Between the mid 80s and mid 90s, interest in trading cards boomed and, in turn, the major trading card companies – Topps and Donruss and Skybox and Upper Deck – were printing and shipping cards as fast the presses could make them. The result was a huge spike in the supply of cards from the era, which led many of these cards to, even today, hold little value. These days, those years of plentiful, cheap supply are referred to by trading card hobbyists, rather unaffectionately, as “the junk wax era.”
Beginning in the mid to late 90s though something changed. Realizing perhaps that unlimited supply was a recipe for short-term profit and long-term disaster, some of the trading card companies began experimenting more with scarcity. One of the earliest examples were the Precious Metal Gems (PMG) cards launched by Fleer/ Skybox as inserts in their 97-98 Metal Universe set. As opposed to the junk wax cards of earlier years, which were often printed in the millions, the PMG cards were extremely scarce. Each of the 123 cards in the set had only 100 copies: 10 green and 90 red.
Fast forward to today and those PMG cards – especially from the 97-98 set are some of the most desirable and expensive modern cards in existence. Of course, it isn’t just their scarcity and the fact that they were among the first rare insert cards in the hobby that make the PMG cards so prized. Instead it was these factors combined with the cards’ relative fragility (making high quality versions hard to come by), plus a number of historic circumstances, that today make the PMG cards the crown jewels of modern collecting.
Nostalgia and The 97-98 NBA Season
Ask any long-time NBA fan to tell you about what comes to mind with the 97-98 season and a majority of them will mention something about Michael Jordan’s final run with the Bulls. In fact, the image of his “last shot” – standing on his toes, shooting arm outstretched, wrist snapped in a pose that seemed all-too aware of the magnitude of the moment – may be one of the most indelible in all of sports.
97-98 wasn’t just special for MJ related reasons either. It also marked a young Kobe Bryant coming into his own and earning his first all-star appearance… the rookie season for top-10 all-time player, Tim Duncan… and a proverbial passing of the torch from the old guard of players represented with the ‘92 Dream Team to a new generation of players who debuted in the mid to late 90s. 97-98 was no ordinary NBA season, and the PMG cards were no ordinary cards. Put those two facts together and one begins to understand how this set is so special in the mind of collectors.
PMG Cards’ Gradual Ascent
Oddly enough, despite having an initial cult following among some collectors, PMG cards weren’t always popular with card investors. Many trace the resurgence of interest in PMG cards’ to the 08-09 NBA season. By this time Fleer/ Skybox had declared bankruptcy and been purchased by Upper Deck. The 08-09 Skybox Metal Universe PMG cards were Upper Deck’s attempt to revive the PMG brand.
From here on out, the original PMG cards have mostly remained in the consciousness of devoted collectors and fetched ever-increasing prices. Not surprisingly, the creme de la creme of the set have been the Michael Jordan cards. Most recently, in December 2020, a MJ PMG Green card, PSA Authentic sold for a staggering $915,000.
Today, intentional scarcity is what much of the card market is built upon, and has been a major contributor to the current card boom. The 97-98 PMG cards were pioneers on this front though, which – combined with the special season with which they’re associated – will forever give these cards their place in the history of the hobby.