Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2012 Issue

The Latest Million Dollar Work on Paper – A Baseball Card

Honuswagnerbcard

The Honus Wagner baseball card, courtesy of Goodwin & Co.

He was not a dominant home run hitter like Babe Ruth. He was never as ornery as Ty Cobb. He was never called “Mr. October” like Reggie Jackson, did not collect as many hits as Pete Rose or home runs as Hank Aaron. His name today is probably remembered only by baseball aficionados. Nevertheless, he is the king of baseball cards. If you could have just one baseball card, it would be a Honus Wagner, one published by the American Tobacco Company between 1909 and 1911. If nothing else, you could sell it and buy all of the other cards you ever wanted.

Honus Wagner is not as well remembered today as those other names because he played so long ago. It probably doesn't help that he played virtually his entire career in Pittsburgh either. Johannes Peter “Honus” Wagner dominated his era, which ran from the late 19th century until 1917, and would have been one of the greatest to play the game in any era. He won eight batting titles, and is generally recognized as the greatest shortstop to play the game, a critical defensive position not noted for great hitters. Still, it is not his greatness that makes a Honus Wagner card more valuable than a Ruth or a Cobb. It is its rarity, though even that may sound odd to a book collector. It isn't all that rare. Its rarity is more akin to a Shakespeare First Folio, not overwhelmingly rare, but extremely desirable. Two hundred of the baseball cards were printed, and of them, around 60 are known to still exist. Obviously, a lot more than 60 people want them. How else to explain it selling for $1.2 million, a relatively “cheap” price reflecting its less than perfect condition?

The print run of 200 was short for cards inserted in cigarette packs. American Tobacco printed some up without securing Wagner's permission. When asked, he declined. Some have suggested Wagner did not want to encourage smoking, but as a tobacco chewer, like most ballplayers of his era, it seems dubious that he was making a statement about good health. More likely, he was not offered sufficient compensation by American Tobacco. Wagner had endorsed various products in the past, so his reluctance seems more likely attributable to good business sense. And, while Wagner had good business sense, and was one of the highest paid ballplayers of his era, in his entire career he did not earn as much as the Houston seller made from selling this one, 1 1/2” x 2 1/2” Honus Wagner baseball card. Such is the difference between investors and working stiffs.

This card was offered by the St. Louis-based online baseball card auction house Goodwin & Co. Their minimum bid, $300,000, was unnecessary to state. When the bidding was over, the New Jersey buyer put down $1,232,466.34 for the card. The last time a Honus Wagner in similar condition was sold was in 2009, when it went for $925,000. In 2000, a comparable card sold for $145,000. As Pittsburgh's owner discovered a century ago, Honus Wagner is a good investment.

Only five known Honus Wagner cards are graded higher than the one sold at Goodwin's, with several others being of comparable condition. One can only imagine what one of those graded even higher would command. Actually, one doesn't have to imagine. The highest rated Honus Wagner card known to exist was sold in 2011 to Ken Kendrick, owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team. Its price was $2.8 million. That card was purchased 20 years earlier by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and the then owner of the Los Angeles Kings for $451,000. In hindsight, that price was a bargain.

While nothing can touch a Honus Wagner card, many other baseball cards were sold at the Goodwin auction for outstanding prices. Runner-up was a 1909 Eddie Plank card, which sold for $330,000. Plank played in the same era as Wagner, but he was a pitcher, racking up 326 wins (11th all time) during his career.

This auction is just another reminder of the growth in pricing of non-traditional works on paper, ephemeral printed works often of a more recent vintage than antiquarian books. These are items with which recent generations grew up. Lately, we have seen comic books exceed $1 million in price at auction. Comic books were a part of the youthful lives of the generation that today, at its wealthiest, can afford to pay these prices. The same generation that read comic books as children, flipped baseball cards with their friends. It's no wonder they are still flipping for baseball cards, though in a different sense. Those who collect and conduct business in the works on paper field should take notice. Great value can now be found in ephemeral paper items that a few decades ago would have been considered insignificant.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> E.H. SHEPARD, Original drawing for A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner.<br>$40,000-60,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> BERNARD RATZER, Plan of the City of New York in North America, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767. $80,000-100,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> THOMAS JEFFERSON, Autograph letter signed comparing Logan, Tecumseh, and Little Turtle to the Spartans. Monticello: 15 February 1821. $14,000-18,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN C. FREMONT, Narrative of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, in the Year 1842.. Abridged edition, the only one containing the folding map From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $3,000-5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ZANE GREY, Album containing 94 large format photographs of Grey and party at Catalina Island, Arizona, and fishing in the Pacific. From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $5,000-$8,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> WILLIAM COMBE, A History of Madeira ... illustrative of the Costumes, Manners, and Occupations of the Inhabitants. produced by Ackermann in 1821; From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ERIC TAVERNER, Salmon Fishing... One of 275 copies signed by Taverner, published in 1931,From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN WHITEHEAD, Exploration of Mount Kina Balu, North Borneo. Whitehead reached the high point of Kinabalu in 1888. Part of a major group of travel books from the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN LONG, Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader, describing the Manners and Customs of the North American Indians... The first edition of 1791. $3,000-$5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> SAMUEL BECKETT, Stirrings Still. This, Beckett’s last work of fiction with original lithographs by Le Brocquy, limited to 200 copies signed by the author and the artist. From the Estate of Howard Kaminsky.. $1,500-$2,500
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, wallpaper sample book, circa 1919. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Archive from a late office of the Breuer & Smith architectural team, New York, 1960-70s. $3,500 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> William Morris, <i>The Story of the Glittering Plain or the Land of Living Men,</i> illustrated by Walter Crane, Kelmscott Press, Hammersmith, 1894. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustave Doré, <i>La Sainte Bible selon la Vulgate,</i> Tours, 1866. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustav Klimt & Max Eisler, <i>Eine Nachlese,</i> complete set, Vienna, 1931. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>Eric Allatini & Gerda Wegener, <i>Sur Talons Rouges,</i> with original watercolor by Wegener, Paris, 1929. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>C.P. Cavafy, <i>Fourteen Poems,</i> illustrated & signed by David Hockney, London, 1966. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jean Midolle, <i>Spécimen des Écritures Modernes...</i>, Strasbourg, 1834-35. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>E.A. Seguy, <i>Floréal: Dessins & Coloris Nouveaux,</i> Paris, 1925. $3,000 to $4,000.
  • <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN. Autograph Manuscript sketch-leaf part of the score of the Scottish Songs, "Sunset" Op. 108 no 2. [Vienna, February 1818]. Inscribed by Alexander Wheelock Thayer. SOLD for $131,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> Violin belonging to Albert Einstein, presented to him by Oscar H. Steger, 1933. SOLD for $516,500
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> EINSTEIN, ALBERT. Autograph Letter Signed ("Papa") to his son Hans Albert, discussing his involvement with the atomic bomb, September 2, 1945. SOLD for $106,250
    <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> HAMILTON, ALEXANDER. Autograph Letter Signed, to Baron von Steuben, with extensive notes of Von Steuben's aide Benjamin Walker, June 12, 1780. SOLD for $16,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> NEWTON, ISAAC. Autograph Manuscript in Latin, being detailed instructions on making the philosopher's stone. 8 pp. 1790s. SOLD for $275,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> 1869 Inauguration Bible of President Ulysses S. Grant. SOLD for $118,750

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