The Good, the Bad and the Not So Bad

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Most collectors will agree that finding a good dealer or a reputable auction house is like finding a trustworthy mechanic to work on your car. It doesn’t mean for a second that you as the collector should do any less work researching an item that you are considering purchasing, because even the good dealers can make mistakes. Also, some are just plain lazy or dishonest.

The T206 Honus Wagner baseball card is the granddaddy of all cards in the hobby. Wagner is considered one of the best baseball players of all time, playing 21-seasons in the Majors from 1897-1917 and one of the first five inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936.   It is however his baseball card issued between 1909 and 1911 by the American Tobacco Company (ATC), that has made Wagner’s name synonymous with collecting.

What makes the card so valuable?   The rarity of the card is attributed to Wagner refusing to allow production of his card to continue, because he didn’t want his name associated with children and smoking or more likely wanted more compensation from the ATC. Only 40 cards were produced compared to the thousands of T206 cards given away over 3-years, in sixteen brands of cigarettes, for any other player.

In 1991 Wayne Gretzky and Bruce McNall purchased a Wagner card for $451,000 and it instantly became known as the “Gretzky Card.” In last week’s blog I mentioned how a good story can add value to an item or even give credibility to a piece that isn’t real or tainted and this is a prime example. I’ve written about disgraced memorabilia dealer Bill Mastro and some of my dealings with this guy that left a very bad taste and eventually refusing to do business with him. Well he at one time owned the “Gretzky card” purchasing it from a small dealer in Long Island for $25,000 in 1985 and sold it a year later for $110,000. The controversy surrounding the card followed it for years with the claim it had been tampered with by Mastro. A trimmed or cut card devalues it substantially while on the other hand, the better condition the card is, the more valuable.  Mastro championed that sale in 1987 to build one of the most powerful auction houses in the sports memorabilia industry. Anyone with an item for sale will always consign or sell the piece to the highest bidder or the dealer that can extract the most money from a private sale or auction. With a record baseball card sale on his resume, this made Mastro the “go to” guy in the hobby. But as we all know, the hardest part about being number one is staying there and numerous items sold in Mastro auctions raised some flags.

Many people in the hobby were suspicious, others called it jealousy. Mastro would bully and berate anyone who questioned the validity of the Gretzky Card or the authenticity of items in his auctions. I was on the receiving end of one of those tirades and the more this clown screamed the more I knew he was a sleaze ball.

When informed by a leading expert in the memorabilia field that the card he purchased was trimmed, Bruce McNall shrugged and said he didn’t care because the publicity the card attracted was worth the price they had paid. Gretzky resold the card in 1995 to Walmart for $500,000, who used it as the top prize in a promotional contest.

The story gathered further legs when there was talk that the card had been cut from strip sheet surfaced that would have made the card priceless, if it had been left intact. Now that the “Gretzky Card” is loaded with controversy and doubt, in most cases it should immediately register as “ avoid at all costs,” but not so fast. In this case it is exactly the opposite, making the card even more famous and valuable.   The craziness of the situation is simply the story that goes with the card; owned, cut and sold by a convicted criminal. The card came possibly cut from a strip sheet and adding more to the drama, once owned by one of the greatest athletes of all time. It truly is a one of a kind item and every sale has been documented from the first in the strip mall in 1985 to today, so the provenance is without question.

This a rare occasion when something dishonest by a scumbag like Bill Mastro worked in favour of the end buyer. If in fact he did cut the card off a strip sheet as the thinking goes; it’s almost unimaginable to think what value the piece would bring today. Much like my Gretzky Trophy that turned out to be a salesman’s copy and not the original presented to Wayne, it too comes with a unique story also from the same auction house as the Gretzky Card, and so the value has increased substantially on the piece.

The sad part is that the stories don’t always turn out like this and more times than not the buyer is held with a worthless piece of memorabilia. I once again cannot stress the importance of researching any item you as a collector are preparing to buy. It is your right.

The “Gretzky Card” has changed ownership a few times over the years and last sold in 2011 to Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick for $2.8 million.