The silence wasdeafening. When a baseball card purporting to be an exceedingly rare HonusWagner T-206 came up for bid last Saturday at Bob Connelly's Sports MemorabiliaAuction in Binghamton, N.Y., no one in the house uttered a sound. The Web, too,offered nothing, since eBay had removed the item from its auction on Fridayafternoon. The minimum bid of $300,000--Connelly had appraised the card at$850,000--went once ... twice ... it could have gone a thousand times. Nosale.
The card is ownedby two Cincinnati men, a former musician named John Cobb and Ray Edwards, astore owner. Cobb says he bought it in 1983 or '84 for $1,800 from a brokerwhose name he remembers only as Bud--now deceased. If genuine, it would be oneof three known 1909 T-206 Wagner cards with a Piedmont cigarette backing. Whyso rare? Because Wagner, an original Hall of Famer, supposedly told theAmerican Tobacco Company he didn't want to encourage kids to smoke, and toremove his image from packs of cigarettes.
A T-206 Wagnercard in near-mint condition and once partially owned by Wayne Gretzky sold for$1.265 million at auction in 2000. That card had been graded an 8 on a scale of10 by Pro Sports Authenticators (PSA), the leading authenticator of cards. Cobband Edwards have had their card checked by a paper expert in Appleton, Wis.,Integrated Paper Services (which judged it to be of pre-1916 stock), and aprinter in Cincinnati, Arnie Schwed (who, using a 100-power microscope, saidthe printing was circa 1909). They have never had it checked by PSA because,say Cobb and Edwards, they don't want to let the card out of their sight, andPSA won't grade cards with the owners present.
"If the cardwere real, they'd be leaving tons of money on the table by not having itcertified," says Joe Orlando, president of PSA. "Certified goods sellfor a lot more than uncertified ones."
Statements likethat have convinced Cobb and Edwards that PSA has already made up its mindabout their card. Orlando says at least three things about the card aretroubling. Below Wagner's image, PITTSBURG is spelled in all uppercase letters,whereas in the Gretzky only the p is capitalized. There's discoloration andstaining on Wagner's image, but the edges and corners show no signs of wear--aninconsistency. And the image itself looks dull and washed out, "like aphoto of a photo of a photo."
Orlando says that"the paper and printing may be old, but that doesn't tell you it's real.Old paint and old canvas doesn't make a painting the Mona Lisa. The bottom lineis their two experts are not qualified to render an opinion on the authenticityof the card."
Steve Wolter, aCincinnati-area dealer and collector who examined Cobb and Edward's T-206 sevenyears ago, also discredits the card. "It was a reproduction," Woltersays. "I'd seen a number of them in the 13 years I've been in business.This one was so easy to spot, you didn't have to put it under a microscope. Iwill drop dead if someone buys that card for $300,000."
So far no one hasoffered that sum, a bargain price if the card were real. (Connelly blames thelack of bids on eBay, which pulled the listing the day before the auction. Itwas the sixth time eBay has done so since 2002, citing the card's lack ofauthentication.) But Cobb and Edwards say they are confident in theirappraisers. "This is a big dagger, but it's all good," says Edwards,who says they will continue to try to sell the card without PSA certification."We've been going at this for five years, and we'll just keep going. You'llbe hearing from us again."
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For more on this story, tune in to Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel on HBO thismonth.