Was the Record $2.1 Million T206 Honus Wagner Sale Actually Enough?

Friday night brought the close to an auction of one of the greatest samples of sports collectibles, which has become an alternative form of investing now. A T206 Honus Wagner for the 1909 American Tobacco set sold for a whopping $2.1 million. This was a new record high price for this card. So, as a sports collector myself, why am I feeling just a bit disappointed that the card did not sell for more.

This card has more of a history than most of the 60 or so known T206 Wagner samples. When I wrote “Tick Tock” last Friday for the countdown on this auction I said about predicting the sale price, “My own price was somewhere around $2.1 to $2.4 million as a projection.” Another collector who I know personally said that with the economy being better now that it could go for maybe as much as $3 million without being too much of a shock.

A prior record, which is still above this sample with a higher grade (8 for the Gretzky Wagner), sold for a sum of $2.8 million. The story behind the card for what collectors call “The Jumbo Wagner” is unique compared to other samples due to its larger white borders. Again, most samples are lower in grade and some are just in atrocious condition. “The Jumbo Wagner” is actually one of the more appealing samples in existence and the full details of the card and its history are at the auction site.

Maybe I should be happy that the sale hit my range of expectations, but there is more to the story than just the price of one card worth infinite times its weight in gold. For some reason I feel as though this card could have sold for more. The auction was very well marketed. The had this particular card on display for viewers to go see in person in New York City and I went to see it myself on my business trip two weeks ago. They had the card on CNBC and it was well publicized by all of the major sports memorabilia website. Goldin Auctions did a fine job marketing this card, even when you consider that a card like this coming up for auction sort of sells and markets itself.

What I cannot help but wonder is if ending the auction on a Friday night rather than on a Saturday or Sunday was a mistake. I have purchased many graded baseball card in auctions myself on eBay, and it is impossible to miss out on the notion that many auctions like to end on a Saturday or Sunday. To buy this card you have to be a millionaire, but even millionaires sometimes have to fall into the same passionate trap as other luxury item buyers and get their game-face on so to speak when they decide they want to make a big once-in-a-lifetime purchase like this. Sometimes it may take their friends or fellow sports collectors giving them more courage (and maybe even some liquid courage) to go after their dream.

The buyer has not yet been identified and after 15 bids the great “Jumbo Wagner” T206 card sold for $2,105,770.50. That beats the $1.6 million or so that the card sold for back in harder times in 2008. As a personal collector of sports memorabilia, for some reason I think that the buyer got the better end of the bargain here.

Anyhow, sometimes it is easy to expect too much. The card did sell in the range that I projected and the real good news for high-end sports collectors out there is that this did sell for a much higher premium than its own prior sale. A record sale price is a record sale price. At the time this set was starting to circulate, Wagner was perhaps the biggest name in baseball as Ty Cobb’s career was just getting underway. Wagner was so good that he was in the inaugural class for the first five men inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame along with Cobb, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson.

Many people say that if they could go back in time into the 1980s or 1990s with $10,000 and make an investment that they would have bought stock in Microsoft or in Apple or in AOL or other great growth stocks. For me, I would have gone back to the early 1980’s, back before there was card grading and when I was a part-time card dealer myself, and I would have paid the then-unheard-of sum of $10,000 that one of the card dealers was asking at a card convention in Houston for a rare T206 card with an orange background that simply said WAGNER, PITTSBURG on the front and SWEET CAPORAL CIGARETTES on the back. My guess is that the sample offered back then was one of the PSA 3, 4, or 5 grades in existence. That card would be worth close to or well over $1 million today.

I would not want to leave this Wagner auction report out on any sour note. Another record has been set for what is considered The Holy Grail of sports collectibles. That also means that another record has been set for alternative investing.


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