When it comes to sports-related records, few can put distance between themselves and the rest of the pack quite like Wayne Gretzky. After all, even if you threw away all of his NHL-record 894 goals, his 1,963 assists would still be more than any other player’s total points.
So perhaps it’s not a surprise that a 1979 rookie card featuring The Great One recently sold at a higher price than any other NHL trading card—but the leap is stunning.
According to the auction house that brokered the sale, the card was purchased for $3.75 million in a private sale. That blows away the previous high mark for a hockey card by almost $2.5 million.
The photo for Gretzky’s rookie card was taken just weeks after he left the Indianapolis Racers, where the 17-year-old phenom played eight games (including home games at Market Square Arena) before his contract was sold to the Edmonton Oilers.
The sale price for his rookie card trumpeted Thursday by Dallas’s Heritage Auctions also puts the Gretzky card in rarefied air. Only five cards from any sport—two featuring baseball legends Honus Wagner and Mickey Mantle, one of current MLB superstar Mike Trout, and two of NBA superstars LeBron James and Luka Doncic—have ever fetched more (per Action Network).
“There are just a handful of cards out there to reach such stratospheric heights,” Heritage executive Dan Imler said in a written statement. “It’s only fitting that greatest hockey player of all time, and one of the most beloved and revered athletes of the 20th century, joins their estimable ranks.”
Gretzky’s supreme status in hockey annals is also reflected in the fact that the card that set the previous record for the sport was another version of the same item commemorating his 1979 arrival to the NHL. That card reportedly sold for $1.29 million in December, and it and the one purchased recently are the only two of their kind in prized “gem-mint” condition, creating the sort of ultra-rarity that makes well-heeled collectors want to jump the boards.
“Throughout many years of collecting, this card has always been our ‘white whale,’ ” the unidentified buyer said in a statement. “Our family is thrilled to become the new guardians of this world-class hobby treasure.”
The 1979-80 season was Gretzky’s first in the NHL, but it was his second with the Edmonton Oilers, who were folded into the league as part of an expansion agreement with the World Hockey Association, which operated from 1972 to 1979. Thus the NHL ruled at the time that the then-18-year-old was technically not a rookie and made him ineligible for the Calder trophy. Not to worry, though: Gretzky zoomed past mere rookie-of-the-year consideration by tying for the league lead with 137 points and earning MVP honors with the first of his eight straight Hart trophies.
Gretzky’s first professional games were actually played in Indianapolis with the Racers, in 1978. The Racers operated as World Hockey Association franchise from 1974 to 1978, leading the WHA in attendance in 1976-77, but folded under financial pressures 25 games into the 1978-79 season.
The Gretzky card that had set a record in December previously had sales for $94,000 in 2011 and for $465,000 in 2016, at which point only a Wagner card and a 1914 Babe Ruth card had sold for more. Gretzky himself once co-owned the Wagner card, dated to 1910 and purchased by him and former Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall for a then-record price of $451,000 in 1991.
That card, one of the coveted T206 line featuring the Pittsburgh Pirates great, quickly passed out of Gretzky’s hands and was eventually sold for $2.8 million in 2007. Another T206 Wagner card sold for $3.75 million last week, while a 1952 Mantle card jumped to the top of the heap by selling for a whopping $5.2 million in January.
The recent transactions, particularly given the leap in the Gretzky cards’ perceived value reflect how hot the market has become for high-end trading cards. In August 2020, after a one-of-a-kind Trout card sold for $3.9 million, an executive for a leading sports memorabilia auction house posited that some with wealth to spare have been looking for different investment avenues, all the more so following the massive disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think six months from now, the amount of available money to buy this [type of item] is going to be much greater than it is now,” Goldin Auctions CEO Ken Goldin said at the time, “and the supply is not increasing.”
That point about the lure of scarcity was echoed Thursday by Heritage Auctions executive Chris Ivy, who asserted that the record-setting price for the 1979 rookie card was “not surprising, considering how rare and significant this card is.”
“After all, there are only two examples,” said Ivy. “And, it’s Wayne Gretzky.”