BERLIN TOWNSHIP, N.J. -- Seeing the most valuable baseball card in the world sitting on a cluttered desk in an office complex in the Philadelphia suburbs is like seeing the Hope Diamond hanging in a mall earring kiosk, or the Holy Grail at Kitchen Kapers.
A 1909 Honus Wagner T-206 baseball card in excellent condition belongs in a museum, or Cooperstown, or in a display case at a billionaire's home. But for the next month, it will be in Southern New Jersey: not on that cluttered desk (except when being shown to the media), but in a bank vault, waiting to find a new home and take its place among the most precious collectibles in the world.
The desk belongs to Ken Goldin, president of Goldin Auctions. The T-206 "Jumbo" Wagner is up for auction. The card could be on your desk, or in your display case or bank vault, by early April.
That's assuming you have $2 million or so to spend.
The Big Kahuna
Most sports fans know the basics of the T-206 Wagner story. Along with the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card, it's the most famous baseball card in the world. "Non-collectors, if they know two baseball cards, this is one of them," according to Dean Hanley, founder of DeansCards.com and author of Before There was Bubble Gum: Our Favorite Pre-World War I Baseball Cards.
The Wagner card was part of a set printed by the American Tobacco Company as insets in tobacco packages in 1909. Wagner objected to his inclusion in the set, and when he threatened legal action the company discontinued production of his card, going so far as to destroy the photographic plates. Less than 200 of the cards were produced, and that scarcity, combined with Wagner's status as one of the greatest players in baseball history, make the card one of the most coveted collectibles of any kind in the world.
What most fans don't know is that the Wagner card has been sought after by collectors for as long as there have been collectors. "This card came out in 1909. In 1911, they knew something was wrong," Golden said. There were no hobby shops, pricing guides or on-line auctions in the 1910s, but there were baseball enthusiasts eager to complete what is now known as the T-206 set of 524 cards. Wagner would have been the centerpiece of such a set, but his card was impossible to find. The story of Wagner's threatened lawsuit was not common knowledge for several years. "Nobody could find out why they couldn't find him."
By 1933, the first known baseball card pricing catalog valued the T-206 Wagner at $50, an astronomical sum for the peak of the Great Depression. Its value went up as baseball card collecting became a common children's hobby in the 1950s. By the 1970s, collectors knew it was "the Hope Diamond, the Crown Jewels, the Big Kahuna, whatever you want to call it," according to Hanley. Still, prices in card catalogs were speculative, because the cards were so rare that they rarely changed hands.
That speculation turned into reality when a T-206 in stunningly good condition found its way from a Long Island memorabilia shop to Sotheby's auction house in just five years, its exchange price leaping from $25,000 to $110,000 and beyond. Hockey great Wayne Gretzky purchased the card at auction in 1991 for $451,000 -- and what is now called the Gretzky T-206 continued its trek through famous hands until it landed in the collection of Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick for a price of $2.6 million.
The Wagner card up for auction now is the Jumbo Wagner, named for its margins, which are wider than those found on the typical T-206 Wagner (printing and cutting standards were not as uniform then as they would later become). The wide margins protected the face of the card, keeping it in excellent condition. The card was graded as a "5" on a 1-to-10 condition scale by Professional Sports Authenticators, the independent company that provides industry-standard grades for collectibles. The Gretzky T-206 is an "8," the highest quality Wagner card in existence, though with a caveat: it was cut from a sheet and never inserted in a tobacco pack, allowing its corners to remain extra sharp. There is only one other T-206 Wagner "5" in the world, and only one "4." The Jumbo Wagner is a rarity among rarities.
The Jumbo Wagner was authenticated and sold for $1.62 million in 2008. "The recession was pretty bad at that point," Goldin said. "The stock market had crashed, yet this card sold for $1.62 million. We think it will do substantially better."
Bidding started at $500,000 on Sunday but had already reached $605,000 by Monday afternoon and $732,050 by Monday evening. Bidding continues until April 5. "I would be disappointed if it goes below $2.3 million," Goldin said. "If the right two or three people go crazy, this thing goes for three-and-a-half million dollars."
You can follow the Wagner bidding at Goldin's website, and if you dabble in collectibles you can place bids on many lower-priced items. But don't even think about participating in the Wagner auction if you aren't serious. The website will not allow you to bid, though it provides a phone number to get you started on the verification process. "Nobody can just walk in here and place a bid," Goldin says.
Goldin works with other auction houses and uses protocols to make sure that only serious bidders apply. While you may know some collectors serious enough to bid on the signed Babe Ruth baseball ($10,000 by the time this article was turned in) or a signed Stan Musial bat ($3,000), the Jumbo Wagner appeals to a different strata of collector.
While keeping client confidentiality, Goldin outlined the three general types of potential buyers. First, there are collectors of the T-206 set, who were able to scoop up every other card for a few thousand dollars decades ago and have now saved enough money to complete the ultimate collection. "They are going to be very price conscious," Goldin said. "They are going to hope it hits within their range."
Second, there are what Goldin calls "collectors of iconic things," like Dorothy's ruby slippers. Third, there are the people in the Gretzky-Kendrick class: "the billionaires, baseball team owners, Hollywood movie actors who love sports."
Hanley speculated that there may be a fourth type of buyer. "It may not be a collector at all," he said. Hanley has sold complete vintage sets from the 1950s to individuals who considered the cards part of an investment portfolio. A T-206 Wagner card is so rare and iconic, said Hanley, that "it's like something from a precious art collection, or a brick of gold."
Baseball cards in general have proven to be risky investments: a speculator's boom in the early 1990s (sparked in part by the sale of the Gretzky card) resulted in a buying spree, a market glut for newer cards, and an inevitable value crash. Items like a T-206 Wagner are nearly immune from such market forces, however. The ultra-high-end collectibles market stagnated during the recession, but "it was nothing like the real estate market or stock market," Goldin said.
"You hate to call a trading card an investment," Goldin warned, but "there has never been a recorded public sale of a Honus Wagner card where the next consecutive card in the same set in the same grade has not sold for more." Few investments in the world can boast a similar hitting streak.
Stuck in the Attic
If the Jumbo Wagner is too rich for your blood -- and it probably is -- there are many other items up for auction. In addition to the Ruth ball and Musial bat, there's a 1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle card, game-worn jerseys by Derek Jeter and Joe Montana, and the surprise rising star of the lot: Alex Rodriguez's 2009 World Series ring, the one he gave to his cousin/alleged steroid supplier Yuri Sucrat. The New York tabloids have named it "The Dope Ring." Bidding opened at $10,000, but had reached $33,657 at press time. "This could surprise me and go for $100,000," Goldin said.
If those prices are too steep, you can skip the auctions and go back to collecting cards from the hobby's golden era of the 1950s through the 1970s. A T-206 Wagner sale does no more for ordinary card values than a Hope Diamond sale does for an engagement ring, according to Hanley, but it does renew interest among casual collectors. "It's good for the hobby," he said. "The publicity is nice."
Hanley has seen sales rise recently, as the craziness of the 1990s boom and fears of the 2008 recession are slowly receding, while nostalgia for the days of bubble gum packs and cards in bicycle spokes is renewed. He laid out the math. "Ten thousand people turn 65 years old in this country every day. Half of them are male. Of those men, 89% collected baseball cards as kids. They now have time and money on their hands. This could be a boom for the hobby."
And if you must have a T-206 Wagner but can't participate in Goldin's auction, there's a final alternative: search high and low. "As sure as God made little green apples, there are Wagner cards still stuck in attics that people don't know they have," Hanley said. Grandpa's cigar box could contain a $2 million surprise.