An Eye on the Prize
Collecting Pokémon Trophy Cards
by Kevin Glew
Twenty years ago, the top three finishers in their respective divisions at the first official Pokémon tournament in Japan were awarded limited edition Pikachu cards for their standout performances.
At the time, these winners may have felt a little underwhelmed. After all, cards are not something you hoist triumphantly in front of an audience or are likely to show off to friends and family.
But those winners won't be disappointed if they still have these cards today. In that first official Pokémon tournament, only four of each of the first-, second-, and third-place cards were reportedly distributed, and a PSA Authentic example of any of these cards would likely command $50,000 or more in today's market.
"It is probably safe to say that nobody at those early tournaments knew that there would be a market for these [trophy] cards, especially in Japan," explained Scott Pratte, a well-known Pokémon trading card expert. "They probably just thought the card was a nice gesture but never imagined that they were going to be valuable one day."
The cards awarded at that 1997 tournament were the first - and now most desirable - Pokémon trophy cards. Trophy cards are low-print cards that are presented exclusively to tournament winners in lieu of or in addition to a trophy or cash prize. The most valuable trophy cards are generally "Trainer" cards, which are printed in quantities of less than 100 and presented to the first-, second-, and third-place finishers in different age divisions in the Trading Card Game (TCG) and video game categories at official Pokémon competitions.
Not surprisingly, trophy cards handed out at the major tournaments, such as the annual World Championship, are the most coveted, with earlier Japanese cards (1997 to 1999) being especially desirable.
First-place cards tend to command a premium because on top of being the most prestigious, they're also the least likely to be sold by their owners. But with that said, almost every trophy card from the major tournaments are rare and valuable.
So how do you go about building a collection of Pokémon trophy cards?
Well, it's not easy, because not only do these cards have very low print runs, collectors also have to convince the recipients to sell them. Pratte often goes to tournaments to try to buy the cards in person. In his experience, Japanese winners are less likely to part with the trophy cards than American sellers.
"Typically the video game winners are more likely to sell because they don't have an attachment to the physical card," noted Pratte.
The veteran hobbyist says that because trophy cards are so limited, it's difficult to have a specific focus when collecting them. For example, it's virtually impossible to amass a complete run of trophy cards from every World Championship tournament.
"A lot of these cards basically disappear," said Pratte. "Realistically, the actual award number produced is not going to reflect the number that's going to be available for sale."
As noted earlier, the most desirable trophy cards are the 1997 Pikachu singles, which were the first trophy cards ever awarded at the official Pokémon tournament in Japan. Pratte has received offers exceeding $100,000 for his three-card, PSA-graded set that includes two PSA MINT 9s and a PSA NM-MT 8.
"These cards were only awarded at the first official Pokémon tournament in Japan, and according to documentation from that tournament, four copies of each were awarded to the first-, second-, and third-place winners," noted Pratte.
These are Trainer cards and their design appeals to advanced Pokémon collectors. The artwork was created by legendary illustrator Mitsuhiro Arita.
"The artwork was hand drawn and water colored - artistic techniques that were clearly indicative of the times," explained Pratte. "In the mid-1990s, you didn't have the graphic design options that are available today, which kind of puts the 1997 Pikachu trophy cards in a time capsule. And this, I think, solidifies them as a historical collectible beyond just pop culture, because they really captured the 1990s."
The first-place card boasts a gold holographic background behind Pikachu, while the second-place single offers a silver background and the third a bronze background. Like many of the rarest, high-end Pokémon cards, these cards boast the Pocket Monsters logo and two stars (indicating double-star rarity) on the bottom-right corner. Pratte says these cards are difficult to find in pristine grade.
"I have examples where there is no whitening or chipping whatsoever [of the holographic backgrounds]; they were not handled at all, but they were terribly off-center," he said.
In most cases, the first-place trophy cards garner a premium, but Pratte says the third-place, 1997 Pikachu trophy card is particularly sought after.
"Numerous collectors want the No. 3 card just because of the artwork on it," says Pratte. They just seem to be attracted to the little chubby Pikachu image featured on this card, he adds.
The veteran collector also notes that two sets of 1998 Pikachu trophy cards employing the same artwork were handed out at Japanese tournaments. These cards are more common than the 1997 Pikachu trophy cards.
"I think the last 1998 release had somewhere between 15 and 30 total copies awarded, which is significantly higher than the four given out at the 1997 tournament," noted Pratte.
The last line of the Japanese text on the 1998 cards is different from that of the 1997 singles. The 1998 cards are worth less but still have significant value.
"A 1998 trophy card should earn $10,000 minimum if graded," said Pratte.
The three-card set of 1999 Secret Super Battle (SSB) Mewtwo cards represents another highly-coveted trophy card issue. These were awarded to the first-, second-, and third-place finishers at a tournament in Japan. Pratte has heard that only nine to 18 of these cards were manufactured in total. He owns a three-card set in which the first and second Trainer cards have been graded PSA GEM-MT 10s, while the third is a PSA 8.
"I've been offered five figures for each of the cards, but I don't plan on selling them," he said.
Aside from their rarity, these cards are also in high demand because they picture Mewtwo (a very popular Pokémon figure) and rank as the rarest Mewtwo cards ever issued. These cards also showcase an innovative design in which only the Mewtwo is holographic. To its right is the Pocket Monsters Trading Card logo that's gold on the first-place card, silver on the second-place single, and bronze on the third. The tournament's name ("Secret Super Battle") is emblazoned below the Pocket Monsters logo. Pratte says these are generally found with better centering than the 1997 Pikachu trophy cards. Just 12 of the three cards in total have been submitted to PSA and there are 10 PSA 10s.
Rounding out the "Big Three" Pokémon trophy card sets is the 1999 Tropical Mega Battle (TMB) series. Reportedly released in Japan and produced in similar quantities as the SSB cards, the TMB singles are Trainer cards that feature Exeggutor in a tropical scene with a holographic rainbow-like arc in the background that's gold on the first-place card, silver on the second-place single, and bronze on the third.
The PSA Population Report indicates that these are more difficult to obtain in pristine grade than the SSB cards. Just four of the 11 examples of the three TMB trophy cards submitted have been deemed PSA 10s.
The most famous single trophy card is the 1998 Pikachu Illustrator card. In 2011, Pratte landed a sharp, ungraded example of this card, which is widely regarded as the "Honus Wagner" of Pokémon cards. This rare single was awarded to winners of the CoroCoro Comic Illustration contest in Japan in January 1998. Pratte says only 20 to 39 copies were handed out, but far fewer have surfaced for sale. The savvy collector submitted his card to PSA and it became the first example to receive a PSA 9 grade.
In September 2013, Pratte made international headlines when he listed another PSA 9 of the 1998 Pikachu Illustrator card for $100,000 or Best Offer on eBay. He fielded over 430 offers for it and eventually sold it for $50,000. In all, Pratte has owned four PSA 9 examples of this card and has sold them for as much as $60,000.
A pricing tier down from the 1998 Pikachu Illustrator and the "Big Three" trophy card sets is the 1998 Kangaskhan trophy card. These cards were awarded solely at a parent/child tournament held in Japan in May 1998 to teams that reportedly won six rounds. Pratte estimates that somewhere in the low 100s were awarded, but nowhere near that number have surfaced for sale.
"There are maybe 30 or 40 of these that we have seen on the market in total," said Pratte.
In keeping with the parent/child theme, these cards featured a Pokémon named Kangaskhan, which is a kangaroo-like Pokémon that has a baby in its pouch. The artwork was done by legendary illustrator Ken Sugimori.
"It has great eye appeal," said Pratte. "And although it's not at the level of the 'Big Three' trophy cards in terms of rarity and value, it does rank right below them - the next level down. I can see a PSA 10 example easily earning five figures. A lot of collectors consider it their favorite card due to its exclusivity - it was only released in one instance."
Another highly sought-after set of trophy cards was distributed at the 2002 Battle Road competition in Japan, which is a regional qualifying tournament for the World Championship. These were also Trainer cards and the character featured resembles Ash Ketchum from the TV series. The first-place cards present the Ketchum-like character with a gold medal around his neck with six Pokémon in the background; the second-place single showcases a silver medal and includes four Pokémon in the background; and the third-place card has a bronze medal and two Pokémon in the background. These were also the first trophy cards to have the winners' names printed on them. Pratte estimates that under 100 of these were distributed.
"I think the value of these may be pretty close to the original [1997 Pikachu] trophy cards," said Pratte.
Pratte also points out that the 2014 Pikachu Full Art trophy cards are in high demand. This is a set of four English Trainer cards presented to winners of the Pokémon World Championship tournament in Washington, D.C. that year. The top four finishers in both the TCG and video game categories, which each had three age divisions, received these cards. Reports indicate that six copies in total were awarded of each.
Pratte says these were the first full Pikachu artwork trophy cards. The first-place card has a gold border, the second has a silver border, and the third- and fourth-place cards have bronze borders.
"The cards possess a full art design, and it's really the only full art design [trophy card] that I can think of. Plus, it has Pikachu holding the trophy for first, second, or third respectively, so it's one of the best English releases," shares Pratte. "These are very popular because of their extreme rarity and also because they really hit a wider audience. A lot of people just appreciate the full artwork on these more than the previous trophy cards awarded at the World Championship tournament."
Pratte notes that the first-place card is typically the most valuable, while the third- and fourth-place cards repeat artwork and are less desirable.
"I've turned down multiple $10,000-plus offers on my [PSA 10] No. 1 Trainer," said Pratte.
He points out that English trophy cards, such as the 2014 Pikachu Full Art singles, are also typically more difficult to uncover in high grade.
"If you can attain a PSA 9 or PSA 10 of these English trophy cards, you'll get a premium for them because there's such a large group buying high-grade English cards," said Pratte. "The [2014 Pikachu] Full Art cards are only three years old, but I think each card would easily be a five-figure item."
So it's clear that Pokémon trophy cards have become very valuable and Pratte strongly recommends that collectors have them graded by PSA.
"I would say have them graded for preservation and authenticity. There's no reason not to have your trophy cards graded," said Pratte. "I had all of mine in personal cases, but all of them are in PSA cases now because the protection is so much better."
Though many of them fetch five-figure sums, trophy cards have not spiked in value at the same pace as early 1st Edition Pokémon cards with larger print runs, but Pratte says this is largely because many collectors are just beginning to learn about trophy cards.
"I think trophy cards are some of the most historically significant items in the hobby because of their exclusivity, rarity, and the manner in which they were released," he said. "They have so much uniqueness behind their release, whereas a set card, in contrast, is printed in the thousands and sold to the general public. As long as a market exists for Pokémon, I think trophy cards are always going to hold their value."
For more information on Pokémon cards, please visit https://www.psacard.com/cardfacts/#7non-sports-cards.