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New photo shows $2.35 million Wagner card has been altered

NYDAILYNEWS.COM (By Michael O'Keeffe & Teri Thompson) (June 25, 2007)

"The Card", a new book by Michael O'Keeffe and Teri Thompson, chronicles the sordid tale of the 1909 T206 Honus Wagner baseball card, the most sought-after card in the world.

... "The right side is definitely wavy,' the hobby insider says. 'The left side looks a little wavy, too. This is all consistent with a card that has been cut from a sheet."

The 1909 T206 Honus Wagner that Las Vegas businessman Brian Seigel sold to a mystery collector in February for a record $2.35 million has been touted for years by hobby officials as the Holy Grail of baseball cards. But it has also been dogged by shadowy, persistent rumors that it was cut from a sheet decades after it left the factory - a major taboo in the world of vintage cards - and later trimmed to enhance its value.

The hobby rumor mill was fueled by reports of photographs that proved the card, once owned by hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky, had been altered to improve its condition. Few collectors or dealers, however, have ever seen those photos, and they have never been made public.

Until now, anyway. The Daily News has obtained photos from a hobby insider that show what Alan Ray, a New York-area collector who sold the card to memorabilia king Bill Mastro in 1985, has been saying for years: The card was cut from a sheet and later doctored to enhance its appearance and value.

The photos raise new questions about the true value of the card, which was purchased this winter by a Southern California businessman who wants to remain anonymous.

"I've said all along the card was not cut by a machine," said Ray, the Long Island collector who sold the card to Mastro, the sports memorabilia czar and founder of Mastro Auctions who has played a role - as a buyer, seller, bidder or auctioneer - almost every time the card has changed hands. "I tried to tell people but nobody wanted to listen."

Ray confirmed last week that the "before" picture accompanying this story is the same photo he sent to Bruce McNall, then the owner of the Los Angeles Kings, shortly after McNall and Gretzky bought the card in 1991.

Although the flaws on the card's sides may not be easily detected by an untrained eye, the hobby insider says they are obvious to T206 experts. "It's too wavy to be cut with anything besides scissors," says the hobby insider, who spoke only on condition of anonymity. "Nobody who knows anything about vintage cards would look at this and say it came out of a pack of cigarettes. It has all the tell-tale signs of a card cut from a sheet."

Mastro did not return a call for comment. Neither did Joe Orlando, president of Professional Sports Authenticator, the company that gave the card a PSA 8 grade in 1991. Wayne Waltz, a Irvine, Calif., diamond dealer who helped broker the deal between Seigel and the anonymous buyer told the News allegations that the card had been cut from a sheet or altered were false. "That's completely unfounded," Waltz said.

Ray said he took the photos before he sold the card to Mastro in the back room of a Long Island collectibles shop in 1985. Ray wanted $25,000 for the Wagner - a lot of money in those days even for the Flying Dutchman - but Mastro balked, telling Ray the card was off-center and improperly cut. Mastro refused to complete the sale unless Ray threw in dozens of other cards the collector had brought to the shop that day. Ray later said he felt bullied, but he needed the cash and agreed to Mastro's terms.

Mastro soon sold the card to California sport-goods magnate Jim Copeland for $110,000, and in 1991, Copeland consigned the T206 Wagner to a Sotheby's auction organized by Mastro. The auction house described the card as in mint condition - this time around, Mastro didn't say anything about the card being off-center or miscut - and it was purchased for a whopping $451,000 by Gretzky and Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall.

Ray was furious: Mastro, he said, had spent 30 or so minutes with Ray bad-mouthing the card and then spent the next six years profiting handsomely by hyping it as the world's greatest T206 Wagner. If the card was in mint condition after Ray sold it to Mastro, Ray said last week, "one would have to conclude somebody had trimmed the card."

Ray said last week that he had contacted Sotheby's to tell auction house officials the card Gretzky and McNall had just purchased was not mint as advertised. A Sotheby's executive, he said, hung up on him. He then sent a letter and photos to Superior Galleries, McNall's Beverly Hills coin shop, explaining that he believed the hockey team owner and his superstar pal hadn't been fully informed about the card's previous condition. McNall's staff, however, seemed disinterested and Ray said he eventually gave up the fight.

As reported in "The Card," a book by two Daily News reporters released this spring by William Morrow, McNall said he was unaware of Ray's attempts to contact him, but he said he had his own doubts. He had heard rumors the card had been trimmed, but Sotheby's officials assured him everything was fine with his purchase. A few months after he and Gretzky bought the card, a new company - Professional Sports Authenticator, now the hobby's biggest and most important card-grading service - was born. McNall submitted the card for inspection and it was declared a PSA 8 on a scale of 1-10.

The grade blew away many of the clouds of controversy that hung over the card. According to the guidelines posted on its Web site, PSA will not grade trading cards that have been hand cut from sheets; the grading service will grade hand-cut cards if they couldn't have been obtained any other way - from the back of a cereal box, for example - but not if they were traditionally cut at the factory and distributed in packs of cigarettes or with gum.

Restoration work, meanwhile, is widely accepted for fine art but not for vintage baseball cards - for most collectors, the ideal card has not been altered since it was slipped out of a pack of cigarettes or gum years ealier. Cards that have been trimmed, colored or otherwise repaired are considered tainted and worth considerably less money. According to its Web site, PSA will not grade cards that bear evidence of tampering.

Still, the questions surrounding the card never went away, and in a 2005 interview, PSA grader Bill Hughes, a member of the team that inspected the Gretzky T206 Wagner, admitted he knew the card had been cut from a sheet when he graded the card. "We were aware of that when the card came to PSA," he is quoted as saying in "The Card". "This particular card was obviously cut...The card is so outstanding, it would have been sacreligious to call that card trimmed and completely devalue it."

With the controversy surrounding the card heating up in recent months, the Gretzky T206 Wagner appears to have gone underground. Dan Imler of SCP Auctions, a California company that owns a minority stake in the card, says there are no plans to exhibit the card at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Cleveland this summer, even though it has been a fixture at card shows in recent years. "The new owner has chosen to remain private," Imler said. "He's not into it for attention or publicity."

Closer Look: The Gretzky T206 Honus Wagner card which sold this winter for more than $2 million has been dogged for years by rumors that it was cut from a sheet and later trimmed to enhance its value. A hobby insider who provided a photo of the card to the News says veteran collectors should not have problems picking out the flaws. "The right side is definitely wavy," the hobby insider says. "The left side looks a little wavy, too. This is all consistent with a card that has been cut from a sheet."


Periodical - The most expensive baseball card was once oversized and trimmed

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