Baseball card nets $1.2 million at auction

ST. LOUIS — A New Jersey man paid $1.2 million for a rare 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card in an online auction that brought interest from many potential buyers who had never owned a card before, the sale organizer said.

The buyer hasn’t decided whether to come forward publicly, and the seller, a Houston businessman, wants to remain anonymous, said Bill Goodwin, the suburban St. Louis collectibles dealer who ran the auction that ended Friday. The buyer’s bid was the highest of 14 made since the auction began last month.

“We’re thrilled with the outcome,” Goodwin said. “There’s been so much media attention surrounding this card, and the final price proved this card was worth watching.”

Wagner was a member of the first class of Hall of Fame inductees. The shortstop, nicknamed “The Flying Dutchman,” spent most of his 21-year career (1897 to 1917) with the Pittsburgh Pirates, winning eight batting titles and hitting a career .327.

The 2½- by 1½-inch card was released in cigarette packs sold by the American Tobacco Co. from 1909 to 1911. What makes the card special, in addition to Wagner’s fame, is the fact that it was pulled from circulation after about 200 were issued.

The consensus among many was that Wagner didn’t want to encourage smoking, especially to children. Goodwin said it may have simply been a matter of Wagner wanting to be compensated for his likeness, since he was photographed with chewing tobacco in his mouth and did advertisements for tobacco companies.

Historians believe only about 60 of the Wagner cards still exist, though many are in poor condition. Based on a rating system by Sportscard Guarantee Corp., the quality of the card Goodwin auctioned was better than all but five of the Wagner cards in existence.

Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick paid a record $2.8 million for the highest-graded Wagner card in existence in 2011.

Bidding for the Wagner card auctioned by Goodwin opened at $300,000. The final sale price was $300,000 more than the previous high for a Wagner card of similar quality, Goodwin said.

The auction suggested that people beyond sports memorabilia collectors are becoming interested in baseball cards, said Bill Shelton, who worked with Goodwin. The winning bidder for the Wagner card “came in completely off the radar,” Shelton said.

He said a lot of those who expressed interest in the card had never owned a baseball card.

“A lot of people were talking about investment and return on investment,” Shelton said. “I think people are starting to see these high-end cards in the same terms as art and antiques.”

Goodwin auctioned off other cards that also brought in prices exceeding expectations, he said. A card for Hall of Fame pitcher Eddie Plank, also pulled from circulation, sold for $330,825. Plank won 326 games, mostly with the Philadelphia A’s, in a 17-year career that ended in 1917.

A card that misspelled the last name of early 20th century Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Sherry Magee (misspelled as “Magie”) fetched $80,000 — $30,000 more than Goodwin predicted when the auction began.

Among other cards that sold, four featuring the likeness of Ty Cobb brought in a combined $10,000.

Goodwin has already begun planning his next auction, which includes a complete set of 200 baseball cards distributed through the Famous-Barr department store chain in 1916. The cards, including a Babe Ruth rookie card showing the baseball legend as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, and one featuring Jim Thorpe during his brief time as a ballplayer, will be sold individually.

Goodwin believes the Ruth card could bring up to $75,000. That auction begins in June.

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