The T206 set is more than 100 years old and in terms of pre-war cards, is the most collected issue of all time. There are many reasons for that, of course.
First, many of the cards are, by and large, affordable – especially in low-grade condition, where commons can be found for as little as $10. The set also is home to many of the sport’s biggest early 20th century names and a popular choice among collectors looking for Hall of Famers. There are also many different ways to collect it, which makes it attractive. It’s also the set where the most famous card of all time, the Honus Wagner T206, resides.
But one of the things that has made it so collectible is the fact that, judged against other pre-war issues, it is one of the most populous sets. Despite that, prices for the T206 cards have not only remained steady but continue to rise.
T206 Population is High Compared to Other Pre-War Issues
Scot Reader’s book Inside T206 theorizes that production could have been as high as 370 million cards. Even in the context that the cards were produced over a three-year period from 1909-11, that remains an astounding figure.
Collectors new to T206 may look at the 524-card checklist and wonder why so many were made. But that number would include the assortment of backs available for each card from the various tobacco manufacturers. While there are 524 different card fronts with pictures of players, there are several thousand different actual cards when all of the different backs are considered. Still, 370 million is a lot of cards, folks.
Many cards simply did not survive, of course. Millions were likely discarded by adult cigarette smokers who had no interest in baseball or trading cards. Millions more may have been kept for a while but ultimately discarded. Many, no doubt, were lost to the paper/scrap drives of the World War II era. Most were lost but some were kept and Reader estimates that approximately 1.5 to 3.0 million T206 cards still exist today. By comparison, that number is still far greater than most pre-war issues including the popular caramel card sets of the same general era. It says a lot for the popularity of tobacco use more than a century ago.
The result is a somewhat crowded market, which has brought completing a basic set of 520 cards (minus the four rarities of Wagner, Doyle Nat’l, Magie, and Plank) down to merely one’s level of discretionary income. Singular examples of most every T206 card are generally available on eBay and not too difficult to find. Even the rare Demmitt and O’Hara St. Louis variations aren’t too tough to secure. If one has the resources and money is no object, a set could theoretically even be pieced together in a day. Even with somewhat careful spending, accumulating a set in a year or two is not an impossible task. The cards, for the most part, can be found at every turn using online resources.
Because of the somewhat high volume of T206 cards available and the easy availability online, it might be easy to assume that values would be extremely low. But that isn’t really the case and prices for many cards have continued to rise. Prices are lower compared to many rare issues but they remain relatively high for such a populous set.
As we mentioned earlier, T206 is popular in part because you can own a century-old piece of history for less than you’ll spend the next time you eat at a restaurant, but commons have slightly crept up in recent years. Finding decent looking low-grade cards in the $10-$20 range has gotten increasingly more difficult. The bigger names, too, continue to increase. Most notably, the four Ty Cobb cards have risen sharply in the past ten years years. The most glaring example of that are the green background Cobbs, the most expensive of the four. Mid-grade ones, such as this PSA 4 that sold in a 2007 REA auction could be previously bought for under $4,000. A card in the same grade sold this year for $6,300 via Huggins & Scott.
Higher-grade cards are seeing even larger exponential jumps in value. A PSA 5 Cobb with the green background sold for less than $5,000 in 2008. This year, SCP sold a PSA 5 for more than $26,000. The other Cobb cards aren’t as valuable but are seeing similar increases in value.
And the Wagner card, which needs no introduction, continues to skyrocket. Many low-grade examples sold for under $100,000 in the early 2000s. This past year, two sold at auction for six times that amount. The famous ‘Jumbo’ Wagner broke the all-time record for a baseball card sale, selling for more than $3 million this year.
There are many cards T206 available but collectors aren’t done buying them.
The reason for the T206 increases in value despite a populated is pretty simple. Right now, demand continues to be high and more and more collectors continue to discover them. While the supply/demand model is the key, there are many factors are at play here as to why demand is still high.
The Wagner, the most famous baseball card of all time, is drawing record prices at auction and remains in the mainstream culture. Even many non-collectors can identify the Wagner card or, at the very least, have heard of it. That’s helped increase the T206 ‘brand,’ so to speak. ‘
Additionally, newer products such as Topps 206 have introduced these cards to younger generations. Younger collectors are getting their hands on T206 cards as a result and becoming interested in them, even if only as a secondary interest to the latest Mike Trout or Aaron Judge insert cards.
Another factor is the influx of collectors who were immersed in the boom of the 1980s and 1990s as youngsters are starting to grow up. These collectors are now entering their late 30s and 40s and now have more discretionary income. Many collectors from that era left the hobby entirely, disenfranchised by the plummeting prices of cards they once collected that held significant value. However, some remained or have returned and now have more money to spend, looking for a more firm investment, such as vintage cards.
“The T206 set is one of the most well-known and widely-collected sets in our hobby, so it’s always being talked about and there are always lots of T206s in auctions,” Dwyer stated. “This helps boost the prominence of the set and the prices of the cards in my opinion.”
Supply of T206 cards remains high but demand, for now, keeps prices on a steady incline.
There is value to be found even more collectors who can’t see themselves ever having the ability to chase down all 524– or even 520–subjects.
“I’ve always felt that some of the second and third tier Hall of Famers within the T206 set represent a great value,” Dwyer said. “You can get some great looking cards of Hall of Famers like Crawford, Duffy, or Keeler for very reasonable prices in VG condition. I’ve also thought that advertising backs like Polar Bear, Sovereign, and Tolstoi add a small challenge to collecting and many times sell for just a slight premium over the much more common Piedmont or Sweet Caporal backs. There’s also always something to be said for picking up a nice foundation of 100 cards in an auction lot and kicking off from there. You can hit the ground running, eliminate individual shipping charges on 100 cards if you bought them one by one, and maybe end up with some duplicates to give trading a try.”
Check out eBay’s current ‘most watched’ T206 auctions below.