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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 state agency.

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 Gretzky card.

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, Pittsburg."

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 that day.

"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 owner's heirs.

"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!!


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