Despite the astonishing success of the 2016 augmented reality mobile app Pokemon Go, there’s still something special about expanding your Pokemon collection the old-fashioned way. Pokemon cards have been around since 1996 and, unlike the mobile game, they’ve never really gone out of style.
One could even say that their value can only increase over time. But what are the rarest and most expensive cards you might find on the market?
First: a Brief Pokemon History Lesson
Pokemon is an indisputably popular Japanese export that’s been around in one way or another since 1995. The franchise started with a couple of now-iconic Game Boy video games. Soon thereafter, the charming creatures made the transition to anime series and films — with the notable recent addition of the live-action Detective Pikachu movie.
The Pokemon trading card game was published relatively quickly after the original video games. In 1996, the first deck came out and the others followed suit. In total, there are upwards of 74 sets that were released in the US and around 70 in Japan. But with all those cards on the table, how can you know what’s rare and what’s not?
Identifying Rare Cards
Thankfully, there’s a fairly simple way to identify which of your Pokemon cards are rare. Generally, common cards have a black circle symbol in the bottom right corner. Uncommon ones have a diamond shape, and rare ones have a star in the corner.
Of course, even common cards may be worth something if they’re from a really old set. You’ll find the release date in the fine print at the very bottom of each card.
Another great indicator of the rarity of a card would be the sparkly, color-shifting finish it has. Holo cards have that shiny foil over the Pokemon artwork, while Reverse Holo ones have it all around the artwork. These cards are gorgeous, of course — but you’ll need more proof that the ones you have are rare!
Moreover, even if you establish that your cards are valuable, you’ll still need to check their condition. You’ll be able to sell the card for a higher price if it’s in pristine condition. And, of course, these are the same considerations you should have as a buyer.
Play to Win: Learn the Card Grading Standards
If you want to become a serious card collector, you’ll have to familiarize yourself with Professional Sports Authenticator regulations. PSA is the most popular third-party card authentication and grading company in the world. If you buy your Pokemon cards from trustworthy vendors, they’ll come in neat plastic cases complete with a PSA label on top.
On the left side of the label, you’ll find the name of the character represented on the card or the deck the card came from. But all the really important stuff is on the right. Mostly, you’ll want to pay attention to the numerical grade the card has received. If you’re looking for the best of the best, you should stick to cards with the following grades:
• GEM-MT 10, meaning that it’s in nearly perfect condition, with bright colors, sharp corners, and full original gloss
• MINT 9, which still implies that the card only has small errors, which can be the result of the printing process
• NM-MT 8, which represents cards that are in fairly good condition with only a few imperfections
• NM 7, which stands for near mint, so there may be some signs of wear and tear on the surface of the card, such as a lack of focus
On the other hand, if you don’t mind owning cards that have a more visibly vintage look, you can get cards that are graded in the Excellent range, with a numerical value of 4–6. But since Pokemon cards are a fairly recent phenomenon, you shouldn’t settle for anything less than that. These cards shouldn’t have the same look and feel as 1950s baseball collectibles.
If you do settle for a card with a lesser grade, you may not be able to tell exactly what’s wrong with it just by looking at the card posting. However, the PSA label may contain a qualifier in brackets next to the numerical grade. For example, it might say OC for off-center borders, ST for stains, PD for print defects, and OF for out of focus artwork.
Of course, the prices of the Pokemon cards featured on the list below will reflect those in the highest-rated category. So the people who pay thousands of dollars for limited edition cards are getting pristine items!
Gotta Catch Them All! 8 Rarest Pokemon Cards
1. 20th Anniversary Gold Pikachu
The 20th Anniversary Gold Pikachu card may not have vintage vibes like the others on this list. However, it’s still one of the rarest Pokemon cards you might come across.
This card is a 2018 reprint of the original Pikachu card from the very first deck, with one big difference. This one has a Reverse Holo background of sorts. However, instead of holographic foil, the surface of the card was covered with 11 grams of 24-karat gold.
Poor Pikachu looks nothing like the one you know and love, but he still packs a strong punch. Similarly, the card can deliver a strong hit to your bank account. The cast originally cost $2,000, but it’ll only get more valuable with age.
2. Master’s Key
Like many of the rarest Pokemon cards, the holographic Master’s Key was originally made to be a prize. There were only 34 of these cards, to begin with, and they were all handed off to the winners of the 2010 tournament in Japan. A full decade later, nine have the coveted GEM MT 10 PSA rating — and even that number is debatable.
Still, one of these cards would fetch a pretty penny even with a lesser rating. For example, an 8.5 PSA Master’s Key was sold for almost $10,000.
3. Tropical Mega Battle Psyduck
If you happen upon a Tropical Mega Battle card, it’ll probably be in the same price range as the previous card on this list. You’d think they’d cost more, considering only ten or so of these cards were ever made.
Before the Pokemon World Championships started picking up speed, there were several smaller Pokemon trading card tournaments. The Tropical Mega Battle tournament in Hawaii was one such event. Only 50 players showed up to the 1999 event — and only 12 went home with one of these cards. Since then, they have been one of the most coveted collector’s items on the market.
The charming artwork shows a Psyduck sleeping in a hammock in a tropical paradise, with the title “trainer” above it. The main text below the artwork is in Japanese, and the rest of the card design is fairly inconspicuous.
Yet despite the card’s non-threatening appearance, it could still rob you of your savings. The last time a mint condition Tropical Mega Battle card was sold, it cost $10,000.
4. 1999 First Edition Shadowless Holographic Charizard
Most people adore Charizard in all his various forms — but this card shows him in all his glory! If you were a kid in the early aughts, you may recognize this card. However, it may not be exactly how you remember it.
You see, the shadowless holographic Charizard only came with the early versions of the first edition decks. Later, the manufacturer decided to tweak its design ever so slightly, ensuring that the original version would forevermore be at the top of all collector’s wishlists!
Generally, a Shadowless Holographic Charizard in perfect condition might sell for about $12,000. It has been sold before for much less than that, around $1,300. Most recently, though, one of them changed hands for a cool $183,812. That card’s new owner is none other than rapper Logic, who ended up paying $226,000 for it when you take into account the 20% buyer’s premium.
5. Pikachu Illustrator
The Pikachu Illustrator card may be one of the rarest Pokemon cards ever. The promotional cards went to 39 lucky winners of the 1998 illustration contest hosted by the Japanese magazine CoroCoro.
The main reason for Pokemon fans’ obsession with these cards doesn’t have much to do with the fact that so few of them exist. They’re unique because the designer replaced the title “trainer” with the word “illustrator,” to honor the winners of the aforementioned contest. The cost of this card ranges wildly, from $54,000 to almost $200,000.
6. CoroCoro Pokemon Snap Cards
Like the previous card on this list, the Pokemon snap cards were prizes in another CoroCoro contest. The competition challenged young Pokemon lovers to try their hand at the Nintendo 64 Pokemon Snap game. Each of the five winners received the photos they’d taken, immortalized as Pokemon cards.
Originally, there were a total of a hundred of these cards, though no one knows how many remain. Because of the limited run and unique backstory of these cards, most collectors would love to get their hands on one of them. However, the last time that happened, it cost the buyer almost $16,000.
7. Pikachu Trainer Cards
Most Pokemon fanatics know that the No. 1 Trainer is the rarest trading card of all time. But not all of them realize that the card was part of an equally rare set!
The three cards featured artwork that showed Pikachus holding gold, silver, or bronze trophies. Appropriately, the recipients of these cards were the first, second, and third place winners of the first official Pokemon tournament in Japan. As it goes, people who had one of these cards would automatically gain entry into future competitions.
The original first place card from the 1997 tournament could easily sell for $50,000 today. Sadly, those cards don’t get around much, so you may have to make do with the 1998 version of the set. In 2011, just one of those was sold for $8,000.
8. Pre-Release Raichu
Lastly, let’s talk about a run of Pokemon cards that are so rare, they’re almost a myth! According to some people, these Raichu cards were just a faulty print preview of the Jungle series deck. Depending on who you ask, the original run either numbered three in total or one hundred.
But even those who believe that there were a hundred or more of these cards claim that only ten remain.
Unfortunately, you’ll probably never catch one of these in the wild. Even if you do, you’ll have to shell out some serious cash for it, to the tune of $10,000 or more.
Which Pokemon Cards Would You Choose?
Obviously, not everyone can scrounge up enough couch change to purchase one of the Pokemon cards on this list. Still, isn’t it interesting to see what makes some of these absurdly expensive collector’s items so valuable? It’s not an anime or a video game that holds everything together, it’s the story behind each of the cards! Fans simply want a piece of that history — can you blame them?