Photo used for T206 Honus Wagner card being auctioned off

Used to create world's most famous baseball card, photo was filed away for a century

Cover Image for Photo used for T206 Honus Wagner card being auctioned off
Bidding has surpassed $100,000 for the Honus Wagner photo with a week remaining in the auction. (Credit: Hunt Auctions)

A rare photograph of Honus Wagner used to create arguably the most important baseball card in history, the 1909-11 T206 card, will sell next week at Hunt Auctions as part of its MLB All-Star Auction.

Estimates for the photo range between $100,000-$300,000.

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The cabinet card, a style of photography which became popular in the 1880s, was larger than the carte de visite, leading to its adoption for portraits, more easily viewed while displayed in a cabinet).

Around 1902, famed baseball photographer Carl Horner captured the image of Wagner, which would later be used in the production of the storied baseball card. The T206 card was inserted into tobacco products before Wagner halted production, causing the card to become among the rarest in all of collecting.

Today, less than 50 T206 Wagner cards have been graded across PSA and SGC, with the highest-graded copies receiving estimated values of $25 million.

Despite the card’s legendary rarity, these cabinet photos are actually far more scarce, with a mere handful believed to exist.

The example offered at Hunt was unknown to the collecting world for more than 100 years, stored away in the archives of The Cleveland Plain Dealer until its 2013 discovery. In 2019, it was sold at Lelands for $65,007.60. This is the second time this copy has appeared at public auction.

At the time of its return to the hobby in 2013, the cabinet photo was unmounted and exhibited a few production markings. The portrait was re-mounted and removed of its markings in an expert process which included a small amount of “inpainting.”

Considered to be one of the most desirable vintage sports photos in the entirety of the collecting world, the market for the small number of Wagner early photographs has taken off considerably in recent years, mirroring the same increase in value seen in other highly-sought after photos such as the Mickey Mantle image used for his 1951 Bowman rookie card, which sold for an auction-record $843,750 in April 2024.

Back in 1996, Christie’s sold a copy for $23,000. Just three years later, a PSA 1 copy of the T206 Wagner card sold for less than $60,000.

While both the cabinet photo and the T206 card have seen substantial growth in the two decades since, the card remains the undisputed champion, selling for $7.5 million in 2022. The cabinet card has remained in the low six-digits, as bidding has surpassed $100,000 with less than a week left in the auction.

Will Stern is a reporter and editor for cllct.