, because Wizards of the Coast doesn’t still print older sets (except for in specific re-releases) when it moves on to a new set.
This is all to say that 1st Edition base set cards are very valuable, because they were made for a short period of time in 1999 soon after Pokémon came to the United States but before it was a huge phenomenon and were never made again. Pokemon’s enduring popularity has made the value of these very rare cards skyrocket. The most iconic and valuable card (besides errors and misprints and special limited run promos) is a 1st Edition Charizard, which in perfect condition (as graded by a professional) can sell for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. To make matters more complicated, there are also “shadowless” versions of 1st Edition cards (which refer to the style of art of the card), which are considered more valuable than normal 1st Edition cards. Both are worth a lot of money, however.
What this booster box represents, then, is 36 chances to pull a pristine Charizard. Consolation prizes in the form of other holographic cards are also extremely valuable. The people who buy these sorts of things are often famous; the rapper Logic bought a 1st Edition Charizard card for $226,000 in October. Logan Paul bought a 1st Edition booster box for $200,000 in October, opened the cards on his YouTube channel, and ended up getting a Charizard. Good for Logan!
One thing I have personally been considering since seeing the prices of these cards is the fact that I once had a 1st Edition Charizard, way back in 1999, and that I no longer have it. I was super into Pokémon from the moment it was released in the United States, and my dad and I both collected baseball cards in the 1990s, which means that we often went to sports cards shops. I can remember the day very clearly when we went to our favorite shop one day in 1999, when I was 11 years old, and seeing that Pokemon cards existed. Using my allowance or some money I somehow had (or maybe my dad bought them for me, I have no idea), I bought a few booster packs.
They were also selling individual cards behind a glass case. A 1st Edition Charizard was $5. A 1st edition Zapdos was also $5. All the cards were 1st Edition at that point. I bought those two cards, and treasured them deeply for a year or so. In that time, Pokémon’s popularity went bananas, and I got many more cards. I eventually had four or five Charizards that I got by winning tournaments, trading, opening them in packs, etc. I no longer needed the 1st Edition Charizard, and saw that it had risen in value, according to the monthly baseball card price guide we got in the mail that had begun tracking Pokémon card prices.
Around this time I also got into “the internet,” and learned about a site called eBay. I figured that if I sold my Charizard, I could turn it into yet more Pokémon cards. And so I started my first-ever eBay auction. I was shocked and amazed that I was able to sell a piece of cardboard to a stranger across the country for $150. I could not believe when a money order came in the mail. I said goodbye to my Charizard and happily accepted my 2,900 percent return on investment. It was, by far, the most money I had ever had to that point. I spent the money on more Pokémon cards and video games.
Over the years I have watched in horror as the value of a 1st Edition Charizard has skyrocketed from that of an extremely nice dinner to that of, say, a nice house. I do not regret selling my Charizard because in many ways it helped make me who I am—it got me interested in eBay, which got me more interested in technology and the internet and how capitalism or whatever works.
Objectively, buying something for $5 and selling it for $150 one year later is a shockingly fortunate turn of events. But even at the time I felt like kind of a sellout in taking something that brought me such joy and looking at it as an investment or means to an end. I guess what I’m saying is that I am OK with the fact that I sold my Charizard but that also it would be nice to have sold it and turned it into a house if I had been a little more patient.