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Sunday, June 16, 2024

The Nostalgia Market: Michael Jordan’s Memorabilia Remains Coveted, With Caveats

  • Two decades since his retirement and four years since The Last Dance, the MJ market is still in its prime.
  • Due to scarcity, and in some cases, undisclosed whereabouts, this world has limitations.
Sotheby’s/FOS Illustration
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In 2015, an autographed jersey from Michael Jordan’s final regular-season game as a Chicago Bull was purchased for $173,240. At the time, it set the record price for a Jordan collectible sold at public auction. Today, the jersey would be considered a bargain. 

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Jordan memorabilia market has skyrocketed. With few live sports to watch, fans turned to sports-adjacent options including, most notably, The Last Dance, the documentary that chronicles Jordan’s career with the Bulls. During the five-week, 10-part run, the series averaged 5.6 million viewers per episode, making it ESPN’s most-watched documentary of all time.

Two days before the May 2020 finale, a pair of game-worn, signed rookie-season Air Jordan 1s sold for $560,000 at Sotheby’s, breaking the world auction record for sneakers. Three months later, a pair of game-worn Air Jordan 1s from a summer exhibition game in Italy sold for $615,000 in a Christie’s auction, beating that short-lived record. 

Jordan is of course one of the all-time greats, so his collectibles have always been among the market’s most desired. But few athletes’ memorabilia experienced a COVID-19 boom quite like Jordan’s—and rising prices introduced more opportunistic sellers into the market.

“For a century, Babe Ruth has been the leading athlete in terms of value in … baseball and pretty much in all of sports,” says Leila Dunbar, a sports memorabilia appraiser for Antiques Roadshow. “Jordan is pretty much the first athlete to come up to a level near Ruth.”

Since 2020, major Jordan memorabilia items have continued to smash sports memorabilia sales records. And the MJ surge has not only continued in the past few years, it has arguably reached its prime.

In January 2023, his jersey from Game 1 of the 1998 NBA Finals sold for $10.1 million, becoming the most valuable Jordan item ever sold at auction and setting records for a basketball jersey and any piece of game-worn sports memorabilia. In February 2024, a set of six individual shoes, one from each of Jordan’s title-clinching games, sold for $8 million in another auction.

“There’s still Michael mania,” says Dunbar. 

But it’s worth asking: Who’s buying all this stuff? How much in 2024 can still be attributed to The Last Dance and COVID-19? How many premium items are still out there? And, most importantly, is the market uptick sustainable? 


During his career, Jordan was known for his generosity, gifting items to ballboys, locker room attendants, security guards, and others he met throughout a given game. Over time, some of those recipients have decided to sell as the market has taken off. 

“These can be life-changing amounts of money,” Brahm Wachter, the senior vice president and head of modern collectibles at Sotheby’s, tells Front Office Sports

While much of the recent boom can be attributed to the Last Dance effect, perfect timing is a big factor. Many of the consumers who want to own a piece of history are fans who have come of age; they are not only drawn to the allure of purchasing a piece of their own nostalgia, but they also have the means to do it.

Said Wachter: “On the buyer’s side, I think of the profile of people who approach us in Jordan memorabilia … [they] are people who grew up kind of idolizing, looking at Michael Jordan in [a] kind of wonder, and as their career, lives have progressed and they’ve found themselves to be successful, the things they want to buy at auction bring them back to that time in their childhood.” 

Plus, the fact that Jordan has been retired for so long and hasn’t tarnished his image in his post-playing career makes him a relatively safe investment. 

Goldin

Ken Goldin, CEO of Goldin, a sports memorabilia auction company that has sold numerous high-end Jordan items, said that when it comes to trading cards, the market has regressed slightly since the height of the COVID-19 boom. Goldin estimated that Jordan’s rookie card increased as much as 10 times in value from 2019 to the height of the COVID-19 spike, while it has since dropped to four to five times the pre-pandemic level. But, Goldin added, that’s not a sign that Jordan memorabilia is a bad investment.

According to eBay, more than 2.5 times as many Jordan trading cards were sold in April 2020, when The Last Dance started airing on ESPN, than in the previous month. In July ’21, a 1986 Fleer Jordan rookie card, graded a mint 10 (the highest possible grade) by Professional Sports Authenticator, sold for $840,000. That October, a ’97–98 Upper Deck game jersey (game-worn patch) card with an on-card autograph sold for more than $2 million in a Goldin auction, which, at the time, set a company record as well as a record for any Jordan item. 

Ryan Hoge, PSA’s president, told FOS that Jordan was the company’s most graded athlete across all sports in 2022 and ’23, with more than 350,000 combined submissions.

Jordan’s market went to another level in 2023. The year started off with the aforementioned $10.1 million 1998 Finals jersey. In April, a pair of game-worn shoes from Game 2 of the 1998 NBA Finals sold for $2.24 million, breaking the sneaker auction record for the third time since 2020. The following month, a game-worn autographed Jordan jersey from the 1992 Olympics’ Dream Team sold for $3 million. 

That summer, Sotheby’s auctioned the Dream Team’s Reebok podium jacket: Jordan, the face of Nike, famously draped the U.S. flag over the logo. It sold for $1.51 million. And Jordan’s shoes from the 1997 Finals “flu game” sold for $1.38 million, nearly 10 times the $104,965 price a decade earlier. 

Goldin

Perhaps in an attempt to seize the opportunity, some unconventional Jordan-related items hit the market later that summer and fall. One example was an unsigned photo from his professional debut that went for $175,000, making it the most expensive Jordan photo ever sold.

Not all Jordan items resell well, though. A yearbook from Laney High School, Jordan’s alma mater, included a signature and an inscription he wrote to a classmate, but it sold for only $4,555. A pair of Air Ships from Jordan’s fifth professional game, the earliest-known pair of his Nikes to hit the market, went for $624,000 in September 2023 after selling for $1.5 million two years earlier. 

Jordan’s non-Bulls market is a tougher sell; his Wizards’ tenure came after his prime, and his short-lived baseball career has so far produced only one photo-matched minor league jersey, which sold in 2020 for $54,000. 


One of the defining features of the Jordan memorabilia market is also its main limitation: scarcity. Jordan played before athletes had exclusive memorabilia deals and before it was common to switch out shoes and jerseys multiple times in a game, meaning there are simply fewer items for collectors compared to modern stars such as LeBron James and Stephen Curry.

“Are we going to run out of stuff?” Goldin asked. “That’s the key. It’s not like there’s no new supply in the market; there’s no new supply in the game-used market.” 

Wachter said he has no marquee Jordan items coming up for his auctions, while Dunbar said the market has fallen into a “basic lull period.” 

“After the feeding frenzy of 2021, 2022, I don’t think we’re going to see that again anytime soon,” Dunbar says. “I think we’re going to see a lot more sporadic offerings of Jordan unless there’s a special collection that comes up.”

Every analyst interviewed for this story said Jordan’s jersey from Game 6 of the 1998 Finals is the rarest Jordan collectible in existence and would have a chance to break any previous record. The problem: Its whereabouts are unknown. Does Jordan have it? Or did he give it away like other items? And Jordan’s gold medal game jersey from the Dream Team and his rookie debut jersey would both flirt with records, multiple analysts said. 

But the market remains strong in 2024. On Saturday, Goldin auction a rare autographed Logoman that hit a final sale price of $2.9 million, the all-time record for a Jordan card.

Two weeks ago, Cllct, Darren Rovell’s website that covers the sports memorabilia industry, reported a Jordan 1984–85 Star rookie card, one of three known to be in mint condition, sold privately in May for $925,000, making it the most expensive unsigned Jordan rookie ever sold. 

Jordan recently did a private signing for 10 of his Fleer rookie cards, which were graded a 10 by PSA, as was his autograph. Hoge said PSA sent a representative to the signing, and in the company’s 30-year history, there has never been a Jordan rookie card graded with a 10 for both the card and autograph. The closest PSA has seen is a Jordan rookie, where the card was graded an eight and the autograph was a nine. The card sold for $205,000. If the cards ever go to market, they’d be the first of their kind to do so. 

Throughout his career, Jordan famously couldn’t hang it up, retiring twice only to return to the court before finally calling it a career in 2003. Given the stretch his memorabilia market has had, perhaps Jordan’s items have taken on some traits from their former owner.

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