Mona Lisa of Baseball Cards
Dubbed “The Mona Lisa of baseball cards,” the Honus Wagner card is no mere piece of sports memorabilia. It is a cultural icon synonymous with baseball history and collecting.
This fabled treasure transcends time and captivates the hearts of collectors of every kind. Among the millions of sports memorabilia, this card stands as an emblem of prestige, earning its reputation as the “Holy Grail” of trading cards.
Reserved for the truly elite, the opportunity to acquire this card comes few and far between. The last chance was a Goldin auction in August 2022.
However, there’s good news for collectors with their eyes on this card, as another Honus Wagner card is going up for auction soon. In preparation for the auction, this article shall delve into the exciting tale of the T206 Honus Wagner card.
It shall explore the Honus Wagner card, discuss how many exist, and shed light on the forthcoming auction.
The story of the T206 Honus Wagner card begins with the T206 set, a historical collection of baseball cards produced by the American Tobacco Company from 1909 to 1911. The American Tobacco Company was formed due to the 1889 merger of five major cigarette manufacturers.
The T206 set was a marketing endeavor to increase tobacco sales by including baseball cards in cigarette packs. It was a significantly large release containing a 524-card comprising numerous Hall of Famers, minor leaguers, and lesser-known players. It got the “T206” name from famous collector Jefferson Burdick in his 1939 book.
Burdick created a book called The American Card Catalog, which he used to help keep track of all the various types of trading cards released until that time. The “T” was the designation given for all 20th-century cards, and the 206 was the number used for organizational purposes.
The set remains one of the most iconic and highly sought-after collections. Several cards from the set have achieved legendary status. However, this set’s most famous and most valuable card is the legendary T206 Honus Wagner card.
Honus Wagner was a legendary figure in the world of baseball. Nicknamed “The Flying Dutchman,” he is regarded as one of the game’s all-time greats.
He was a shortstop who revolutionized the position with his exceptional skills and ability to cover ground effortlessly.
Fellow Hall of Fame skipper John McGraw called Honus Wagner “The nearest thing to a perfect player no matter where his manager chose to play him.”
When Wagner retired following the 1917 season, Wagner had totaled 3,420 hits, 643 doubles, 1,739 runs, 1,732 RBI, and 723 stolen bases to go with a .328 batting average. To the surprise of no one, Wagner was among the first five players elected to the Hall of Fame in 1936.
As one of the First-Generation heroes in the MLB, Wagner’s cards are incredibly valuable. His cards easily sell for tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, the T206 stands above all his cards.
Indeed, no trading card and memorabilia holds a candle to what is officially the most highly valued baseball card in history. Wagner is depicted in a famous pose used on two other of his cards – the D322 Tip Top card and W600 Sporting Life Cabinet.
What Makes It So Valuable?
The T206 Honus Wagner card has earned its reputation as one of history’s most valuable sports trading cards. What exactly makes the T206 Honus Wagner card so valuable?
The answer lies in a combination of factors contributing to its allure over the years.
Honus Wagner is undoubtedly one of Baseball’s Greatest players. Born in 1874, Wagner’s career spanned over two decades, primarily with the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he solidified his status as one of the game’s all-time greats.
Amongst the inaugural Hall of Fame inductees, Wagner was one of the most celebrated players of his era.
He redefined the position as a shortstop with his extraordinary defensive skills, agility, and powerful arm. His ability earned him the admiration of fans and fellow players alike. Offensively, Wagner was equally impressive.
His contributions to the game extended beyond his on-field performance. He was a respected leader and mentor to younger players. Beyond his achievements, the T206 set adds to the appeal of this card.
Honus Wagner Card Values Today
Wagner’s superstar status has helped push the value of his cards today. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Wagner card worth less than several thousand dollars. However, what drove the value of his T206 card into being the most expensive card of all time is its extreme rarity and limited supply.
The T206 set is considered the first mass-produced set ever printed, with hundreds of thousands of cards printed per player. Indeed, tens of thousands of cards from the T206 set are still surviving. However, the print run of the Honus Wagner card was extremely limited.
According to an October 12, 1912, issue of The Sporting News, Wagner did not consent to appear on the baseball card. In response to ATC’s authorization request letter sent to seek his permission, Wagner wrote that he “did not care to have his picture in a package of cigarettes.”
He threatened to pursue legal action against the ATC if they went ahead and distributed his baseball card. The exact reason for Wagner’s strong negative reaction to the request is unknown.
Some sources claim that Wagner did not want to be associated with a product that promotes cigarettes to children. Other sources claim Wagner needed more money from the American Tobacco Company and used the cigarette line as an excuse.
Whatever the reason, the result remains the same. The ATC took Wagner’s card out of the production line-up after the first few batches. This led to just a few T206 Wagner cards available to the public.
Experts estimate that at most just 200 were printed at the max, with only 57 known to exist today. The PSA has graded just 36 T206 Honus Wagner cards, as shown below.
Famous Honus Wagner Cards
While Wagner’s stardom and his T206 card’s rarity have helped push the value of this card, this card’s current worth is due to its position in the collecting world.
The T206 Honus Wagner has transcended its status as a mere sports collectible to become a powerful status symbol of wealth and affluence. Its reputation as the “Holy Grail” of trading cards, combined with its scarcity and historical significance, has elevated the card to an emblem of exclusivity and prestige.
There are books written about the T206 Wagner card. The card has also made cameo appearances in movies, TV shows, and references in pop culture.
Today, owning a T206 Wagner card signifies not only a deep appreciation for baseball history and collecting but also a statement of financial success and elite taste.
The card’s astronomical value and the record-breaking prices it has commanded at auctions have solidified its status as a highly coveted asset among the affluent. For those with significant financial means, acquiring the T206 Honus Wagner card becomes a symbol of their standing in society.
The earliest recorded T206 Honus Wagner card valuation was in 1933 in Jefferson Burdick’s The American Card Catalog.
The card was listed at $50, the most expensive baseball card in the world at the time. Experts say this was the beginning of the Honus Wagner’s card rise to fame as Burdick had assigned much lesser values to all the other T206 cards, some less than a quarter apiece. His $50 valuation showed how rare and difficult to find the card was even then.
By the 1970s, T206 Wagner’s were sold for hundreds of dollars. According to a print ad in a collector’s magazine, it was worth as much as $1,500. The die was cast, and the card’s price has only increased since then.
The Gretzky Wagner
Discovered in the early 1980s, the Gretzky Wagner card is considered the finest and highest-graded example of the T206 Honus Wagner card.
The card came to attention when card collector Alan Ray sold it along with several T206 cards in a $25,000 deal to Bill Mastro, a sports memorabilia dealer and founder of Mastro Auctions. Mastro sold the T206 Wagner to Jim Copeland in 1987 for $110,000.
Gretzky said he purchased it because he thought “the market would remain strong,” making it a valuable investment.
Gretzky sold the card to Walmart and Treat Entertainment for $500,000 in 1995. The companies used it as the grand prize in a promotional contest. The contest was won by one Patricia Gibbs, a postal worker in Florida. Gibbs couldn’t afford taxes on the card, so she consigned the card to an auction at a New York-based auction house.
Michael Gidwitz, who had battled with Gretzky for the card at the Copeland auction in 1991, won the Christie’s auction with a bid of $641,500 in 1996.
He partnered with eBay and Robert Edwards Auction to sell the card via a 10-day online auction. It was sold to Brain Seigel on July 15, 2000, for $1.265 million.
After seven years, Seigel announced that he’d sold the card privately to an anonymous collector for $2.35 million. SCP announced that the card had been sold again less than six months later to another anonymous collector for $2.8 million. The anonymous collector was later revealed to be Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick.
After Gretzky’s 1991 purchase of the T206 Wagner card, allegations that the card had been altered came up. This was after Gretzky approached the PSA to grade the card. The card’s odd shape led to speculation that it was altered.
While the PSA released a statement that the card was “superb and fantastic in every way,” experts maintained that the card had been altered. This claim was bolstered when Alan Ray claimed he had proof of the alteration. He had a photograph of the card before the transaction with Mastro, and the card looked significantly different.
Some collectors dismissed Ray’s claims, stating that the picture hardly proves someone altered the card. However, Mastro was indicted on federal fraud charges on December 2012 and pleaded guilty.
He also later admitted to the court that he had trimmed the “Gretzky” Wagner card to sharply increase its value. Bill Hughes was the official grader of the card, working for PSA at the time. He also admitted knowing the card had been altered when he graded it.
Amongst the only three Wagner cards to receive a rating above EX is the Jumbo Wagner. It’s named after its unusually wide borders that far exceed the standard border size of a T206 card.
This is likely a result of a miscut during the production stages. The usually large borders helped preserve the card within its boundaries.
According to Joe Orlando, the President of the PSA, it surfaced in 2008 when it sold at auction for $1.62m. Its subsequent sale was at Goldin 2013 Winter Auction and sold for $2,105,770 to an anonymous buyer.
The anonymous buyer put it up for sale in 2016 at yet another Goldin auction, selling for $3.12 million, setting a record price for a trading card at a public auction.
The Jumbo Wagner has changed hands significantly fewer times than the Gretzky Wagner. However, it has sold for significant profits each time it did.
Charlie Sheen’s Wagner
Another popular T206 Honus Wagner card is the Charlie Sheen Wagner. Like the Gretzky Wagner, this is named after the huge baseball fan Charlie Sheen who once owned the card.
It graded PSA 1 due to its poor condition. It possesses rounded corners, creasing, and what resembles a pinhole above his head. However, even with its PSA 1 grade, this card still sells for really outstanding figures.
First sold in 1993 for $55,000, it resurfaced in 2000 when it was bought for $70,400. It also was purchased in 2013 for a remarkably $402,000. It sold in March 2022 for $3,136,500, setting a record for a PSA 1 example.
This card was part of The Chesapeake Find, a significant find of more than 3,500 1909-11 T206 cards, including multiple rarities such as Magie, Demmitt, and O’Hara.
The Chesapeake Wagner
There was a single Honus Wagner in the haul nicknamed the Chesapeake Wagner. Its condition is similar to the Sheen Wagner, and it has a PSA 1 grade. This Wagner still sells for impressive figures regardless of its grade. It last sold for $403,664 in 2014.
This T206 Honus Wagner is housed in the New York Public Library. There’s scarce information on where it was purchased or how much it was bought for.
This card is a “raw” card and has not been professionally graded. It is currently housed at the New York Public Library and is open to visitors. You can learn more about this card at the official New York Public Library.
Jefferson Burdick’s Wagner
Another “raw” T206 Wagner card is housed at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is part of collector Jefferson Burdick’s collection of over 30,000 cards. It has a credit line of “The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick” with Accession Number 63.3126.96.36.1998. You can find out more about this card at the official New York Metropolitan Museum of Art site.
For the first time in over a year, the Holy Grail of baseball cards is heading to the auction block again. Five of the nine T206 Wagner sales over the last three years have come through Mile High Auction House. Once more, the Mile High Card Company is offering collectors an opportunity to get their hands on the ‘Holy Grail’ of trading cards.
According to the CEO of Mile High Card Company, Brian Drent
“As the bellwether of the card collecting world, the sale of a T206 Wagner is an event that serves to mark the state of our industry, and no one has a better track record of success over the last few years than Mile High Card Company,”
It’s the first Wagner sale since Goldin sold a PSA 1.5 for $3.7 million in 2022. This T206 Honus Wagner card will be auctioned by Mile High Card Company is the same card that sold for over $1.1 million in a 2021 SCP auction.
It’s labeled Authentic/Restored by the PSA because some creases were retouched in the card’s background. Other than that, it’s an entirely original T206 Wagner card with the Sweet Caporal cigarettes advertising back.
MHCC’s September auction has a consignment deadline of July 30, the closing day of the 43rd National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago. Mile High will be at the National at booths 803 and 902 and will be taking consignments.
Few items hold as much allure and appeal as the T206 Honus Wagner card. Its first auction in over a year is sure to create a buzz as collectors fancy getting their hands on a T206 Wagner.
T206 Wagner auctions in the past have attracted not only sports memorabilia collectors but investors seeking alternative assets with the potential for substantial returns. Indeed, buyers would be looking towards this auction with high spirits as the T206 Wagner card has a track record of value appreciation.
If you’re interested in more auctions with great cards up for sale, you should check out the Buy & Sell section where we discuss the best upcoming auctions for each month.