If something is too good to be true, it probably is. I don’t know how many times I have relayed that cliché to collectors when they think they have found an amazing card at an incredibly low price.
Yet, here I am, a savvy hobby veteran, industry insider, former executive, and lifelong collector, biting the dangling worm and getting reeled in by the holographic hook stuck in my cheek.
It all started with a listing on a local auction site. Someone was selling a Tom Brady Gem Mint 10 Graded rookie card. It was identified by the seller as a 2000 Fleer Ultra Polychrome Gold Refractor. I saw that the card was only about $300, and the auction had a very limited amount of time remaining. In an adrenaline-driven moment of excitement, I put in my bid. I had never seen nor heard of this card, and I didn’t check any databases or even my own notes on the card.
Had I checked, I would have found out that this card was never made by Fleer in 2000.
When I saw the listing, I just assumed that some local ham and egger referred to the Fleer Ultra parallel as a Refractor, not realizing that was a Topps-owned word. Maybe he just calls all parallels Refractors, the way we call all tissues Kleenex, or all bandages Band-Aids. Maybe he had just lucked into something rare and graded it with the first company he came across.
Mind you, I have had great luck at some of these local auctions. The audience is small and the potential for bargains is there. In one of them, I bought a hand-collated 2001 Topps Baseball set with the Ichiro rookie for under $15. I have also bought some specialty odds and ends that have really enhanced my personal collection.
But in this auction, I got burned. I paid more than $300 for a card that is widely available on eBay or from other sellers for under $50. And even that is a stretch.
When I made the bid, I knew that the Tom Brady 2000 Fleer Ultra rookie card, ungraded, was worth at least what I paid for this variation. So, what did I have to lose? I am horrified, looking back, that I entered $1,000 as my maximum bid. Luckily, it never got near that mark. Whomever the other bidder was that I was up against for this card must have been relieved that I took this off their hands.
When I got the card, I was still pretty happy. I thought I had an under the radar, rare Tom Brady RC. Sure, it was in a holder from WCG, one of those lesser known grading companies rather than PSA, SGC, Beckett or CSG, but it was beautiful.
A day after the purchase, I got on some different websites. I logged into the Beckett database. There was no listing for this card. I checked Trading Card Database. Like Beckett, they listed the parallels. Gold Medallion, Platinum Medallion and Masterpiece were the three parallels. All three were die-cut. There was no evidence of a Polychrome Gold Refractor ever existing.
I picked up the card I had bought and looked at it closely. I realized that this card was too good to have even been made in 2000. The details in the micro-etching are outstanding. But the total giveaway is the card back. The card back is printed on holographic foil that has a pinwheel movement effect when you move the card.
In 2000, no one in the industry had access to double-sided holographic foil. If it existed, I would have known about it, as I was considered one of the industry’s top product development people at the time. I’m not saying that to blow my own horn. I’m just stating that I know this paper did not exist in 2000. And remember, I’m the idiot who dropped more than $300 for a fake.
And then I wondered if the card could actually be considered a fake. It was not a reprint of an existing card, because there was never such a thing as a 2000 Fleer Ultra Polychrome Refractor, even though the photo used is from the 2000 Fleer Ultra Brady RC. So is it a forgery? Is it a fake? Or is it another type of classification that falls into the realm of not real?
I do have a PSA Gem Mint 10 reprint of a 1979-80 OPC hockey rookie card. But that card is clearly marked as a reprint, and I bought it knowing it was a reprint. This card, however, is an unlicensed variation.
I even questioned if the grading was real, or if the makers of this card just created slabs and slapped a Gem Mint 10 grade on them.
I contacted WCG and asked if they had actually graded it. I told them what I paid. After taxes and fees, it was $400. Their reply was a gut punch. I mean, it caught me right in the food processor. “$400 seems a high for a Polychrome card. We see these cards sold for $16 to $30 at most.”
That pretty much confirmed that the hobby already knew this was not a real Tom Brady rookie card. They asked for the serial number on the card, and they confirmed that they had indeed graded and labeled it.
I asked them if they knew that this 2000 Fleer Ultra Polychrome Gold Refractor was never, in fact, made in 2000, and I questioned if they knew if Fleer had made it. They responded with another email. “What we know is that many of these Specialty cards (Gold Cards, Ceramic Cards, Polychrome Cards, Foil Cards, Bronze Metal Cards, etc.) were made in conjunction with Fleer, Upper Deck, Donruss, Topps, etc. They were mainly sold for TV and catalog sales back in the days.”
As Not Seen On TV
So here’s the thing. In 2000, I developed all the products for Collector’s Edge, which was owned by Shop at Home TV. I spent half my time in Denver at Collector’s Edge, and the other half in Nashville, working for Shop at Home. Part of my job with Shop at Home was to work with our on-air man Don West and the sports team to develop packages for TV sales. We sold not only our own products, but also cards from the other companies as well. Nothing that looked this spectacular with holographic foil card backs ever crossed our desks.
I then contacted two good friends who worked in the hobby ‘back in the day’. Rich Bradley and Tim Franz were responsible for developing Fleer’s products in 2000. Rich looked at the image of the card online while I was on the phone with him.
“I don’t remember seeing anything like that,” he said. “We never used the word Polychrome for anything, and if we had even tried to use the word Refractor, we would have been served with a cease and desist order because that is a Topps trademark.”
Rich no longer works in the hobby, as he got involved in the music industry in Philadelphia after Fleer’s demise. When we used to get together at shows, we would eventually end up playing a drinking game called “Dead or Canadian”, where I would throw out a name of a random celebrity. Rich would have to guess whether that celebrity was, well, dead or Canadian. Or both.
Tim, meanwhile, still works in the hobby on the sales side, and moved back to Dallas after spending time with Topps and Panini. I first met him in Dallas when we both developed products for Pinnacle. He worked with Doug Goddard on our Donruss and Leaf products. I will remember him for two things – he was always telling me that Jim Thome was going to be a Hall of Famer, and he had absolutely the best laugh in the hobby. If we had Instagram and Tik Tok in the 1990s, Tim would have had a million followers on his laugh alone. He looked at the card as we talked about it. He had absolutely no recollection of anything called Polychrome, and echoed Rich about using the Refractor word.
“They really did a good job on this one,” he said. “When you think back to when we were working on cards, we didn’t have the ability to produce something this good.”
He examined the back of the card.
“I have never seen double sided holographic foil paper,” he said. “The only way we could have done that when I was at Fleer would be to affix foil paper to the back of regular holographic foil. And I don’t remember anyone doing anything like that.”
Then, Tim brought up another great point.
“We put 100 cards on a form, and when we did parallels, we used the same players on each form,” he said. “Everyone did that. So if there actually was a Tom Brady rookie card variation printed in 2000, there would have been the same cards for every other rookie in that set.”
Those cards don’t exist.
Tom Brady Vs. Jarrett Stidham
While WCG said perhaps the card was printed for a TV sale or catalogue promotion, the timing is all wrong for that, too. When Fleer Ultra went to press, Tom Brady was a longshot to make the Patriots roster. He went into camp as QB4, behind Drew Bledsoe, John Friesz and Michael Bishop. In fact, Brady didn’t even really play until Bledsoe got hurt in September, 2001. So why would Fleer, in 2000, produce a one-off of a guy buried on the depth chart for a company like Shop at Home? I am trying to imagine how the conversation would have gone this year if I went into a meeting with Don West and told him we had some Gem Mint 10 variations of Patriots third string quarterback Jarrett Stidham that Fleer had created especially for us, to use as a value-added item.
Nothing against Jarrett Stidham, but he’s kind of the current apples-to-apples comparison to Tom Brady in 2000. Don’s give-a-crap metre wouldn’t even have flickered.
Now, the challenge begins as I try to return the card and get a refund.
The lesson here is that if you are buying something online or bidding on something in an auction, don’t get too caught up in the moment. Know exactly what it is, and check out some recent sales of that item on eBay to get an idea of what it’s selling for in the market.
From a production standpoint this is one of the nicest football cards I have ever seen. But was it made by Fleer? Was it made in 2000? And is it a Tom Brady RC? On all three counts, as Dr. Evil once said, “How about no.”
Had I taken a few minutes to find copies of this card on eBay, i would have also noticed that none had been authenticated by the major grading companies and some sellers have them in quantity.
I know I got burned for making an impulse bid, but being a glass-half-full guy, this ordeal did get me reconnected with Rich Bradley and Tim Franz, two old friends who may have been the best product developers Fleer ever had.
About Jeff Morris
Jeff Morris is a hobby veteran who has been a collector for more than 50 years. Originally a hobby journalist, he became brand manager at Pinnacle, and then was an executive for Collector’s Edge and Shop at Home before joining Pacific Trading Cards as VP of Marketing. He is the former editor and publisher of Canadian Sports Collector magazine, and he was also a columnist for ESPN.com.