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2003-04 Exquisite Collection Basketball: 10 Years Later

For basketball card collectors and investors it is a case of what they know now and if only they knew it back then.  A decade ago Upper Deck thought they had a concept of short printed cards with a high price point that would change the industry.  Plenty of people baulked at paying $500 for five NBA cards.  Today, there are many who would gladly pay $5,000 for that pack of 2013-14 Exquisite Collection.

2003-04 Exquisite Basketball boxBasketball cards had been getting more expensive over the years, but the $500 per pack Exquisite Collection was a big leap from the previous luxury item for collectors.  Upper Deck started Ultimate Collection in 2000-01, which had a recommended price of $100 per pack of four cards.  Before Ultimate Collection, collectors had considered Flair, Finest, SP Authentic and SPx Finite to be the expensive, high-end, premium card sets.

What basketball card collectors got for their big investment in 2003-04 was a stylish wooden box that housed a pack of five cards.  Even that empty box can sell for $40 today.  It was one pack per box, and three boxes in a case.  The five cards in the super, high-end premium product were all numbered, very thick and the autographed cards were numbered on the front.

Was that $1500 for a 3-box case a good investment?  Well, consider that two cases are being offered now on eBay for $24,000 and $26,000 respectively and while there has to be a buyer willing to pay, even at $15-20,000, that’s quite a tidy profit.   Even the promotional brochure from Upper Deck is something collectors chase (there’s one for sale for $149.95).

Part of what makes 2003-04 Exquisite so valuable today was just good timing.  A few years prior to 2003 and the expensive packs would have been filled with rookie cards of Stromile Swift, Mateen Cleaves, Marcus Fizer and Jerome Moiso.  Upper Deck hit the jackpot in 2003-04 with the biggest rookie class since Jordan, Stockton, Barkley and Olajuwon.  LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh are big reasons why Exquisite has maintained and increased its value over the years.  There are also other players with rookie cards from that year that collectors want, as David West is a star player, Kyle Korver is a record-setter for outside 2003-04 Exquisite LeBron James rookie 23shooting, Kendrick Perkins started for a championship team and Chris Kaman has played on high-profile teams and put up some big numbers at the center spot.

There are 20 cards in the debut Exquisite set that feature James and none are numbered beyond 100.  It’s the rookie patch card numbered to 99 and autographed that owns the spotlight.  If a LeBron rookie card appears on the market, the price is likely to be over $20,000.  The card that’s numbered 23/99 (his jersey number) is  listed on eBay for $150,000.  Not only is there huge demand for that special card but the print run assures that there will always be more buyers than sellers.

Exquisite Michael Jordan 2003-04Most of the base cards in the set were numbered to 225, but the rookie cards of James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Darko Milicic and Udonis Haslem were numbered to 99.  Wade and Anthony rookie cards are in the $2,000 to $4,000 price range.  While Darko was the only player from this group with a championship in the NBA after his rookie season, he really didn’t do anything else in his career so his cards are the least expensive of the short-printed rookie Exquisite cards.

All of the 78 cards that make up the main set, the veteran players and rookies, also have a Gold parallel card that is numbered to 25.  There are several jersey parallel insert sets for most of the veterans, while the Exquisite Collection Rookie Patch Parallel is numbered to the player’s jersey number.  That means 23 LeBron James cards were produced, only 3 Wades, draft bust Ndudi Ebi has 44 cards and Steve Blake only has a couple of examples of his card.

While the LeBron rookie card in Exquisite is more valuable than any Michael Jordan card in the set, when both players have the Michael Jordan Limited Logo patchsame type of card in the Exquisite release it is often Jordan who is slightly ahead in price.  The Limited Logos cards have a great design with a small picture up the top, a large piece of game-used uniform that seems to be usually multi-colored and an autograph along the bottom of the card.  Two graded BGS 9 cards have sold on eBay recently, one for Jordan and one for James.  Jordan’s card brought in $13,200 while the James sold for $12,000.  The value that collectors put on grades, for rare and expensive cards, is shown by another Jordan Limited Logos card that sold for $12,000, which was graded BGS 9.  A Darko, ungraded, sold for $60.99.

While so much of what makes Exquisite valuable is the on-card autographs, the Extra Exquisite cards don’t have an 2003-04 Extra Exquisite Kobe Bryantautograph and barely have room for a picture of the player.  On the front of the Extra Exquisite is a super-sized piece of game-used memorabilia, taking up around two thirds of the card.  Numbered to 75, the cards featured the superstars of 2003-04, some retired legends of the NBA, and Jarvis Hayes as well.  Upper Deck did select the right rookies to be in the insert set with James, Bosh, Wade and Anthony but Hayes and his #JH card was a bad choice.

Once again, the Exquisite cards can show if collectors want Jordan or LeBron.  The answer right now is they are close to equal in value.  A Jordan Extra Exquisite card sold for $326.11 on eBay and a LeBron card sold for $325.  Exquisite also had a parallel card for Extra Exquisite which was numbered to 25.  A Jordan card sold for $421.70 recently and it was numbered 21 of 25.

There haven’t been a huge number of Wilt Chamberlain game-used cards produced but he has a card in this Exquisite insert set.  An example of his Extra Exquisite card sold for $152.50.  That was an impressive price as a Dirk Nowitzki sold for $71, Shaquille O’Neal went for $66 and a Carmelo Anthony Extra Exquisite jersey card from 2003-04 Exquisite was sold for $66.

2003-04 Exquisite Patches LeBronThere isn’t a bad insert set in 2003-04 Exquisite.  Patches Autographs, Patches Triple, Noble Nameplates, Emblems of Endorsement, Scripted Swatches, they all have the best players and high prices.  Even rarer are the All-NBA Access Press Patches, with game-worn NBA logos, and Exquisite Collection Foursomes.

For some collectors, especially those who collect only one team or collect an obscure player that few others do, they can find some inexpensive cards from 2003-04 Exquisite.  One sale on eBay of a very cheap Exquisite card was the $5.50 paid for the rookie card, with autograph and memorabilia piece, of Zarko Cabarkapa.  He was one of the many prospects called “The Next Dirk Nowitzki”, but the first round pick by the Suns didn’t quite make it to that level of play.

2003-04 Exquisite Collection has also provided many lessons for card companies as well as for collectors and investors.  Upper Deck has shown that there is a market for very expensive cards.  They’ve also proven that exclusive access to some of the biggest players in the card hobby (Jordan and James) is very important when selling an expensive box.

For investors who speculate on how much a card box will be worth in the future, 2003-04 Exquisite Basketball Collection not only reached any expectations they had but certainly exceeded them.  That is why some will be investing in new expensive products, like Panini Flawless.  Collectors learned that there are times when cards have to bought when they are first put up for sale because sometimes prices rise astronomically instead of slowly decreasing.  They also learned that the hype for a rookie like LeBron can be true, and that Darko was never a good investment.