The "holy grail" of baseball cards is still king, nearly a century after it’s original release.
When Hall of Fame shortstop Honus Wagner died in his suburban Pittsburgh home in 1955, he had no idea that to many he would be more famous a half century later for an obscure tobacco promotion than for his incredible success on the field of play.
Baseball card collectors in the ’50s were overwhelmingly young and more concerned with Willie, Mickey and the Duke than the Flying Dutchman. Those who did pursue the hobby into their adult years would eventually confirm what early collectors had determined: the T206 Wagner card was a scarce issue.
"Every collectibles genre has something like this," said Brian Wentz of Madison, WI based BMW Sports, who’s bought and sold several Wagner cards over the years. "It’s really interesting because there are a lot of cards that are many times harder to find than the Wagner but it remains popular for a variety of reasons and has become the most valuable card in existence in all grades."
Distributed for a time, but pulled from the set at Wagner’s insistence, collectors who began researching the card began to guess that far fewer than 100 had survived into the 1970s.
"It’s a really tough question," Wentz told Sports Collectors Daily while manning his table at the National Sports Collectors Convention. "Unlike a lot of other cards sold frequently, Wagner cards often stay in collections for thirty years or more. My best estimate is that there are between 50 and 60 that are in the ‘poor/fair/good range and about 15 others that would grade ‘very good’ or better."
BMW Sports brought two of the Wagner cards to the National. One was a PSA graded 2, the other slabbed and graded 40 by SportsCard Guaranty(SGC).
"We had several people interested in the PSA 2 when the National opened. Some couldn’t pull the trigger but we were able to consummate a deal with one individual with the understanding we could keep it until the end of the show for display purposes. It’s nice to have two cards that people don’t get to see very often."
Wentz is one of the major players in the high-end vintage card market. His personal collection includes four, none of which he says are graded. "The PSA 2 was originally offered in a Mastro auction last year. The client we represent bought it for over $230,000 and now wants to sell it. It looks like we may at the end of the show have a sale at approximately $350,000." Following the show, however, Wentz would not confirm the card had actually been sold, citing confidentiality. The price realized in that Mastro auction in April of 2005 was over three times higher than the last PSA 2 that was sold in September of 2000.
The highest graded example of a Wagner was also on display at the National. Graded NM/MT 8 by PSA and once co-owned by Wayne Gretzky, the card was purchased in 2000 for over $1.2 million by collector Brian Seigel. Wentz says he has a raw Wagner that he believes would grade near mint. Clearly, the Wagner card in virtually any grade, has proven to be a worthwhile investment for those able to buy, hold and then sell. "We expect the PSA 8 to sell for over $2 million sometime in the next year," Wentz said. "Once that happens, we will probably sell ours."
"I’m not hunting down terrorists or saving people’s lives through open heart surgery, I’m just a baseball card dealer. But we’ve been very fortunate and blessed to have run across major collections that have had Wagners in them."
Frank Ward of CenturyOldCards.com has scans of 19 different T206 Wagner cards in a gallery on his web site.
For news accounts of past Wagner sales, visit the non-profit T206Museum.com website.