(By Jim Salter, Associated Press) – A New Jersey man paid $1.2 million for a rare 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card in an online auction that brought interest from many potential buyers who had never owned a card before, the sale organizer said. The buyer hasn’t decided whether to come forward publicly, and the seller, a Houston businessman, wants to remain anonymous, said Bill Goodwin, the suburban St. Louis collectibles dealer who ran the auction that ended Friday. The buyer’s bid was the highest of 14 made since the auction began last month. Read full story on NBC Sports here.
About the Wagner Card:
Over a seemingly timeless period, civilization has manufactured miraculous “man-made” structures with the most prominent of these awe-inspiring feats appropriately labeled “The Seven Wonders of The World.” Incredible to say the least, formations such as the Taj Mahal, Roman Colosseum and Great Wall of China, just to name a few, have outlasted “father time” and retained many of their original spine-tingling qualities. Synonymous with these intimidating configurations that appear as if they were truly the work of a supreme-being are the defining artifacts within the vast collecting communities.
Who would have thought that when the U.S. Government ceased production of the 1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle $20 Gold piece and pursued the retrieval of all existing specimens, this virtually non-existent relic would eventually become the most valuable U.S. coin. Every hobby retains an abundance of “tales to tell” regarding their specific pinnacle keepsakes, and this enticing folklore steadfastly inspires the most sophisticated enthusiasts in a synonymous manner to the amazement associated with our planet’s “Seven Wonders”. Unique Rembrandts and Picassos, an inverted air mail stamp, inaugural pre-war comic books, a Babe Ruth game used jersey, the 1804 U.S. Silver Dollar…the list goes on and on with the human spirit and curiosity compelling us towards these significant remnants.
Whether you are an avid collector or not, most would agree that even the novice individual has a modest knowledge base regarding the world-class mementos linked to their respective hobby. Such is the case for the unparalleled existence of the T206 Honus Wagner cigarette card that stands far above any of its brethren, leading to its rightful designation as the “Holy Grail” of ALL sport cards! Its remarkable popularity and value has elevated its unequivocal status to a zenith level, such that even individuals who have never viewed a single baseball game are more than familiar with its hallowed stature.
One could not possibly fathom that when the great Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Johannes Peter “Honus” Wagner instructed the American Tobacco Company (ATC) to withdraw his classic Carl Horner image from T206 cigarette production over a century ago, in due course it would lead to the most coveted cardboard heirloom known to man!
History of “The Holy Grail” Wagner
Like many elite hobby collectibles, the evolution of the unparalleled popularity associated with the T206 Honus Wagner is the sheer foundation of its irrefutable “king of the hill” standing. While certainly rare, there are many baseball cards claiming fewer known examples, yet their associated value does not even approach the stratospheric price tags affiliated with the T206 Wagner.
The unbridled desire to capture one of these cardboard gems certainly originates from its celebrated ATC extinction, with a number of dubious tales linked to its early termination. Allegedly, Honus Wagner’s disdain for utilizing his image to promote a tobacco product prompted him to have the card “pulled” from production. Interestingly enough, Wagner WAS noted for utilizing tobacco products, and as the story goes, it was his utmost disdain for actually promoting cigarettes to children which impelled him to have his card removed from production. The strongest evidence we have relating to Wagner withdrawing his T206 card stems from an article written in the Sporting News Magazine on October 4, 1912, whereby Wagner was sent a letter by a local representative to sign a form providing his consent to be included in the T206 set.
Wagner provided a return letter to the representative stating he did not want his picture to be used in the set, as well as including a $10 check addressed to the representative, John Gruber, to compensate him for the money he would have received had Wagner granted his permission. Some 43 years later, a similar article in the December 6, 1955 Cleveland Plain Dealer documented the original story, even stating that Gruber never cashed the $10 check, opting to frame it due to historical significance.
Due to Wagner’s refusal to sign the permission form, the initial 150 subject printings did not include Wagner (e.g., Sovereign Cigarettes); however, inexplicably, the ATC decided to use his image in their later issued Sweet Caporal 150 Subjects, Factory 25 issues. Once Wagner became aware that Sweet Caporal cigarette packs included cards with his image, he immediately instructed the ATC to terminate his T206 subject and this immortal rarity was born! The exact number of known T206 Honus Wagner’s remains a somewhat vague issue. Some say it is approximately 60 – 70, while others insist it is a figure closer to 100.
The combined SGC and PSA “pop” charts indicate a 43 total, but we surely know with 100% certainty that a number of ungraded T206 Wagner’s exist in private collections. Regardless of the exact count, the unmistakable truth regarding its supreme hobby status and unlimited investment potential cannot be overstated, for its goliath-like mystique supports its unquestionable status as the most cherished cardboard collectible on the planet.
A New “VG-3” Specimen Surfaces
After receiving a call from our distinguished consignor, stating that he had made the excruciating decision to part with his 523 subject T206 set, you can imagine our excitement upon hearing that this remarkable tobacco gathering included a superb T206 Honus Wagner specimen! Tucked away for over 30 years, this extraordinary Wagner card has been in hiding for “at-least” 10 years before PSA began grading cards in 1991, with their inaugural example being the iconic Gretzky/McNall PSA 8 T206 Wagner.
Unlike the significant number of “beater” examples that dominate the hobby, this sparkling example includes super visual qualities, justified by the prestigious SGC Grading Company assigning it a “VG-40/3” technical assessment. While you might ponder the significance of a “VG” Wagner specimen, after a close look at the COMBINED SCG and PSA population report data, you will clearly understand its paramount impact and scarcity. Of the previously mentioned 43 encapsulated copies, only 5 or 11% have managed to exceed this world-class marvel’s assigned grade, with a mere 19% residing at the “VG-3” assessment.
Simple math tells us that the remaining 70% of the encapsulated examples are assigned lesser grades (11 – “Good-2’s”; 12 – “Poor-1’s”; 7 – “Authentic”)! Additionally, other than the famous PSA 8 copy, only 2 “EX-5’s (one with a “MC” qualifier) and 2 “VG-EX-4’s” are listed on the combined census reports. Certainly one of the finer hobby examples, this wonderful SGC 40/3 specimen carries a brilliant likeness of the majestic Pirates shortstop with his classic Carl Horner portrait image sustaining a majority of its original qualities. Wagner’s stoic expression includes vibrant facial hues, crystal clear clarity, and brilliant uniform tints including a robust “PITTSBURG” brown text across his period style jersey, with its nearly “3-D” like presence ably assisted by the sparkling sunburst orange setting.
While no obtrusive surface flaws are evident, there is an approximate 1-1/2” rather faint vertical crease extending from the upper right border to about the halfway point of the right edge that is barely visible to the naked eye. The off-white borders are relatively clean, reflecting only some mild toning typically apparent on most century old cards. The relatively well centered illustration partly favors the upper edge with the horizontal alignment falling somewhere between “55/45” and “60/40”. The rounded corners exhibit a fine eye pleasing uniformity with the upper two corners depicting some mild layering. Some edge wear is evident along the right and left perimeter, and the “WAGNER, PITTSBURGH” print beneath his hallowed portrait pose is bold and vivid.
The standard “SWEET CAPORAL CIGARETTES 150 SUBJECTS” advertisement portrays bold red print, affixed to a significantly toned surface exhibiting some moderate soiling. Atypically, no glaring surface blemishes or alterations are evident, with the breathtaking Wagner central image, relatively bright orange background and eye pleasing corner uniformity justifying the accurate assessment and providing the outstanding eye appeal virtually never encountered from a majority of the archetypal poorly conditioned T206 Honus Wagner’s.
Ever since the infamous 1985 T206 Wagner $25,000 purchase from a Long Island New York sports card shop, the Wagner card has revolutionized the baseball card market similar to the way Babe Ruth revolutionized baseball with his prodigious home runs! What that simple purchase some 27 years ago accomplished was to place the baseball card hobby on the map with collectibles such as fine art, coins and stamps, just to name a few of the prestigious collecting angles.
Not surprisingly, the PSA 8 Wagner last sold for $2.8 Million, a far cry versus its original price tag and a resounding exclamation point to the unlimited potential of this quintessential T206 Honus Wagner subject. What is extremely interesting is that virtually all of the finer hobby specimens typically sell privately, with only a scant few of the VG or better subjects offered at public auctions over the past decade. In fact, since 2009, only a SINGLE example has been offered at a public auction in a “VG-3” grade or better, capturing a $925K price tag in July 2009. Considering a “VG” example sold for $145K back in calendar year 2000, the nearly unparalleled investment growth of a visual striking T206 Honus Wagner is quite obvious. Substantiating that notion is the following graph reflecting the staggering pricing growth for “VG” examples over the past 10 years:
Clearly this trend indicates “VG” graded T206 Wagner’s have exhibited remarkable growth with the four reported public sales reflecting a 214% increase from 2000 to 2005 (Note: the 2005 example was a GIA 3.5), an 81% increase over a 3 year period from 2005 to 2008, and a 12% increase in less than a single year (November 2008 to July 2009)! Furthermore, one must also consider that since 2009, all of the T206 Wagner’s offered at standard public auctions (approximately 6 copies) have been encapsulated in either “Poor-1” or “Authentic” holders, miraculously fetching price tags between $200K and $400K in “beater” condition. One can only wonder what the future holds for this extraordinary museum worthy marvel, but historical trend certainly supports the notion that its spiraling value is seemingly infinite.
In retrospect, the T206 Wagner offered here represents so much more than the most highly coveted and esteemed baseball card in existence. True, its unlimited investment potential even fascinates individuals NOT associated with our illustrious hobby, comparable to the stature of other hobby related icons such as fine art and rare coins.
Yet, more imposing is its unwavering presence sufficing as a symbol of baseball treasure, effectively transcending the avid fan through a century of time. It is Ernest Thayer’s “Casey At The Bat” and Jack Norworth’s “Take Me Out To the Ballgame”; it is our “Star Spangled Banner” National Anthem; it is the embodiment of an avid young baseball fan scrambling to the local candy store to open a pack of baseball cards, it conjures up visions of Ty Cobb violently sliding into 3rd base with his sharpened spikes pointed upwards or Babe Ruth walloping another majestic home run into the grand stands or Walter Johnson’s blazing fastball riding by another helpless batsman….it is all of this and so much more.
Honus Wagner’s place in baseball history is forever solidified by his status as the game’s greatest shortstop with his incredible “on the field” achievements meriting him a 1936 charter membership into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Yet his iconic image on this grandeur offering goes far beyond his diamond achievements, with its immortal reverence serving as a magnificent transient to the origins of our National Pastime. Whether it is for the simple sheer joy of collecting, the “right to own a copy” or its outstanding investment potential, the unequivocal eminence of this breathtaking Wagner heirloom will “echo for eternity”!