If you read the newspaper once in a while, you may have read headlines about various auction records for sports cards. There’s one card in particular that often appears on such occasions, but the knowledge about the person who’s portrayed on the card isn’t high… His name isn’t Jordan, Ali, Woods, or Gretzky. It’s Wagner – Honus Wagner.
J. P. “Honus” Wagner
Born to German immigrants in the year 1874, Johannes Peter Wagner, later known as Honus Wagner. As one of nine siblings, the young Honus dropped out of school at the age of 12 to help his family with their mine coal business. During his free time, Wagner and his brothers often played sandlot baseball, which laid the foundation for what later ended up in a professional baseball career.
In 1896, Wagner got the opportunity to prove his skills when he got a tryout for the Paterson Silk Sox in the Atlantic League. Recognized as a great talent, Wagner ended up with a professional contract in 1897 with the Louisville Colonels, which was the starting point of his impressive 21 seasons in the MLB (Major League Baseball). Although Wagner only spent three years with Louisville Colonels, he only represented one more team during his playing career, namely the Pittsburgh Pirates. With 18 seasons with the Pirates, Wagner could almost be considered as a one-club-man. The highlight of his career was becoming champion of the World Series after winning four games to three against the Detroit Tigers.
During Wagner’s last season in 1917, he was also the manager of the Pirates, making him a playing manager, which is rare within baseball. After retiring, it took 16 years for Wagner to make his comeback to baseball, and more specifically to the Pittsburgh Pirates, as he started an 18-year journey as the head coach of the team. No World Series was added to his resume besides the 1909 championship. However, one great highlight was that Wagner was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936. Notably, this was the first year of the Hall of Fame, making Wagner one of the first five inductees. The other four were nonother than all-time greats Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, as well as Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson.
Almost a century has passed since Wagner was inducted into the Hall of Fame. No one can argue that he deserves that honor, but then again – he’s not in talks of being the greatest baseball player of all time. He’s not Babe Ruth. Yet, his baseball card is the greatest sports card in the world…
The T206 Honus Wagner
In 1933, “The American Card Catalog” by Jefferson Burdick was published. The book included a price guide for baseball cards, and the number one most expensive card was – yes, you guessed it! – the T206 Honus Wagner. With a value of $50 in 1933 (equivalent to $1,100 in today’s money), the card was by far the highest-valued card. And ever since, it has topped the list, but why?
The card was issued by the American Tobacco Company as part of their T206 series, which was produced from 1909 to 1911. This wasn’t appreciated by Wagner, who refused to have his card to promote cigarettes as he did not want children buying cigarettes. Well, that’s one of the theories. The other theory is that Wagner wanted more money to be featured in the set. It’s not 100% certain of which reason is the truth, but most reports suggest that it has to do with the fact that he didn’t want to be associated with cigarettes.
Although the T206 series was still in production, they didn’t produce any more Wagner cards. Reports say that only 50 to 200 Wagner cards were ever distributed to the public. This, compared with other T206 cards for other players that were produced in tens or hundreds of thousands each, makes the Wagner card extremely rare.
The “Gretzky T206 Honus Wagner”
Perhaps THE single most famous card in the hobby is the T206 Honus Wagner, which was once owned by ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. The card is known as the Gretzky T2016 Honus Wagner and was, in fact, the very first card that PSA/DNA ever slabbed, bearing the serial number 00000001. What’s interesting about the card is that it’s trimmed, meaning that it’s altered. Today, if it had been submitted to PSA, or any other grading company, it wouldn’t have got a grade from 1 to 10; it would be noted as “Authentic/Altered”. But in the early 1990s, after Wayne Gretzky bought the card and later submitted it to PSA, it was graded as PSA 8 Near Mint-Mint (NM-MT), which is very remarkable for such an old card. To date, only three T206 Honus Wagner cards are graded 5 or higher by PSA. One of which is the Gretzky card, and the other two are graded 5.
Since the mid-1980s, the card has been sold ten times, with the last sale being in 2007:
1985 – $25,000
1985 – $30,000
1987 – $110,000
1991 – $451,000
1995 – $500,000
1996 – $641,500
2000 – $1,265,000
2007 – $2,350,000
2007 – $2,800,000
The Arizona Diamondbacks owner, Ken Kendricks, bought the card in 2007, and still has it in his impressive card collection. It’s very difficult to estimate the card’s value today. Some argue that it’s easily $10 million plus, while others argue that it’s even less than $2.8 million. If the card wasn’t trimmed, then the value would arguably be in the $20 to $30 million range, as it’s arguably the greatest sports card in existence. With, of course, slight competition from the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle PSA 10. In all cases where a card, after it has been slabbed and graded, later is discovered to be altered, the value drops massively. But the Gretzky T2016 Honus Wagner may be that one exception to the rule. It’s simply the most famous and the most infamous card in the hobby.
Recent Sales of the T206 Honus Wagner
It’s always a big deal when auction houses announce that they will offer a T206 Honus Wagner for sale. Over the years, that card has been making auction results many times. After the 2022 sale of the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle SGC 9.5, which sold for $12.6 million, the T206 Honus Wagner is currently (only) the world’s second most expensive card ($7.25 million sale in 2022). However, it may not be long until the $12.6 million record has been beaten by Wagner. Below are some of the sales of the T206 Honus Wagner from the 21st century. Almost all were publicly sold at auction, with only a few exceptions of private sales, which have all been confirmed as genuine sales.
2000 – $75,000 (PSA 2)
2004 – $109,000 (PSA 1)
2005 – $237,000 (PSA 2)
2005 – $110,000 (PSA 1)
2005 – $132,000 (PSA 1)
2005 – $456,000 (GAI 3.5)
2005 – $236,000 (PSA 2)
2006 – $294,000 (PSA 2)
2008 – $227,000 (SGC 1)
2008 – $317,000 (PSA 1)
2008 – $791,000 (SGC 3)
2008 – $1,620,000 (PSA 5)
2009 – $400,000 (PSA 1)
2010 – $219,000 (PSA Authentic/Altered)
2010 – $262,000 (SGC Authentic)
2012 – $1,200,000 (PSA 3)
2013 – $2,105,000 (PSA 5)
2014 – $657,000 (PSA 2)
2015 – $1,320,000 (PSA 3)
2016 – $776,000 (PSA 2)
2016 – $654,000 (PSA 2)
2018 – $420,000 (PSA Authentic)
2019 – $540,000 (PSA Authentic/Altered)
2019 – $1,200,000 (PA 2)
2020 – $1,426,000 (PSA 1)
2020 – $3,250,000 (PSA 3)
2021 – $6,606,000 (SGC 3)
2021 – $2,520,000 (SGC Authentic)
2021 – $2,280,000 (PSA 1.5)
2021 – $3,751,000 (PSA 2)
2021 – $6,606,000 (SGC 3)
2022 – $475,000 (PSA Authentic)
2022 – $1,528,000 (PSA Authentic)
2022 – $3,136,000 (PSA 1)
2022 – $7,250,000 (SGC 2)
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The article is written by Alexander Bitar, an internationally acclaimed dealer of high-end collectibles, owner of Alexander Bitar History. Based in Stockholm and Beverly Hills, some of Alexander Bitar’s specialties are entertainment and historical memorabilia, vintage luxury watches, autographs, and important manuscripts.