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T206 Honus Wagner PSA-1.5 sold for $2.28M

Hertiage Auction (May 8, 2021)

1909-11 T206 Sweet Caporal Honus Wagner PSA Fair 1.5. Even in an industry built upon nostalgia, progress marches ever onward. Though all of us were more than happy to toss our 2020 calendars into the trash can, it was the year that the hobby floodgates burst open with soaring prices for limited-edition holographic "sparkle" cards and purely virtual non-fungible tokens (NFT's), an unprecedented era of innovation that shook up the collectibles world. Countless thousands of new buyers pumped countless billions of new dollars into the market, toppling pricing records like dominoes and teaching us old dogs, who had never given much thought to anything not coated in decades of dust, a fresh new set of tricks. It's a groundbreaking era for the sports collectibles marketplace, and we welcome this burgeoning rush of converts to our congregation with open arms.

For as long as even the most gray-muzzled among us can recall, the T206 Honus Wagner has reigned as the unequivocal calling card of the hobby elite. No longer the most expensive card ever sold, it had held that distinction for the better part of a century, the brightest star of the personal collection of Jefferson Burdick, the man who coined the term "T206" in the exhaustive trading card taxonomy that remains his hobby legacy. Burdick was set upon this Herculean task when his offer to donate his massive collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City met with its curator's conditional acceptance of the gift--Burdick would have to organize and catalog the collection himself. He'd spend the last fifteen years of his life dedicated to that assignment, moving from his native Syracuse to a downtown New York City hotel so that he could set up office space in the Department of Prints at the Met, his days spent affixing cards to album pages. According to the introduction of Burdick's directory, authored by the museum curator A. Hyatt Mayor, Burdick pasted down his last card on January 10, 1963, donned his coat and announced, "I shan't be back." Two months later, he was dead at age sixty-three, and buried beneath a headstone engraved, "One of the greatest card collectors of all times."

While we're certain that Burdick would view the recent explosion of limited edition parallel cards and their computer-generated contemporaries with some degree of bemusement, he most assuredly would smile down upon those of us who share his passion for this slab of antique cardboard that came about its scarcity and acclaim in the old-fashioned way. The presented T206 Honus Wagner is the quintessential example of true collectible rarity, a profoundly endangered species driven to the edge of extinction first by an intensely abridged original production run and then by the merciless indifference of Father Time. Burdick valued the card at $50 in his 1933 edition of "The American Card Catalog," equivalent to $1,000 today, and the priciest card in his collection.

The most popular story for Wagner's extreme scarcity relative to other entries from American Tobacco's magnum opus suggests that the Hall of Fame shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates was concerned that cigarette cards would guide America's youth toward a bad habit--a rather forward-thinking opinion at the time--but baseball historians are correct to point out that Wagner does appear in other tobacco issues, and that he himself was a user. The more probable solution to the riddle is that Wagner simply refused to agree to the financial terms offered for the use of his likeness.

While the cause remains uncertain, the effect is not-the Pirates shortstop was quickly pulled from the production roster and the original printing plate destroyed, providing only a small population of Wagners the opportunity for distribution throughout the American Tobacco supply chain.

Most experts today calculate the full population of surviving T206 Wagners at about five dozen, thirty-six of which are housed in the slab of the hobby's leading grading service. Only a single example appears in the upper half of the grading spectrum, the notorious "McNall/Gretzky Wagner," sold to the owner of the Los Angeles Kings and his iconic Hall of Fame center in 1991 for a then-record $451,000. It last traded hands in 2007 for $2.35 million, though a different example has since claimed the Wagner record at $3.12 million in 2016.

Just two months ago, Heritage Auctions gave that record card a run for its money, coming up just short at $2.52 million for an example that was the pride and joy of former Major Leaguer and Hall of Fame broadcaster Joe Garagiola. That card was assessed as "Authentic" by SGC due to its failure to meet minimum size requirements. The offered example, by contrast, has been confirmed as unaltered, assigned a PSA grade of Fair 1.5. The assessment relates to a vertical crease that runs a lazy diagonal past the Old Dutchman's right ear, and four spots of toning at the rear corners, clearly the result of scrapbook presentation that is the likeliest cause for its survival to present day.

Will this example claim the Wagner pricing throne? There's certainly reason to believe it might. And what could the future hold? We'll advise newcomers that the highest-graded Wagner we've ever sold, a PSA Good 2 specimen, found a new owner at $776,750 fewer than five years ago. The Old Dutchman isn't done climbing yet, not by a long shot.

Final Bid with Buyer's Premium (20%): $2,280,000

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