Priceless baseball card for auction

By on March 12, 2013

Goldins Auctions is currently in the process of auctioning a vintage T206 Honus Wagner baseball card, and the company estimates its worth to be well over $2 million–that is, if its validity is able to remain intact.

Vintage T206 Honus Wagner baseball card is being sold at the starting price of $2 million. There are only 57 cards in existence since its production in 1909. MCT Campus

Vintage T206 Honus Wagner baseball card is being sold at the starting price of $2 million. There are only 57 cards in existence since its production in 1909. MCT Campus

The card, considered by many to be the “Holy Grail” of sports collectibles has always been considered the most valuable trading card in existence, but its value in the past decade has skyrocketed to new limits.

Honus Wagner is a hall-of-fame baseball player who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the dead-ball era, and many regard him as the best shortstop to have ever played the game.

From 1909 to 1911, the American Tobacco Company designed and released the card as part of its T206 series that it marketed by placing inside cigarette packs. After only 57 of the 200 cards were released to the public, Wagner refused to allow production of his card to continue.

Although the reason for this is not completely understood, baseball historians generally agree that he did this either because he did not want children to be forced to buy cigarettes to get his card, or he wanted more compensation from the ATC.

Regardless of why the ATC ceased production on the card, the limited production led to its high value, eventually solidifying it as the most valuable baseball card in existence, a title it has held since 1933, when The American Card Catalog estimated its worth to be $50.

As the years progressed, 57 cards have resurfaced, but most of the Wagners are not in very good condition, being that it’s a 100-year-old piece of cardboard. However, in 1985, Bill Mastro uncovered a near-mint condition T206 Wagner from a Long Island memorabilia store and purchased it for $25,000.

Two years later, he sold the card for $110,000, establishing his name and creating a huge buzz around the entire baseball card-collecting community.

As if the card was not famous enough, it eventually found its way into the hands of NHL superstar Wayne Gretzky, who purchased it in an auction put together by Mastro’s company. As a result, the card has been dubbed the “Gretzky T206 Wagner Card.”

While the card was in Gretzky’s possession, he submitted it to a newly formed independent trading card grading company, Professional Sports Authenticators, in order to validate the card’s authenticity.

“I think I may be the only person in the world that’s ever examined it under magnification,” said David Hall, founder of PSA, in an ESPN interview. “We graded 8 on a scale of 1-10, near mint-to-mint. It is the finest known by many, many grading points.”

Since then, the card found its way into the hands of six more owners, and so far, each person has sold it for more than he or she originally paid.

Most recently, Ken Kendrick, a managing general partner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, purchased the Gretzky Wagner Card in 2008 for $2.8 million.

Since that recent purchase, however, reports have leaked to the public that Bill Mastro may have tampered with the card by trimming its edges, increasing its value by removing any and all blemishes.
Rumors grew stronger when the man who initially sold the card to Mastro, Alan Ray, released a report stating that he had taken a picture of the card when it was in his possession. He had compared his picture to Gretzky’s and concluded that “significant improvements” must have been made to it.

If the Gretzky Wagner Card is proven to be “trimmed,” then its worth is estimated to fall to $800,000, losing over $2 million of its estimated value.

The FBI received word of the allegations and has since begun an investigation. Although the process is ongoing, some of the government’s findings suggest that the card was in fact altered before Mastro initially put it up for auction.

“The most famous Honus Wagner card is, to some degree, fraud,” said baseball historian Keith Olbermann in the short film “Holy Grail: The T206 Honus Wagner.”

However, Mastro and a few other memorabilia collectors have dismissed Ray’s claims, saying that a photo doesn’t necessarily prove that the card was ever tampered with.

“I examined it under magnification–all the edges, the corners, and everything–and compared it with other T206s, and it looked fine,” said Hall. “It doesn’t look trimmed to me.”

If PSA originally thought that the card had been altered in any way, then its members would have still labeled it as authentic, but it would have been worth significantly less than what past collectors previously paid.

In Michael O’Keefe’s book entitled The Card, he wrote that one of the graders told him he “knew the card had been trimmed, but he wasn’t not going to give it an ‘A’ because it was such a beautiful card. It would be bad for the hobby.”

In fact, in the baseball card world, it would be in everybody’s best interest if these allegations were falsified, simply because the Gretzky Wagner is the reason so many cards, especially other T206’s, are worth what they are today.

“The reason that an ordinary card from T206 can be sold for $200 today is because of the Wagner,” said Olbermann.

Despite allegations and rumors concerning the card, PSA stands behind its initial ruling on the card, guaranteeing its services as a proven method of card authentication.

Regardless of what the United States v. William Mastro case eventually rules, the Gretzky T206 Wagner will now forever be ingrained into the hearts of the card-collecting community.

Because of this, it does not matter what was done or not done to the card. Its history, full of fraud, manipulation, and scandal, is the reason it will continue to be worth an incredible amount of money–its infamy now the source of its beauty.

Russ Timothy
Staff Writer

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