Pokemon began as the creation of Satoshi Tajiri in 1995. The story of these creatures envisions a world where fictional characters called Pokemon are trained by humans to battle each other. Owing its initial roots to a pair of video games for the Nintendo Game Boy, these ideas have grown into a full franchise filled with comic books, toys, movies, animated television shows and, of course, a wildly popular trading card game.
In 2016 we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of Pokemon and as part of that celebration, we are pleased to share our take on the 20 rarest Pokemon cards. Ranging from the different types of cards you should watch out for as a collector to the rarest of the holy grail cards, we have you covered. If you play your cards right, your dream deck could be worth more than you know!
20. Pokemon Art Academy Winner Card
We’re going to start this list with a consideration of Pokemon collectible culture and a card that isn’t yet on the high dollar list but will absolutely become one. It’s one of the newest and one of the recently rare. You see, back in 2015, a “Pokemon Art Academy” Competition invited fans of the game to submit artwork using their Nintendo 3DS. Winners of the contest saw their art made into an official Pokemon trading card, and each artist received a 100 card pack of custom design cards displaying their artwork.
I begin here as it exemplifies much of what becomes valuable and ultra rare in the latter half of this list. Pokemon has a long history of releasing special cards, usually in response to an event or tournament, which become incredibly collectible over time. In this case, each winner began with the only 100 copies that exist for their card. Collectibility of each of these winning cards only increases at the whim of the recipient, and you can already hear the drumbeat of collectors on the hunt for any of these that make it to the open market. That is how many a collectible card is born and for Pokemon, it’s happening still today. Within this article, you’re going to read many stories like this, but first, we’ll cover the broader runs of cards that are picking up value and then move on to the holy grails.
Why 100 cards you ask? This number results from the cut sheets where it’s just as easy to produce a single sheet (containing 100) as a single card. The card depicted above is Tangrowth. It was also one of the first to be unveiled coming out of this contest. It was created by Reddit user Goshadole (aka Gosha).
19. Pokemon Ex Cards
We’re starting the broader countdown with the Full Art EX Cards using Mew EX as an example. An artwork heavy variant of the traditional card series, the early EX Cards were actually printed in black and white. These alternate cards quickly shifted to four color graphics. Here, you are looking for that EX symbol at the top of the card which denotes that it’s a version that is more collectible.
Overall we’re still shaking out where the long-term value rests on this series of cards, but the EX run tend to hold better value than standard cards. Many in the line aren’t hard to find or very valuable. That said, a few stars are beginning to rise from this run including Mew EX, Lugia EX, and Doix EX. The value at this point is between $25 and $40 with Doix (or Deoxys) commanding the higher end of that scale.
18. Gold Star Cards
Gold Star cards (like the Latios card picture above) are much loved by fans of Pokemon as they feature art by illustrator Masakazu Fukuda. His tendency to have creatures who reach beyond the established character window is a feature of his work for which he is known. The first of many shiny Pokemon trading cards to follow, and much rarer than their regular counterparts, these cards can sell for $40 to $100 with graded cards commanding as much as $200 or more.
17. Pokemon Vs Card Series
The Japanese Pokemon VS Series Cards stand out first because these cards were double the price of normal cards. Add to that its lack of common circulation in the US and you have a subset of Pokemon that has proven hard to find. If you can nail down the Japan-only cards like Bruno’s Steelix (pictured above) you can command prices of around $100 based on rarity and condition, and well over $200 for a full set.
16. Pokemon Southern Islands Card Collection
This is a really interesting collection of Pokemon cards, to say the least. The folder came with 18 cards (two sets of 9 cards each) which are known as the Rainbow and Tropical Island sets. Released in Japan, it was done more as a film advertising project than a targeted card set. The cards themselves fit together to make a picture and an assembled set (including the folder) can command several hundred dollars when sold.
15. The Shining Charizard Card
A “shiny” Pokemon card is a card that depicts an alternate color variation of a standard Pokemon card. They are basic Pokemon but with odds of finding them in a booster pack starting at 300:1, special play features, and a limit of 1 per player deck, lore about these cards spread quickly.
Charizard (as we describe in a bit more detail in spot #10 below) is always a sought-after character and this shiny card benefits from holographic artwork, which only increases its collectibility. Typically higher valued than their non-shiny counterparts (with the initial first edition Charizard card being a clear exception), these cards often trade for several hundred dollars. (A specific price range was tricky to track down for this card as the price does seem to vary quite a bit.) To say the least, if you see it at a modest price you will want to nab it as this one is only increasing in worth over time.
14. Tropical Mega Battle Legendary Bird Phone Card
How can you be a collector without including a bit of the stranger side of Pokemon in your collection? This one isn’t just a playing card, it’s also a phone card. Though its origins remain a bit of a mystery, this promo card is slightly longer in size than the normal Pokemon cards, and the print is also closer in size to what is used on traditional Japanese phone cards. The image on the card serves up Articuno as depicted by Ken Sugimori. Want to add it to your collection? You should expect to part with roughly $1,200 based on past sales.
13. Shiny Espeon Card
The Shiny Espeon card is a seriously hard card to find with a price to prove it. (Over $1,800 by most reports!) The card was first unveiled as one of the legendary Japanese PLAY Promotional cards. Via the Daisuki Pokémon Fan Club, this card was offered as a prize for members who accumulated enough points in the club by attending various meetups and participating in club activities. Members only had from 2005 to 2006 to achieve the goals and this proved so difficult that very few cards were ever actually awarded. The card’s lore (and value) only grew as a result.
12. Japanese Promo Kangaskhan Holo Family Event Trophy Card
Here, we see a solid trophy card stacking the deck for collectors to drool over. This one was only given out during the 1998 Kangaskhan Family Event as a trophy card. The event itself was unusual as it involved both adults and children working together under established rule criteria to compete. A rare find that fetches between $2,000 and $4,000 when sold.
11. Magikarp Tamamushi University Promo Card
As a water type basic Pokemon card, this one was released as a promotional card only available in Japan. It has quite a history as it was a prize card that originated as part of the Tamamushi University Hyper Test campaign back in 1998. Focusing on primary-school children, it challenged them with a series of tests which, upon passing, qualified them for an invitation to a two-day conference in Osaka. There, the players battled as groups to qualify for the second day of competition. Competing by age on day two, only the winners took home this card at the end of the conference. Some estimates put the value of this one as high as $3,700 to $4,500.
10. Charizard First Edition Card
Charizard is unquestionably one of the most popular Pokemon characters. Given his presence on the original Pokemon Red game cartridge, he’s linked to the brand almost as closely as Pikachu. Due in part to that popularity, a highly graded first edition card has proven itself as one that is dependably sought out by collectors and consistently valuable. The value of sale has been widely speculated, but it can easily fall in the $3,000 to $5,000 range based on grade and condition. Add to that the play value of this one (heavy hit points and damage) and you can see why people have been on the hunt for all versions of this character’s card since the card game’s inception.
9. Pokemon Snap Best Photo Contest Cards
The series of Snap Cards covered here originated from the Pokemon Snap Nintendo 64 game. Created as a promotional contest in support of the game, players were encouraged to take snapshots of the actual game. Judges evaluated the photos, and the winners that were chosen had their work printed on special cards that acknowledged them as the card’s artist. In the end, very few of these cards were ever made. In circulation, some of these cards have sold for over $8,000 with the Gyarados card being one of the more sought-after examples. Here, we’re celebrating one of the cards from the series featuring the lovable Pikachu.
8. Numbers 1, 2, 3 Trainer Cards
Numbered trainer cards are going to form the basis of our next few selections within this list. They were released in conjunction with the Pokemon Trading Card Game World Finals and have been sought after ever since by collectors, only increasing in value with age. These were quite literally the cards that denoted you as a champion and served as your entry ticket for future years of competition. With our #9 spot, we’re tipping a hat mostly to the mixture of the second and third place cards out there. Any of these cards, not just the Number 1 cards, can command a significant price and the utmost respect. Considering only a single card was given out at each level each year, they are holy grail cards of the first order. That said, let’s dig a bit deeper with spots #7 through #3 in our list below which are held by versions of these trainer cards that stand out in the history of Pokemon.
7. World Championship Trainer Number 1 Cards
In 2004, Pokemon hosted the first TCG World Championship under the direction of Pokemon USA. Here, as noted above, cards specific to each year of the championship was awarded. The Number 1 cards deserved their own spot on the countdown as they are the cards held by each year’s champion. Designs began changing with each year starting in 2004 and the card stock itself shifted in 2007, 2010, and 2011. In 2013, for the first time, the card was also awarded to the winner of the Video Game Championships in each age division.
6. Number 1 Trainer Card
This card predates the ever-changing, annual World Championship cards. Before that point, the Trainer cards awarded would only change artwork a few times over the years and this card is the fourth significant change we see. Featuring artwork by Ken Sugimori, it was initially awarded during the Japanese World Challenge Summer event held in 2000. The winners here were awarded this card which allowed entry for the finals held that following August.
5. Secret Super Battle Trainer Number 1 Card
During the Challenge Road ’99 SUMMER event (held between July and August 1999), the Secret Super Battle and the Tropical Mega Battle (see #4 in our list below) were early side tournaments which invited elementary school students to compete. The Super Secret Battle played host to kids from third grade up to high school (eleventh grade). The Secret Super Battle cards featured a Mewtwo silhouette and the event logo artwork by Hideki Kazaa. Along with the Tropical Mega Battle cards, the Secret Super Battle cards represented the first trainer cards with new artwork breaking away from the Trophy Pikachu (see #3 in our list below) for the first time.
4. Tropical Mega Battle Trainer Number 1 Card
Like the Secret Super Battle cards above, the Tropical Mega Battle cards were awarded to elementary school student winners and this competition welcomed kids up to third grade. Here, the card featured an Exeggutor and the event’s logo with artwork by Ken Sugimori and Hiromi Ito. This card is valued at $5,000 to $10,000 and edges out Secret Super Battle in our list simply because of the age of the recipients and the belief that fewer of these cards still exist.
3. Trophy Pikachu Trainer Number 1 Card
This card was given to those champions coming out of a qualifying round during the first Japanese Pokemon Card Game Official Tournament. That qualifying round was held on the first of two days at the at the Makuhari Messe convention center in Chiba on June 14-15, 1997. It represents the first of the legendary “Trainer” Cards given to competition winners and has a value to prove it.
2. The Prerelease Raichu Card
These cards were printed with the dark black “Prerelease” text in the corner of the card’s character image. Most sites we visited in researching its history set the value at well over $10,000 based on public sales where the card changed hand. The card was originally printed to showcase the then-upcoming Jungle series. Though shrouded in a lot of mystery, most believe that a sheet of 121 copies of the card was printed, and 100 of those were destroyed leaving just 21 in the wild for collectors. Many feel that the current number is closer to 11. Originally given to Wizards of the Coast employees at the time, these cards were not supposed to make it onto the collector market. We see how well that plan worked out.
1. The Pokemon Illustrator Card
Let’s move into the territory of the ultimate Pokemon holy grail… The Pokemon Illustrator card! Also known as the Pikachu Illustrator or Illustrator Pikachu, this one is a trainer card and an unnumbered promotional card which was awarded, not purchased. It was given as a reward for those who had a winning entry in a series of Japanese Pokemon Card Game Illustration Contests. Only 39 cards were ever awarded and some say as few as 6 are even known to still exist. These cards has sold for $20,000 publicly which is held as a value standard for an ungraded example. The more recent asking price on eBay for a graded PSA 9 mint example was $100,000 which made news around the world. The Illustrator card is the only card with the unique pen symbol in the bottom right corner and it also features a double-star rarity. Without a doubt, this card is the stuff of legends, well beyond even the hallowed halls of Pokemon collecting.