"The Card" leaves us wanting more.
The release of "The Card" by New York Daily News reporters Michael O’Keeffe and Teri Thompson has generated quite a bit of talk inside the hobby. The book delves into the history of the PSA 8 T206 Honus Wagner that sold earlier this year for $2.35 million.
It’s the one item that can be referred to simply as "the card" and everyone knows exactly what you mean. The most famous piece of vintage sports memorabilia has a fuzzy past. The book attempts to confirm some of the whispers that emerged over the years, namely that the card was once part of a small uncut sheet found at a Florida flea market in 1985. No one has ever admitted cutting it from that sheet, much less cutting it again before it was submitted to PSA for authentication and grading when the company launched. Generally, PSA hasn’t graded cards that were cut from sheets but could have been obtained in standard size, but this one wasn’t affected and drew the highest grade ever afforded a T206 Wagner. It generated the publicity PSA needed to become a household name among collectors.
The funny thing is that if you’re old enough to remember collecting cards in the 1970s and 80s, it was fairly common practice to cut cards from sheets. Some preferred having them in the standard size so long as they could be cut to a uniform size (not an easy task unless you had a machine for the job), while others preferred their sheets to remain intact. It really was a matter of personal preference. It’s only been since the arrival of grading companies that cards trimmed from sheets have been considered black sheep.
Whether it’s been cut from a sheet or not, it’s too bad the card’s real history will apparently remain known only to a few. The larger issue that the book touches on only briefly is card restoration. It’s become perhaps the number one concern among vintage card collectors. What’s acceptable and what isn’t? Is it OK to remove wax from the front of the card but not the back? To remove a crease? Erase a pen mark? Rebuild a corner? It may sound silly to those outside the hobby, but turning a card with flaws into one that passes professional grading analysis and then sells for thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars, affects a lot of people–even those not associated with that particular transaction.
There’s little doubt that some dealers and auction companies are buying cards with flaws that can be corrected through restoration–either by an in-house worker or a paper conservator–and turning them into big cash. Most times, the restoration is not being documented or disclosed. The card is simply sold if it passes inspection and no one knows the difference. Those who ultimately feel the pinch are those who are trying to put together sets of high grade cards on a budget, but watch prices increase based on restored cards selling for exhorbitant prices and thus raising the bar.
Restoration is common in artwork and even in the comics world. Personally, I think it’s OK to take something that’s falling apart or creased and preserve it for history’s sake. We can all appreciate a pristine sample of something printed decades earlier. The key is to be forthright about any major alterations that take place. If a card was once creased or had a corner rebuilt or a large mark removed, it should be disclosed to the buyer in some fashion. I have a feeling the cards would still sell for very respectable prices and bring some transparency to an area of the collecting hobby that needs it. It’s only right.