By Peter J. Nash
November 15, 2013
When Wayne Gretzky and Bruce McNall purchased their T206 Honus Wagner at Sotheby’s in 1991, it was the king of all cards. After they had it graded by PSA it then served as the foundation for a business model that would change the hobby forever giving birth to a generation of collectors who were attracted to collecting cards slabbed in plastic tombs with condition grades scaled from 1 to 10.
But now that Bill Mastro has fessed up to trimming it with a paper slicer in the 1980s that same card is now a PSA- certified fraud sitting in the collection of Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick who acquired it in a private sale in 2007 for close to $3 million. PSA supporters and customers still believe Kendrick’s card will retain its value because of its infamous history but others claim the card is forever tainted since its been exposed as a monumental hobby fraud.
So, which Honus Wagner card will replace the trimmed Mastro example as the king of the hill? And how many Wagner cards actually exist? Hauls of Shame has been keeping track of Wagner cards for a few decades and just recently concluded an investigation into the actual population of Wagner cards known to exist.
ESPN recently published incorrect and erroneous population totals stating that there are “about three dozen” Wagner cards known in private hands and institutional collections. What the Hauls of Shame investigation has uncovered is 61 actual images of existing Wagners and the confirmation of at least three other examples not yet supported by visual evidence. That puts the total at 64 (at a minimum). Further evidence suggests that there are possibly another ten unverified Wagner cards in private hands. A conservative combined value of the Wagners illustrated in this article exceeds $25 million–all for 60 pieces of cardboard.
Some Wagners are housed in museum collections while others are stashed away in the holdings of former major league ballplayers, millionaires, sportscasters, auctioneers, Hollywood stars and even the descendants of the original owners who acquired them right out of cigarette packs in 1910. The existing cards have passed through a multitude of hands and each of them has its own unique story of provenance . In the next 12 months Hauls of Shame will publish a series of articles chronicling the travels of the existing Honus Wagner cards and also profiling the collectors who have owned them.
The Wagner cards we have documented begin with the first examples that appeared in the press in the 1930s and 1940s and were identified as the toughest T206 cards to acquire. Of course, that story includes the Wagner that legendary card-collecting pioneer Jefferson Burdick acquired from Sgt. John Wagner when he donated his trove to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1947. It also includes the Wagner donated to the New York Public Library in 1946 by Leopold Morse Goulston in memory of his good friend Leo J. Bondy, a former vice-president of the New York Giants.
Then there are all of the Wagner cards that have assumed their own identities over the years distinguishing themselves from other specimens with their lofty titles and gimmicky nicknames : The Die-Cut Wagner; The Wallet-Wagner; The Charlie Sheen-All-Star Cafe Wagner; The Sisters of Notre Dame (Nuns) Wagner; The Half-Wagner; The Jumbo Wagner; The Long Island Wagner; The Beckett Wagner; The Orem-Nagy Wagner; The Cooperstown Wagner; The Hoboken Wagner, Sgt. Wagner’s Wagner etc.
When it comes to the buyers and sellers of Wagner cards over the years, their own personal stories are sometimes as notable as the cards themselves:
Bill Mastro- Ironically, the Godfather of Wagner acquisitions and sales is the man who admitted to trimming the most celebrated copy. Mastro claims to have handled and sold more Wagners than any of his former competitors and was snagging the rarities as early as 1972. By the age of 19 he had completed his own T206 set and in 1981, he told Bill Madden of The Sporting News he’d already owned three Wagners. Said Mastro, “The first one I had I sold when I was a senior in high school. I got it from a priest who found it in his attic. Later I bought another Wagner for $1,500 which was then a record price.”
Jefferson Burdick- The hobby pioneer could never get his hands on a Wagner until his friend and fellow collector Sgt. John Wagner (no relation to Honus) gifted him one to include in his collection bequeathed to the Met. Burdick wrote in his Card Collectors Bulletin: ”Big news this month is that due to the generosity and public spiritedness of John D. Wagner the Metropolitan collection will include a copy of that much wanted T206 Honus Wagner card. ” Burdick also noted that only “one or two others were known to exist at the time, and added, “the card remains in such demand that several copies could easily be sold at the catalog value of $25 or more.”
Bill Haber- The Assistant Sports Director for Topps Chewing Gum, Haber acquired his first Wagner on June 1, 1970 from legendary collector Wirt Gammon. Recalling the acquisition in his “Haber Hi-Lites” column in The Ballcard Collector Haber recalled, “I made a cash offer to all I knew had the card. Wirt Gammon accepted my offer and I bought his.” The price was $500.
Rob Lifson- The auctioneer who purchased the infamous Gretzky-McNall Wagner with Bill Mastro for $25,000 (before it was trimmed) claims to have handled a multitude of Wagners. When he purchased back the Gretzky-McNall Wagner for $641,000 at Christie’s in 1996 Lifson told the Maine Antique Digest, “I’ve handled 16 or 17 of them.” He called the trimmed and altered Wagner “The Mona Lisa of cards.”
Alan “Mr. Mint” Rosen- The self proclaimed “Million-Dollar Dealer” claims on his website to have been involved in “Purchases of nine different of the thirty five Honus Wagner T206 cards known to exist.” By 1991, he had already “bought and sold seven different (Wagners)” which he considered, “the Mona Lisa of the business.”
Barry Halper- The Yankee limited partner donated one of his multiple Wagner cards to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1984. At the time Hall President Ed Stack told reporters, “Its introduction to our collection adds immeasurably to the Hall of Fame’s prestige and it has quickly become one of our most celebrated exhibits.”
Lew Lipset- The dealer and hobby scribe sold his high-grade Wagner to Bill Mastro in an SCD auction in 1981 for over $25,000. On why he sold his prized Wagner, Lipset said that his decision was based on the “lack of interest in the card.” In SCD Lipset wrote, “Only one valid bid was received, a sorry showing for what is considered the ultimate collectible in the hobby.”
John Cinquegrana- The New Jersey collector purchased a pile of 200 T206 cards for $600 in 1982 ($3 bucks each) and didn’t look through them until a few months later. When he finally did rummage through the group, he found a rare Eddie Plank card among others. He told SCD, “I went through about 20 more cards, and there it was—in poor condition, but a genuine Honus Wagner. I realized my ship finally came in.”
Brian Seigel- After buying the fraudulent T206 Gretzky-McNall Wagner from Mastro and Lifson for $1.26 million at Robert Edward Auctions in 2000, Seigel provided copy for PSA print adds stating: ”When I found out the finest T206 Honus Wagner in existence was coming up for sale, I only had one major question: ‘Was it graded by PSA?’ The truth is that I would have never considered bidding on the card without PSA’s seal of approval.”
Now that the Mastro-PSA Wagner has been exposed as a fraud there are several candidates to assume the position of the hobby’s “Holy Grail.” Still, there are some PSA supporters who say that Ken Kendrick’s trimmed Wagner has retained its value and perhaps has even increased in value despite Bill Mastro’s guilty plea in a Chicago Federal Court. In that camp are PSA apologists like Net54’s Leon Luckey who has been actively disseminating the PSA talking points in hobby circles. After the Mastro indictment Luckey went on the record in The New York Daily News stating, “Cards that are found to be trimmed are worth 10 or 15 percent of their value. But that Wagner is still the best Wagner in the hobby, and there are some who will still pay big money for it.”
Chris Ivy, sports director of Heritage Auctions, is a big customer and advertiser of PSA’s services and he also told the New York Daily News, “It’s still the finest example of a T206 Wagner in the hobby and the demand for it is still high. It’s still well-known – notorious, if you will.”
If the observations of Luckey and Ivy have merit, could collectors endorse similar trimming of Wagners with other “over-sized” high-grade examples known to exist? If the collector who recently purchased the “Jumbo Wagner” for $2.1 million at Goldin Auctions decided to trim his card it would equal or exceed the condition of the Mastro-PSA Wagner owned by Kendrick as would the Hall of Fame’s copy purchased from Barry Halper in the 1998 MLB purchase on behalf of the Hall. When Lew Lipset sold that copy to Mastro in 1981 he indicated that the card could be trimmed to attain mint condition status.
Hauls of Shame asked several hobby insiders for their opinion of the trimmed PSA-8 Mastro- Wagner and also asked which Wagner they now consider the “Holy Grail”?
Ken Goldin (Goldin Auctions)- “If the 8 was out I’d have to say the “Jumbo Wagner.” I don’t get excited by just seeing cards, but holding that Wagner in my own hands I was like, “wow”. The way it was over sized and miscut just solidified the fact it is original and unaltered. And the image is so incredibly clear” (Goldin once owned another legendary T206 Honus Wagner card, the proof-strip unearthed in Pittsburgh in the 1970s.)
Jimmy Leiderman (collector and photo historian)- “I’m not sure I can give an opinion. A 50% drop in price and I’m probably being optimistic. I don’t know much about other T206 Wagners…but I’d go with the Wagner proof strip.”
Jay Miller (author & collector)- “I don’t think the card has lost any value. Everyone already knew it was trimmed. It is still the “Holy Grail” if there is such a thing.”
Dan McKee (longtime T206 collector)- “You know, even though it is trimmed and a complete fraud in that slab at that number, I still consider it the Holy Grail as it is that gorgeous of a card. Only the psycho slab heads would care if it is trimmed.”
Rob Bertrand (radio host-writer/Voice of the Collector)- “Unfortunately in the uber-elite collecting community that can afford such items, I don’t think the value will change. At this point I believe “The Card” is just that, something referred to in quotations; The myth, lore and story have exceeded the intrinsic value of the card itself.”
Rhys Yeakley (RMY Auctions)- “I think it devalues it, but its iconic and storied status still makes it the most valuable in the hobby. I would venture to say that 95% of the PSA8-10 T206 cards are trimmed anyways so it is par for the course when dealing with high grade cards from that issue. I would personally rather have the PSA5 that sold a few years back if given the choice.”
Joshua Evans (Lelands)- “It is surprising to me based on the truth that is out there but the card continues to earn its title as the “Teflon Wagner.” Bottom line, the card would sell for MORE than the last buyer paid for it. It’s fame outpaces its infamy.”
George Vrechek (Writer-SCD & OldBaseball.com)- “Why would a card be altered? – to increase its value, provided the trimming wasn’t disclosed. Logic would lead one to conclude that if a card was quietly altered, it was because knowledge of trimming would decrease the value. Trimming is not equivalent to a cleaning or removal of foreign substances like scrapbook paper. It is designed to alter the original. The $2.8 million Wagner was valued before it was widely known that it had been trimmed.”
“It seems to me that no matter what the current value of the Wagner is (even if it were $3 million), that it is now worth less than it would be if it were not trimmed. Premiums are realized because collectors are looking for those samples which have survived the ravages of time to remain in the best condition possible. The premium is due to the rarity. Trimming takes a card out of the “rare”air. Some other Wagner gets to be the “Holy Grail.”
Mike Mango (card dealer)- “If you trim a card in today’s market to make it a better grade and you make it undersized the grading card companies will reject it and it is deemed trimmed but if you take a card that was over sized and trim it to the specifications that the manufacturer had originally intended to correct his first time error why is it such a big deal if you bring it to the correct specs?
Travis Roste (collector)- “I think it has less prominence now and is worth less. If it went to auction it might fetch more only from a couple of bidders who have loads of money and have to own it, so its split. I think hobbyists and collectors consider it tarnished. I would consider any of the cards that grade 5 or above, as the leading contender. I think the two graded 5 and 5mk “Jumbo,” lead the way among graded cards.”
Doug Allen (Legendary Auctions)- “I still believe the PSA NM-MT 8 Honus Wagner is the Holy Grail of cards. It is my understanding that the current owner was well aware of the book The Card when he purchased the card and since then has been offered in excess of $2.8 million so it has not lost its value or its significance. I believe now that memorabilia and specifically game used jerseys are rising in prominence and value it may not be the Holy Grail of Collectibles or the Hobby. That honor would be bestowed upon the finest unrestored Babe Ruth Jersey in Existence. I believe a Babe Ruth Jersey will be first collectible to eclipse the $10 million mark.”
A long time hobbyist who did not want his name revealed said, “This was the card that launched an industry segment and brand name, and if that was flawed and tainted at the outset, what does that suggest about subsequent work and the impact that has had on everything else that passed through the same system? If they are “card guys” they are inextricably wedded to this card. Any negative comment from them is tantamount to an indictment of their collections and the value of the same.”
One other opinion that casts a considerable shadow over the Mastro-Wagner and the PSA grading of the trimmed card is that of hobby pioneer Bill Heitman, the author of the 1980s pamphlet about the storied T206 series called The Monster. Heitman heils from a family of card collectors who got their start opening packs of Old Judge and Sweet Caporal cigarettes from the 1880s through the 1910s. From his vantage point, Heitman says, “Had the world known that the card was trimmed, back 20 plus years ago, and if PSA had done the right thing and refused to grade the card, I don’t think it would have ever meant that much to the hobby. But thanks largely to the little piranhas, the card has managed to stay front and center and drag the values of all Wagners up along with it. Now, I think the value should go down considerably, especially if honest people are handling the transaction and I just don’t think there is a “holy grail” for card collectors.”
Correction (Nov 25): The first Wagner cards depicted in the first panel of the Wagner montage (rows 3 and 4) are the same card. The paper loss in the top left hand corner of the card in the fourth row was distorted to look larger than it was on the actual card. The Wagner shown above that card is the same card and currently owned by Keith Olbermann (sold by Lew Lipset in 1988 and at Mastro Auctions in 2004). The Wagner located beneath it was used for the 1977 Dover reprint Wagner card. It appears the card is the same one discovered by Mike Aronstein in 1972 and was later sold by Lipset in 1988. Since publishing this article we did receive an image of yet another Wagner card which we will add to our illustration. If you know of any other genuine Wagner cards or have images of other examples not included in this article please let us know at: firstname.lastname@example.org