T206 Honus Wagner card surfaces: 'It just came out of thin air'

Newly discovered Wagner card gets $25 million estimate on Ken Goldin's Netflix show

Cover Image for T206 Honus Wagner card surfaces: 'It just came out of thin air'
The T206 Honus Wagner, graded SGC 5, could become the most expensive card in the world.

A newly surfaced T206 Honus Wagner card played the starring role in the new season of Ken Goldin’s “King of Collectibles,” when the show debuted Wednesday on Netflix.

Goldin placed a $25 million estimate on the card.

Let’s dig a little deeper into the find.

Any time a Wagner surfaces for sale, it’s a big deal. It’s the most historic baseball card in the world, with a story that transcends the hobby: In 1909, the American Tobacco Company printed the now-famous T206 set to promote its cigarette and tobacco brands.

The T206 Honus Wagner card has become the undisputed "grail" of the hobby.
The T206 Honus Wagner card has become the undisputed "grail" of the hobby.

Wagner was originally featured in the T206 set, but the Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop quickly put a stop to the production. A common refrain said this was due to Wagner’s desire to be a role model for kids and not encourage smoking. Whether true or not, production was pulled, leaving a precious few remaining in the wild.

Today, that number amounts to less than 50 graded across PSA and SGC.

Getting back to the once-in-a-generation discovery featured on the show, it has been years since a newly found example has hit the market, and one could be forgiven for believing all known copies were already accounted for.

However, this Wagner sat in a safety deposit box for 45 to 50 years before collector Steve Lichtman acquired it and had graded by SGC in July 2021.

"This card was on nobody's radar. It was on no website. No one had seen it. Literally, it just came out of thin air," Lichtman told cllct.

For Lichtman, who owned an SGC 3 example at the time, this was a rare chance to upgrade the already-elite class of grail cards.

"So once I saw the quality and was confident that it was going to get a better grade than the one that I had, that's when everything went into motion," Lichtman said. "When I do things I try to do them the right way."

His bet paid off, as he received an SGC 5 grade — the highest the authenticator has ever given out for a T206 Honus.

The SGC slab is labeled with a pedigree, the "John D. Wagner Collection." Some investigation reveals the John D. Wagner in question was a contemporary of card cataloguer extraordinaire Jefferson Burdick as well as a writer for publications such as Card Collector’s Bulletin.

John D. Wagner is also widely believed to be the originator of the lore behind the T206 Honus being pulled from production due to his objection to the promotion of smoking, having heard the story directly from Honus in 1942.

An article about John D. Wagner published in the 1986 "The Card Collectors Bulletin" explains that at one point he owned not just one, but two T206 Honus Wagners. The first one, he sent to Burdick. "I was confident that I would find another... so I sent it to Jeff because he couldn't seem to find one."

In return, Burdick sent him $25 — an astounding sum of money for a card at the time. John D. Wagner returned the money, refusing payment. Burdick insisted, sending the check a second time. Once again, it was returned. Burdick sent the check a third time. John D. Wagner kept it, though didn't deposit it for six months. Considering Burdick’s collection was left to the care of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it’s likely the card still resides in its archives.

Remarkably, John D. Wagner's suspicions were proven correct, as he secured a second Wagner soon after. "I found another Wagner in a book store in New York City. I paid a penny for it!"

That same card, once a single cent, now belongs to Lichtman and is a Netflix star. Not to mention it's worth the equivalent of multiple private jets, if he were to sell. "You never know."

For perspective, only a single Wagner card ranks higher across PSA and SGC. That card, the “Gretzky” Wagner, named due to its time spent under the ownership of the NHL star, was the first card ever graded by PSA and received an 8.

Notorious dealer Bill Mastro admitted to trimming the card in 2013, years after it was purchased by Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick for $2.8 million in 2007 — the most recent of four public sales.

Mastro was sentenced to 20 months in Federal Prison in 2015 for engaging in a fraudulent shill-bidding scam.

Other than the “Gretzky” Wagner, PSA’s population report shows a PSA 5 example, which has never sold at public auction. Additionally, a PSA 5 MC copy, known as the “Jumbo” Wagner thanks to its oversized measurements, has sold at least three times publicly.

Perhaps the most comparable copy to this new example, the "Jumbo" sold for $1,620,000 in 2008, $2,105,770 in 2013 and most recently for $3,120,000 in 2016.

With that 2016 sale as the last benchmark comp for a Wagner graded above a 3, especially considering the growth of the collectibles industry since then — as well as the multiple records that have been set in the time since — we are left with eight years to estimate value.

Though lower-grade, perhaps a more indicative example of the demand for Honus cards — which are famous for the unique fact that no single owner has ever sold one for less than they bought it for — would be the $7.5 million private sale of an SGC 2 example in August 2022. That was more than double the price paid for a PSA 2 copy just 14 months prior, which bodes well for Lichtman's card.

“It’s a $20 million-plus card no question,” expert appraiser and lifelong collector Simeon Lipman said. “It’s the pinnacle of all collectibles … you don't even have to say the holy grail anymore.”

Lipman says he thinks Goldin’s $25 million dollar estimate might not even be high enough.

There are some other data points to consider beyond Wagner cards specifically. The easiest is the current record for any publicly sold card, a Mickey Mantle 1952 Topps card graded SGC 9.5 which fetched $12.6 million in 2022. Though the Mantle is currently king, the pendulum tends to swing back to the T206 Wagner for the world’s most expensive card.

Considering it has been so long since such a high-grade Wagner has come to market, it’s quite easy to believe this SGC 5 Honus would blow the current record out of the water.

Using CardLadder’s High-End index, which tracks sales of cards over $5,000, we can see that since the benchmark 2016 sale of the “Jumbo” Wagner, the index has seen a rate of growth of 266.13%. Similarly, CardLadder’s Prewar Vintage index has risen +271.67% over the same time period.

Looking at the overall sales history, the card is clearly trending up, but by how much and over what time frame? Zooming in on sales of PSA 1s and SGC 1s over the years, dating back to 1999, when a PSA 1 sold for under $60,000, the growth is staggering.

Prior to 2004, seven sales of SGC 1s and PSA 1s occurred, all below $100,000 for an average price of $74,356. Over the following four years, from 2004-2008, five sales averaged $168,345.

From 2009-2013, there were just three sales of SGC 1s and PSA 1s, averaging $401,200. After 2013, there have been four such sales, rising to an average of nearly $1.8 million.

This trend, not just of escalating individual sales, but of the rising tide of average sale prices when comparing periods of years, suggests one would be unwise to assume large leaps in price are impossible for this coveted grail — especially given a lack of high-grade supply.

The question must now be asked: Considering the known altered condition of the single superior Wagner in the T206 census, the oversized nature of another qualified PSA 5, and the unknown whereabouts of the final PSA 5 — not to mention SGC’s exceptional track record returning top-dollar results for vintage cards — could this newly unveiled Wagner be the future most expensive card on the planet? And could it be worth the $25 million estimate?

While nothing can be certain until the final gavel falls at auction, all the information points to both answers being yes.

Editor's note: Steve Lichtman is an investor in cllct.

Will Stern is a reporter and editor for cllct.