Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2013 Issue

Collectors Take Note: Baseball Card Sells for Over $2 Million

Wagnerduo

The million dollar Wagner (left) and the hundred thousand dollar Wagner.

Honus Wagner was one of the greatest baseball players to ever take the field. He was well paid for his era, peaking at $10,000 per year over the last decade of his career, which ended in 1917. In his lifetime, Honus Wagner never made anything close to what one Honus Wagner baseball card made this past month. Add a month and you can probably make that two Honus Wagner baseball cards.

At auction on the Goldin Auctions website in April, a 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card sold for the astounding price of $2,105,770.50. This was not just any Honus Wagner card. While books are graded more vaguely - fine, very good, good, fair, poor, there is a more exacting rating scale for baseball cards. As such, this and one other card have the second highest rating of any known examples. To put this in perspective, the highest rated card sold for $2.8 million a couple of years ago, the sixth highest rated for $1.23 million. Collectors take their baseball cards a lot more seriously than the kids who used to flip them and stick the pack in their pockets. None is taken more seriously than the 1909-1911 American Tobacco Company Honus Wagner.

Johannes Peter “Honus” Wagner began his baseball career in 1897 with the Louisville Colonels. After that club folded, he moved on to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he remained the rest of his career. If Wagner is not as well known today as Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb, it may have something to do with his playing in Pittsburgh. Those three were the top vote-getters in the first election to the Hall of Fame. Wagner finished behind Cobb but tied with Ruth (pitchers Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson were the only other initial inductees). He regularly remains the choice of experts as the greatest of all shortstops and one of the greatest to play the game, even if fan polls no longer rate him so high. They don't know Honus.

After his retirement at age 43, exceedingly old for a ballplayer in that era, Wagner served as a coach for the Pirates for many years, the largest part of that time as hitting instructor. The first player to reach 3,000 hits, he knew how to swing a bat. Nevertheless, it is his career as a baseball card that he is best known for today. This card, referred to as the T206 Honus Wagner, was issued in 1909, the year he won his seventh batting title. While a card of Wagner would undoubtedly be collectible under any circumstances considering his prowess on the field, there is something that makes this card of particular interest – rarity. Very few (estimated 200) were issued, with around 50-60 surviving. Most are not in great shape.

There is an explanation for the card's rarity. The American Tobacco Company issued the card without Wagner's permission. He was not pleased. He demanded it be withdrawn and the tobacco company slowly complied. The obvious explanation is that he was unhappy with not being compensated, but advertising was not such a big deal for athletes then and he did not reach an agreement with the company. His granddaughter said that, though a smoker himself, Wagner did not want to encourage children to buy cigarettes. In 1909, baseball cards came with cigarettes rather than bubblegum.

If you missed this auction, it is not too late to pick up a T206 Honus Wagner. Robert Edwards Auctions has one up for sale in an auction that closes May 18. This one won't put you out for nearly so much money. The estimate is a mere $300,000. It is a nice, bright card, but it is not crisp or like new. Someone flipped it a few too many times, or stuck it in his pocket, as it has several creases. The current owner will pay big time for that long ago carelessness. Still, this is a Honus Wagner, and you don't get Honus Wagners for pocket change. Even this one will bring more than Wagner made during his lifetime, at least his lifetime as a baseball player. Some people make more off of Honus' baseball career than he ever did, and they aren't even owners of a baseball team.

While this card is not in as good shape, it comes with a fascinating story behind it, a unique provenance. It was on display at the All Star Cafe in New York City, part of the Charlie Sheen Collection, loaned by the actor. Some employees devised a plan to steal the card and replace it with a copy. The theft worked as the fake looked real enough from behind glass. The thieves sold the card to a memorabilia dealer, claiming it was found in a grandfather's attic. However, they did not leave well enough alone. A second theft resulted in a broken display case, which in turn led to the realization that the Wagner card had been replaced with a fake. Police tracked down the thieves and the card was recovered. Hopefully, other difficult issues in Charlie Sheen's life will also turn out so well.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Caius Julius Hyginus, <i>Poeticon Astronomicon,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1482. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Giovanni Botero, <i>Le Relationi Universali... divise in Sette Parti</i>, Venice, 1618. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> <i>L'Escole des Filles</i>, likely third edition of the first work of pornographic fiction in French, 1676. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin on vellum, Flanders, early 16th century. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes Regiomontanus, <i>Calendarium,</i> Venice, 1485. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Pedro de Medina, <i>Libro d[e] gra[n]dezas y cosas memorables de España,</i> Alcalá de Henares, 1566. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b><br>Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> Salamanca, circa 1496-97. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Andrés Serrano, <i>Los Siete Principes de los Ángeles, válidos de Rey del Cielo,</i> Spain, 1707. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes de Sacrobosco, <i>Sphaera mundi,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1478. $15,000 to $20,000.
  • <b>Bonhams: Fine Books and Manuscripts. 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. $80,000 to $120,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> Violin belonging to Albert Einstein, presented to him by Oscar H. Steger, 1933. $100,000 to $150,000
    <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. $100,000 to $150,000
    <b>Bonhams: Fine Books and Manuscripts. 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. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> NEWTON, ISAAC. Autograph Manuscript in Latin, being detailed instructions on making the philosopher's stone. 8 pp. 1790s. $200,000 to 300,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> 1869 Inauguration Bible of President Ulysses S. Grant. $80,000 to $120,000
  • <b>Leland Little: Important Spring Auction. March 3, 2018</b>
    <b>Leland Little, Mar. 3:</b> Copper Printing Plate for "Marshall's Household Engraving of Washington." $500 to $1000
    <b>Leland Little, Mar. 3:</b> Important Documentary Painting Showing Baseball Great Ty Cobb in Cuba. $1,000 to $2,000
    <b>Leland Little, Mar. 3:</b> <i>Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age</i>, Inscribed by Bill Wilson. $500 to $1,000
    <b>Leland Little: Important Spring Auction. March 3, 2018</b>
    <b>Leland Little, Mar. 3:</b> Joan Miró (Spanish, 1893-1983), <i>Prise à l'hameçon.</i> $3,000 to $6,000
    <b>Leland Little, Mar. 3:</b> Maurice Dufrène (French, 1876-1955), <i>Rayon des Soieries</i>. $400 to $800
    <b>Leland Little, Mar. 3:</b> William Pope.L (American, b. 1955), <i>Intimacy Project</i>. $2,000 to $4,000
  • <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Collection of 131 Herbert Ponting gelatin silver contact prints of Antartica, £6000-8000
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> One of several lots of Henri Cartier-Bresson gelatin silver prints, £200-300
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Vintage gelatin silver print of Diego Rivera by Leonard McCombe, £300-500
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Albumen print portrait by Julia Margaret Cameron of Sir John Herschel (April, 1867), £30,000-50,000
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Albumen print by Julia Margaret Cameron, Love, 1864 (from the Norman album), £1000-1500
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Albumen print by Lewis Carroll of Twyford School Eleven (Summer Term, 1859), £1000-1500
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Albumen print portrait by Lewis Carroll of Xie Kitchin as 'Dane' (Oxford, 1873), £500-800
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Calotype print (c1845) by Hill & Adamson of Lady Elizabeth (Rigby) Eastlake, £3000-4000
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Group of 12 waxed paper negatives of Scottish scenes by Thomas Keith, mid-1850s, £3000-5000
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> One of 15 lots of Roger Fenton salt prints of his work in the Crimea, mid-1850s, £400-600
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Quarter plate ambrotype (c.1860s) with ethnographic portrait of a woman seated at a table, £400-600
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Rare whole plate thermoplastic union case of the Landing of Columbus (c.1858),part of the John Hannavy collection, £1500-2000
  • <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>

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions