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T206 Honus Wagner (The Garagiola Wagner) SGC Authentic sold for $2.52M

Hertiage Auction (Feb 27, 2021)

"There is something Lincolnesque about him," Pulitzer Prize-winning sports journalist Arthur Daley once wrote, "his rugged homeliness, his simplicity, his integrity, and his true nobility of character." Hall of Fame manager John McGraw considered him the greatest ballplayer of all time, and Ty Cobb recalled him as the one man he couldn't intimidate. Yet despite the universal high praise from friends and foes, and his membership in the 1936 inaugural class of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Honus Wagner is best remembered today as the face on the most valuable and coveted of all baseball cards.

While there is some truth to the argument that Wagner's greatness plays a role in the importance of this ultimate collecting rarity, one must acknowledge that it's a supporting role only. A similar print run to contemporaries like Cobb, Young and Mathewson would almost certainly have found Wagner's value equivalent to those legends' as well. But it was Wagner's refusal of the American Tobacco Company's request for permission to use his image that set him apart and above.

The most popular story to explain this refusal is that Wagner wished to play no role in the promotion of the use of tobacco, though it has been justly stated that he was himself a user, and had appeared in advertisements for many tobacco products previously. Another theory notes Wagner's reputation as a fierce negotiator, arguing that it was nothing more than a case of a failure to agree upon a dollar figure that led the ATC to end production of Wagner's card almost as soon as it started.

This unsolved mystery has only served to further enhance the mystique of the treasure presented here, one of just a few dozen examples of the famed Honus Wagner T206 known to exist. A colorized version of a studio portrait by celebrated early baseball photographer Carl Horner, the unmistakable image on the card face finds the superstar shortstop gazing into the middle distance, set against a backdrop of solid orange. The early spelling of his hometown "Pittsburg" is applied across the chest of his high-collared jersey, and again beside his block lettered surname at the bottom border. The verso provides an advertisement for Sweet Caporal Cigarettes, and the trading cards within, noting "Base Ball Series, 150 Subjects."

If it has seemed to you that auction block sightings of the T206 Wagner have slowed in recent years, you are not alone in that assessment. Many have now settled into permanent collections, further thinning a population that was extraordinarily endangered even as Honus was still patrolling the infield. There's every reason to believe that this representation will likewise exit the public domain for years to come.

We've known about this one for well over a decade, as have most of the top collectors in the cardboard trade, the prized possession of baseball icon Joe Garagiola, whose nine seasons of Major League play was followed by decades of elite achievement as a broadcaster. In a fine bit of symmetry, Garagiola's career began and ended with World Championship teams--the 1946 St. Louis Cardinals and the 1954 New York Giants. Our consignor, Garagiola's son, tells us that his dad's 1954 Giants uniform was part of the package he traded for this holiest of hobby grails.

Like virtually every surviving Wagner, the ancient relic has failed to navigate the passage of eleven decades unscathed, but the image area ranks with the best of them, the bulk of the card's wear found on the advertising back. The "Authentic" designation from SGC relates to the card's failure to meet minimum size requirements. The various patches of paper loss here helps shed light upon the card's unlikely survival, as it was clearly pasted into a scrapbook that greatly improved its odds of avoiding the trash heap. The corners are rounded, and a diagonal crease runs just above the Old Dutchman's right ear, but condition quibbles border on sacrilege when discussing a trading card of such true grandeur.

Recent years have seen modern cards steadily gaining ground upon (and sometimes surpassing) the venerable hobby mainstays of The Standard Catalog, but we expect that this offering will find more than its fair share of veteran collectors who still see Honus' face when they close their eyes at night. The T206 Wagner will always be the true king to us, and forever may he reign.

Final Bid with Buyer's Premium (20%): $2,520,000

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