On late Thursday evening, November 17, Matthew Berger will sell a 2003-04 Upper Deck Exquisite LeBron James Rookie Patch Autograph card numbered to 23 through Heritage Auctions. It’s expected to realize more than $2 million.
Even if it just comes reasonably close, he’ll make out OK. Berger bought the card not long after it came out of a pack back in James’ rookie season. Just three years older than LeBron, Berger had to borrow a credit card to make the deal. He paid $5,000.
It’s a story that begins with a fond childhood memory of sharing the hobby with his father.
In the early 1990s, Matthew was the proverbial kid at the card show. Trailing his dad, Scott, from table to table, watching as he picked out boxes of cards. When they’d get home, his dad would let him rip one or two packs, maybe a few more, if he pulled something good.
But by the mid-1990s, it was clear card manufacturers created a glut in supply. The hobby imploded. Scott’s card and comic book business, which he ran out of his garage, went out of business. The thousands of cards and comics in his inventory lost nearly all value overnight. Scott never recovered from the disappointment.
Still, all those years of attending card shows left their mark on Matthew. Though his dad lost faith in the hobby, Matthew continued collecting. Sometimes he’d bring back a box so he could open it with his dad. It was as close as Scott would get back into the hobby.
“I turned 18, and I started going to card shows by myself,” he told SC Daily. “I liked opening a pack of cards, not knowing what was going to come out.”
The Next Big Thing
In 2003, when Berger was 21 years old, he watched as the high end basketball card market began to take shape thanks to a teenage prodigy the sports world had already been talking about for several years. The greatest basketball prospect of Berger’s life was about to turn pro. LeBron James’ debut drove the price of that year’s Exquisite box, with six cards, to $500.
That’s when his sports card knowledge from childhood kicked in. He understood the significance of the 1986 Fleer Jordan rookie card, and he started wondering, what could he own that would one day have the same significance? What would the Jordan card be worth if only 23 of them existed?
“I thought to myself, ‘If Michael Jordan had a rookie card like this Exquisite, what would it be worth?’” Matthew recalls. “$500 for a box of Exquisite was the first of its kind. I thought the value was so tremendous that one day [the LeBron RPA] will be worth $1 million.”
He saved up $5,000 -–his life’s savings up to that point—buying the card on eBay with the conviction he had purchased the rookie card of the next MJ. Because he didn’t have a credit card, Matthew asked his dad to use his to complete the purchase.
“My dad thought I was nuts,” Matthew recalled. “I remember getting it in the mail, it was snowing outside. I couldn’t believe I owned the card. I was 21 years old staring at a Holy Grail.”
For seven years, Matthew stored the LeBron rookie in a top loader in a shoebox on the top shelf of his dad’s bedroom closet. Then, in January 2011, Scott passed away unexpectedly of a heart attack.
“On the day of the funeral, we had family over at the house and my brother was working on some electrical stuff,” Matthew says. “Something started smelling like smoke and all of a sudden there was a fire in the attic.”
Matthew, forgetting about the card, rushed next door to find a fire extinguisher. Luckily, his brother’s father-in-law was a firefighter and put out the fire with wet towels. The LeBron card was resting on the top closet shelf, two feet away from the attic fire.
Within a few weeks, he put the card in a safe deposit box. He then graded the card with Beckett in 2012, at the time the leading grading service. His card returned as a BGS 8.5; getting 9.5 for centering, 9 for edges, and 8.5 for corners and surface.
With an iconic card and a near-mint grade, Matthew put the card for sale on eBay twice. But he priced it so high above market value he figured nobody would buy it. In 2016, someone accepted the Buy It Now price of $40k, but they never paid for it.
“I would’ve been happy with $40,000,” the Westchester, NY resident told us. “But I’m glad that person never paid for it.”
Matthew says the time is right to sell the card. He’d like to get married soon, and the windfall from the card’s sale will provide a good start.
As of this writing, the card has a current bid of $795,000 with the buyer’s premium.
Past results show that this card will sell well north of $1 million. On July 18, 2020, a LeBron Exquisite numbered 14/23, with a BGS 9.5 Gold Label, sold for $1.8 million. In April 2021, a BGS 9 sold for $5.2 million in a private sale brokered by PWCC.
For Matthew, the card’s sale has come full circle with his admiration for LeBron. He invested in and cheered for him from the moment he broke into the league. Now that LeBron’s legendary career is almost over and he’s on the verge of breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record, Matthew feels it’s time to let the card go.
“I would love to meet LeBron one day,” he says. “I was a fan from Day 1 and that’ll never change. He had so much pressure to deliver and he overdelivered.”
If he could change one thing, it would be to share the moment with his dad.
“It would have been great to hear him say, ‘Wow, you did a [freaking] great job.’”