Rare Pokemon card attracts record-breaking $50k offers on eBay

An eBay seller of hard-to-find collectibles has posted one of the most valuable Pokemon cards in existence and it's on course to shatter trading card records.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
4 min read
Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

It's called Illustrator, and it's one of the rarest and most valuable Pokemon cards ever made. Only six are thought to exist. Now, one is up for sale on eBay for a mind-boggling $100,000.

While eBay user Scott Pratte -- a prolific seller whose two card-collecting passions include Pokemon and hockey -- is aware that his item won't likely fetch that enormous amount, he's already received a legitimate offer of $47,000. He expects to see that amount climb at least a little higher in the remaining 13 days of his auction.

"Realistically, an ungraded copy could easily earn $20,000, so I'm hoping somewhere around $50,000," he said in an interview. The term ungraded refers to cards that haven't had their condition professionally qualified by the preeminent third-party trading card grading service, Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA). Pratte has received grades for all of his rare collectibles, including the Illustrator card.

The limited Illustrator batch, which was printed in 1997, set records for trading-card sales more than a decade ago when it became one of the most expensive publicly auctioned non-sports cards in history.

"It was literally the Illustrator ... and it was a bidding auction that ended at $23,000," he said. Since then, the market for Pokemon cards has waxed and waned, but Pratte says it now sits at almost two or three times as inflated in value as it stood in the late '90s.

He's confident that his copy -- given its supreme condition and the current slew of eBay offers -- will set a new record. "It definitely will break that mark," he said.

One of the rarest cards in existence
The card has its origins in the earliest days of Pokemon, when the GameBoy game known in Japan as Pocket Monsters was initially sold through the legacy manga magazine CoroCoro. This was before a wider regional release in February 1996. That relationship between Pokemon publisher Nintendo and CoroCoro persists to this day, and the following year the magazine held a contest in which fans could send in illustrations of their favorite Pokemon for a chance to have the drawing made into a trading card.

Illustrations of fans' favorites Pokemon characters submitted to the manga magazine CoroCoro that were made into full-fledged cards. The contest also awarded its winners with the Illustrator promotional cards. Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

The Pokemon trading card game was a burgeoning new sector of the fast-growing craze that was, at that point, still confined to Japan. North America wouldn't see Pokémon Red and Blue, the first installments in the series, until September 1998, with the trading cards coming stateside shortly thereafter. That was thanks to a licensing deal with Magic the Gathering publisher Wizards of the Coast.

It's unclear how many winners CoroCoro crowned during the contest, but images of selected drawings have surfaced on the Web and it's generally understood that at least six fans had their illustrations made into cards. That number originates from the fact that each and every winner was given a specially made promotional card, the Illustrator, featuring the flagship Pokemon Pikachu with a paintbrush. Six of those exist in the world.

Scott Pratte's PSA-graded Illustrator card on sale at eBay for $100,000. Scott Pratte

Pratte happens to own the two highest-quality Illustrator cards, each holding nine out of 10 grades in the PSA rating language that became the de facto collecting standard when baseball trading cards were skyrocketing in value in the '80s and early '90s.

"When you buy a card as is, the condition can be subjective, especially on eBay because not everyone is an expert," Pratte said. "The higher the grade, the more value it has."

Pratte happens to know the grades of all the other existing Illustrator cards out there, "because I've been doing this too long," he said with a laugh. Also, his two copies are the only 9s out of 10s.

It may come as a shock to hear that Pratte has not just one, but two of the rarest Pokemon cards out there. But card collecting is more than just a hobby for him and certain cards hold special value.

"I never sell if I don't have a double," he said.

Card collecting: from hobby to career
"I grew up ... during that whole craze in the '90s when Pokemon was massive," Pratte said. When he entered college and got his hands on a little more money, he started researching on eBay and "it snowballed from there." He started with US cards, but quickly saw that the real value resided in Japanese cards, especially the limited promotional ones like the Illustrator.

"After I graduated a few years ago, I had a typical insurance job," he said. "And the eBay situation with selling cards was doing just as good as what I was getting paid." So he quit and turned to card collecting and reselling full time.

"A lot of it was a mixture of luck and research," he admitted. Pratte would peruse Japanese sites, copying and pasting Japanese characters and communicating with sellers. In fact, that was how he got his hands on the Illustrator cards.

"A few years ago when I quit that job, I was really insecure about it because I thought this could disappear at any time," he said. When he would tell people what his day job consisted of, "they would be polite and smile."

He noted that it's often a little bit crazy to think about the value put in trading cards. But as the market began to grow again and his revenue stream solidified, it became part of who he is.

"Now, they know me as the eBay seller," he said.