PSA Set Registry
Collecting the 1999 Pokémon 1st Edition Gaming Card Base Set
The Series that Started It All
by Kevin Glew
You almost have to be a fire-breathing dragon to fend off competition for a 1999 Pokémon 1st Edition Charizard card (#4).
This dazzling holographic single, which highlights the extremely popular, fire-breathing Pokémon, has become the 1993 SP Derek Jeter of Pokémon cards.
"To put it into perspective, I remember reading on a forum that people were struggling to sell that Charizard card for $600 to $700 in PSA [GEM-MT] 10 in 2008, and now it's probably $4,500 to $5,000," shared Scott Pratte, a well-known Pokémon trading card expert. "The growth has been pretty significant."
Robert Hebb, who has assembled the entire 1999 Pokémon 1st Edition set in PSA 10 grade, has noticed the same trend.
"Everyone wants that card," he said. "It's definitely the most iconic Pokémon card of the set, if not all time."
But while prices for PSA 10 Charizard cards have soared, the demand for this single is nothing new.
"A lot of people, including myself, grew up in the schoolyard wanting the Charizard card," said Jason Perdue, who's just 23 and has built the registry's No. 4 Current Finest, 1999 Pokémon 1st Edition set. "I never got one [as a kid], but when I came back to the hobby 10 years later with disposable income, what card do you think I was going to go for? I wanted the Charizard."
There are several reasons why this card is so desirable. Not only was Charizard the most popular Pokémon in the Red and Blue video game released in 1998, but he was also featured on one of the 16 holographic cards in the 1st Edition Series, which were the toughest cards to pull out of the packs.
"The Charizard card, in particular, has phenomenal art," said Perdue. "He's breathing this huge flame and he just looks so menacing."
Pratte agrees and adds that this card was also one of the most powerful cards in the Pokémon Trading Card Game.
"You've already got a card that's this cool Pokémon - this fire-breathing dragon - and it has nice art and it's holographic. It also had the highest amount of HP (Hit Points) at the time for the [trading card] game, and I think it had the highest 'attack' too before the later sets were printed, so that probably helps explain why it's so popular," noted Pratte.
Of the 1,071 Charizard cards submitted, there have been 95 PSA 10s.
The Charizard is the centerpiece of the 102-card, 1999 1st Edition (Base Set) series, which was the first Pokémon issue unveiled in the U.S. This series was produced by Wizards of the Coast, a company based in Renton, Washington, and Pratte believes that the bulk of the 1st Edition cards were distributed on the U.S. West Coast. No one knows the exact number of 1st Edition cards, but it's been estimated that less 10,000 of each card was produced.
"Most people never saw the 1st Edition cards because they sold out almost overnight," said Perdue.
Pratte notes that the 1st Edition cards were only available in 11-card booster packs. Each pack contained seven common cards (including two Basic Energy cards), three uncommon cards and one rare card. In approximately one of every three packs, the rare card was a holographic card.
The 1st Edition cards could be used for the Pokémon Trading Card Game, but as noted earlier, even in 1999, kids were aware of the value of the Charizard card and most were opening booster packs to find this card rather than use the cards for the game.
But while the 1st Edition cards are tough to track down today, it should be noted that another "unlimited" version of these cards was produced in much higher quantities and is far less valuable. A 1st Edition card can be distinguished from an unlimited card by a small circular black stamp on the left (that says "Edition 1") below the character box on the front.
There's also a rare, duller colored "Shadowless" version of these cards that presents character boxes without a shadow on their right border. Pratte says the shadowless cards command more than the unlimited cards, but not as much as the 1st Edition cards.
"Their price hierarchy echoes their release: 1st Edition being first, shadowless being second and unlimited being third," explained Pratte. "Unlimited also had multiple print runs. I believe around seven in total."
The 1999 Pokémon 1st Edition booster boxes are clearly marked with the 1st Edition stamp. These have become increasingly rare and now command up to $10,000 each. Pratte says the booster packs also showcase the 1st Edition stamp and have been retailing for around $300 each.
"One of the things that some people do is weigh the packs to uncover whether there's a holographic card in there because there's a weight difference," explained Pratte. "So some people will weigh the packs and then sell the lighter packs because they don't have a holographic card in them."
Cards featuring different Pokémon lead off the 1st Edition series (#1 to #69). These cards boast yellow borders with the Pokémon's name and HP at the top above the artwork. The 1st Edition stamp, Pokémon's vitals (type, length, weight) ensue, followed by the applicable Trading Card Game information. A sentence describing the Pokémon's special abilities can also be found on the lower portion.
"The art is just phenomenal in this set, which hasn't carried through in the Pokémon sets," said Perdue. "Some of the current cards, for example, are 3D and computer generated. They have eye-catching graphics and they're going for shock value, but they're not beautiful in the same way."
Cards #70 to #95 in the 1st Edition series are Trainer cards, while #96 to #102 are Energy cards. These cards are also yellow-bordered, but they are not as detailed as the Pokémon cards (#1 to #69).
The card backs flaunt the Pokémon branding and have blue borders.
This set offers five different levels of cards that are sequenced in descending order by rarity (see accompanying chart).
The 16 holographic cards at the beginning of the set command the most interest. Next to the Charizard, the Blastoise single (#2) is the second-most coveted card. Blastoise is a ninja-turtle-esque Pokémon armed with pressurized water jets on its shell.
"He's the second-most powerful Pokémon. That's a really cool card," said Perdue. "About four years ago, I could get a PSA 10 Blastoise for about $500; now I doubt I could get one for less than $1,800 to $2,000."
Of the 501 submitted, there are 55 PSA 10s
The Venusaur is the third-most coveted holographic card (#15). Venusaur appears to be part plant, part dinosaur Pokémon that "blooms when it absorbs solar energy." Like the Charizard and Blastoise, it's popular because of its status in the Red and Blue video game. There are 66 PSA 10s of this card.
The one 1st Edition holographic card that does not command a premium is the Machamp (#8).
"Every base set Machamp has a 1st Edition stamp. There is no legally produced non-stamped Machamp card," explained Pratte. "This card was also released in a starter deck, which was readily available. To this day, there are always starter decks online."
Outside of the holographic cards, the Pikachu single (#58), which is a "common" by rarity level, is a coveted card.
"Pikachu is, perhaps, the most iconic individual Pokémon," said Perdue. "Any Pikachu related card is going to be very desirable."
Pratte notes that the most common version of this card presents Pikachu with yellow cheeks, but there's also an error version that highlights him with red cheeks.
"In the unlimited version of these cards, there's no red cheek Pikachu, but in the 1st Edition there are red cheek and yellow cheek versions," explained Pratte. "The red cheek version is a little more sought-after, but it's not one that's going to contend with the holographic cards [price-wise]."
Dipak Varsani, who has assembled the registry's No. 12 Current Finest, 1999 Pokémon 1st Edition set, says the two cards that have been difficult for him to track down in PSA 10 have been Wartotle (#42) and Lass (#75), which is a Trainer card.
"I was expecting the 16 holo foil cards to be the hardest to find in PSA 10 from this set, but as I got further into collecting, it wasn't really the case," he said. "The most difficult cards to find would have to be Wartortle and Lass. These two cards have a really low population, less than 23 of each exist at this grade [PSA 10]. Finding Wartortle and Lass in mint condition with perfect centering is extremely difficult, which is why graded PSA 10s of these cards command a premium."
The most elusive card for Hebb to track down in PSA 10 was also a Trainer card.
"For me the Devolution Spray (#72) was the last card I got," he said. "I waited just under six months before I found that card. At the time, there were only six of them available in PSA 10."
There are now 22 PSA 10s.
Pratte points out that many 1st Edition cards have condition issues straight out of the packs. He says scratching on the surfaces of the holographic cards can be a problem, as can chipping on the blue borders on the backs.
"With Pokémon cards, you don't have to worry about the sharp corners because they're all rounded," said Pratte. "They are blue-backed though, so you do see a lot of cards where there's terrible whitening or chipping [on the edges]."
This helps explain why the demand and prices for PSA MINT 9 and PSA 10 examples have increased substantially in recent years.
"Back in 2009, you could have bought the complete set for $2,500 to $3,500 in PSA 10," said Hebb. "Now the set would be valued at over $20,000. The increase in demand has definitely spiked over the past few years, and I hope it continues."
Varsani believes it will.
"My opinion is that the value will always continue to rise," he said. "Many people, like myself, were young when the set was released and could not afford to have these cards. But as we get older and start earning a living, we find ourselves in a better position to buy the cards."
Perdue shares a similar assessment.
"This is definitely the Pokémon set," he said. "I feel that when my generation comes to a point in their lives when they have disposable income, maybe between five and 10 years from now, and they're looking to recapture a piece of their childhood, they're going to come back to this set. They're going to remember wanting the Charizard card."
Jokingly, Pratte shares, "I've got a friend that says, 'The thing about Pokémon is that Pikachu is never going to do steroids.'" And there's certainly something to be said about the consistency and longevity of these characters, which ultimately helps keep it at the forefront of the non-sports market both in popularity and value.
"It's weird because there's such a strong market for this set, but it's not widely known within the sports card community," he said. "But I think that when more people in the hobby find out about Pokémon cards, they'll say, 'Wow, I didn't realize they were doing so well.'"
For more information on the 1999 Pokémon set, please visit http://www.psacard.com/cardfacts/non-sports-cards/1999-nintendo-pokemon-game/29137.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Thank you to Scott Pratte for providing cards for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of May 2016.