State finds a T206 Wagner in abandoned safety box
Written by Rick Steelhammer (Gazette Online - August 16, 2000)
FAIRLEA - The annual shuffle through abandoned safety deposit boxes by the State Treasurer's
Office may have produced a wild card: a 1909-vintage American Tobacco Co. baseball card for Hall
of Fame charter member Honus Wagner.
If authenticated, the card could be worth six figures or more, according to treasury officials.
Along with antique coins, currency and other collectibles, the card was included in
a State Fair display
of unclaimed property collected by the Treasurer's Office. The exhibit is designed
to get fair-goers to
use computer terminals at the Treasurer's booth to see if they are among thousands of West
Virginians entitled to file claims for unclaimed property, currency or stock
certificates collected by the
Treasury officials, not realizing that the card was particularly valuable, included it in the exhibit
merely to demonstrate the range of items found abandoned in safety deposit boxes.
But last Friday, according to Treasurer's Office investigator Richard Fisher, a sport card collector
eyeballing the exhibit spotted the Honus Wagner card, did a double-take, and said, "Do you know
what you have here?"
When those manning the booth replied in the negative, the collector returned with a printout from a
card-collectors' Web site detailing the planned eBay auction of a similar-looking 1909-11 American
Tobacco Co. Honus Wagner trading card that fetched $1.1 million last month. That same card, once
owned by hockey great Wayne Gretzky, sold for $640,500 in 1996, making it the most valuable
sports card of all time at that time, and earning it the nickname the "Mona Lisa of all trading cards."
Back in Charleston, Treasury officials began combing the Internet for more information about the
The front of the Gretzky card appears identical to the card on display at the State Fair, with Wagner
striking an identical pose on each card. On each card, the "h" at the end of "Pittsburgh" is cropped off
Wagner's uniform, and on each, a caption line under the photo identifies the player as "WAGNER,
The only major difference can be found on the flip side of the card. The back of the $1.1 million card
once owned by Gretzky carries the logo for "Piedmont, the cigarette of quality." On the State Fair
Wagner card, the back of the card carries the logo of Caporal, another American Tobacco brand of
"We don't know if that makes it less valuable or more valuable, assuming it's authentic," said Nelson
Sorah, deputy state treasurer for communications.
"We've contacted Robert Edwards Auctions in New York, the company that handled the eBay
auction earlier this year, to see if they can authenticate this card," Sorah said. "So far, we've heard
nothing from them."
The Gretzky Honus Wagner card was described as being in mint condition, while the State Fair
Wagner card shows some wear at its edges, but still appears to be in relatively good shape.
The cards were distributed with packs of cigarettes as a tobacco- marketing ploy. According to
sporting card legend, Wagner, a nonsmoker who didn't want to encourage kids to smoke, demanded
that American Tobacco stop making his card. Another version of that story has it that Wagner wanted
more money from the tobacco company for his cooperation in the card business.
In any event, the Wagner card was recalled, and its distribution was limited to an estimated 50 or 60
worldwide, according to an ABC News account of the Gretzky card's eBay auction.
Meanwhile, back in Fairlea, the West Virginia card has become something of an attraction at the State
Fair booth, according to Fisher. Among area card collectors, word has apparently got out about the
presence of the Honus Wagner item.
"If it turns out to be legitimate, it would be the most valuable tangible item to come out of an
unclaimed safety deposit box," Fisher said.
Fisher said the card was found during a sweep last year of abandoned safety deposit boxes turned
over to the Treasurer's Office by state banks. Fisher said he couldn't remember the town the Wagner
card came from, and said he wouldn't tell even if he knew, until another effort is made to find its
"If the card is legitimate, we'll do everything we can to find its owner or his legal heirs," said the
former State Police officer. "But if we announce where it was found and who it belonged to now,
we'll have all kinds of people coming out of the woodwork. "
If the heirs can't be located and the card turns out to be another Mona Lisa, "we'll auction it off, as
we're required by law to do," Fisher said.
The Treasurer's Office investigator said he had never heard of Honus Wagner, who batted above
.300 for 17 straight seasons, until last week.
"Now, Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth, they would have registered," he said. "But we only come across
10 or 12 baseball cards a year."
The Treasurer's Office is charged with trying to find the rightful owners of property from abandoned
safety deposit boxes, and auctioning off items when owners or heirs can't be found. Banks send to
the Treasurer's Office the contents of boxes for which rent has lapsed for five years.
Whoever owned the Honus Wagner card now in the Treasurer's Office display apparently considered
it valuable. In addition to keeping it in a bank safety deposit box, the owner placed the card in a hard
plastic frame that was securely screwed together.
"This is a great job," said Fisher. "You never know what's going to turn up in the next box."
Legitimate?? Your judgement is needed!!
Gallery - T206 Honus Wagner
Periodicals - T206 Honus Wagner