T206 Honus Wagner - Stolen and Recovered!

Published by Robert Lifson on Tagged Uncategorized

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“The All Star Cafe T206 Wagner” heads to the auction block at REA in 2009!

Every T206 Wagner naturally has a great story, sharing the Wagner legend that is now part of classic American folklore, but some examples have a richer history than others. In April 2009, REA will be presenting at auction a T206 Wagner example that has perhaps the most fascinating history of any T206 Wagner in the world with the exception of the Gretzky-McNall Wagner. This is the card that was stolen from the All Star Café in 1998, and eventually recovered by the FBI!

There are very few stories of true collecting icons in the art and collectibles world which have been stolen and recovered. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the most famous and valuable painting in the world, was stolen in 1911 right off the wall of the Louvre in Paris. Two years passed before the painting was recovered. The thief, an Italian-born former Louvre worker by the name of Vincenzo Peruggiawho, was visiting the Louvre and by chance found the painting unattended. The guard had taken an unauthorized break. Presented with the opportunity, he decided on the spur of the moment to steal it, with the express purpose of returning it to Italy where he always thought it belonged. He was finally arrested in Milan on December 10, 1913, trying to sell the painting with the condition that it would remain in Italy. The world went wild upon learning of the recovery of this cultural icon. While it may have been a small consolation to the thief, who went to jail, the painting was displayed throughout Italy before it was returned to France on December 30, 1913.    

The Scream by expressionist painter Edward Munch, also one of the most famous paintings in the world, was also stolen and recovered. For those who don’t know this painting by name, everyone is familiar with its image: This is the painting with a swirling colored background that features a screaming figure holding his hands to his ears. Munch created three painted versions of The Scream. Incredibly, two of them have been the target of high-profile art thefts. In 1994, the version in the National Gallery was stolen. It was recovered several months later. In 2004, The Scream was stolen from the Munch Museum. It was recovered in 2006.

The Hope Diamond was stolen from Marie Antoinette when she was in prison in 1792, when six thieves broke into the house used to store the crown jewels. It resurfaced in the hands of a London diamond merchant in 1812, and currently resides in the collection of the the Smithsonian Institution. At least for now.

Like the Mona Lisa, The Scream, and the Hope Diamond, this T206 Wagner is a world-famous collecting icon, and one of the few that, incredibly and improbably, was stolen and recovered. In the 1990s, this T206 Wagner was proudly displayed at the All Star Café in Times Square in New York as part of The Charlie Sheen Collection. The card was at that time owned by actor Charlie Sheen, who allowed portions of his collection to be displayed at the flagship New York City location of the upscale sports-theme restaurant chain. The workers at the All Star Café, naturally, had access to the restaurant after hours. In 1998, two All Star Café chefs and one of the managers devised a plot to steal the Wagner. The plan was to remove the card from its display case, replace it with a color copy so that no one would notice, and then to sell the original. The plan worked, at least for a while. A color copy viewed from afar in a display case can look very much like an original. The nephew of the executive chef was enlisted to sell the card for cash to famous New Jersey dealer Al Rosen, claiming the card had been saved and given to him by his grandfather. With this successful theft and sale under their belts, another crime of opportunity soon presented itself: A glass display case at the All Star Café broke, reportedly by accident. This display case housed the finest example in the world of the 1934 Goudey high-number sheet with rare card #106 Lajoie (which Charlie Sheen had years earlier purchased from Robert Edward Auctions).  After they stole the sheet, they cut it up into individual cards so that the cards would not be recognized when sold (in the process destroying the sheet). The sheet, however, was not replaced with a copy. It was simply stolen. The police were called, the FBI became involved, and during the investigation it was soon discovered that the T206 Wagner was also stolen, replaced by a copy. The entire case was solved by the FBI, the thieves were arrested, and all of the stolen cards including the T206 Wagner were returned to Charlie Sheen. We remember this case well, not just from reading about it in the newspapers (New York Times link: (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B07E1DB123BF935A25757C0A96F958260), but also because at the time REA was retained by the FBI to write the formal appraisal reports for use in the case regarding the authenticity and value of the items stolen, and REA president Robert Lifson was also hired to testify at the trail regarding card values, the auction process (which was relevant to determining value), and the authenticity of the stolen cards on behalf of the Department of Justice. The Mona Lisa, Edward Munch’s The Scream, the Hope Diamond, and the T206 Honus Wagner all have a common thread to their histories: Each is a collecting icon, instantly recognized by millions, and each has been stolen and returned.

This card enjoyed a rich history in the hobby long before being the only T206 Wagner to have been the target of a high-profile theft. This Wagner has been known since the earliest days of organized collecting. In fact, this Wagner was actually owned by REA president Robert Lifson more than thirty years ago. (It was worth about $4,000 at that time!) Its provenance also includes at one being owned by the legendary Barry Halper.

“The All Star Café Wagner” was purchased by the current owner at auction in 2001 for what was then a record auction price for a low-grade T206 Wagner ($78,000). Interesting note: To date, we are unaware of anyone ever losing money on the purchase of a T206 Wagner in any condition ever. We’re not sure we can say that about any other card or collectible of any kind. Over the years, the market trend is clear: The T206 Wagner card, even in the lowest grades, has always continued to climb in value over time. In fact, it may be more accurate to say that lower-grade Wagners have appreciated at a faster rate than higher-grade examples. There has always been an extremely strong demand for low-grade Wagners. Most Wagners in existence are in low grade, so the demand for low-grade Wagners is due in part simply to the fact that there is little in the way of higher grade choices to consider. According to the PSA population report, for example, twenty of the twenty-six T206 Wagners ever graded by PSA are graded a PSA 1 or a PSA 2 (ten examples at each grade), with just six examples graded higher (3 Vg, 1 Vg-Ex, 1 Ex MC, 1 Ex, and the Gretzky-McNall PSA 8). It is also the case that collectors are willing to be very flexible on the condition of a Wagner. Of course, the better the condition, the more valuable a Wagner will be to collectors who can afford it. But more collectors can afford a low-grade Wagner than a high-grade Wagner. Because more people can afford a low-grade example, it’s easier to sell, if the need arises. A low-grade Wagner, therefore, has much greater liquidity, which is a very desirable quality for any commodity or store of value. The challenge, then, for most card collectors interested in a Wagner, is not just to find a low-grade Wagner, which is hard enough, but to find an attractive low-grade Wagner.

The Card: This is a very attractive T206 Honus Wagner. It is particularly bright and clean, with flawlessly bold colors, perfect registration, a bright orange background, and a crisp, bold portrait. It is also perfectly centered. The advertisement for Sweet Caporal Cigarettes is boldly printed on the reverse. Graded PR-FR 1 by PSA, the card naturally has various condition flaws, including rounded corners, creases, and a few very tiny pin holes. It is a given that most T206 Wagners are in low-grade, so for a Wagner, the overall appearance is of greatest significance and cannot be communicated by just a numerical grade. Every card is different. No one is ever going to confuse this card with the famous Gretzky-McNall Wagner. But this card needs to make no apologies for its appearance. It has the most important characteristic that a T206 Wagner can possibly have: eye-appeal!

This is a tremendous low-grade example of the T206 Wagner, and one that compares very favorably with most other Wagner examples. This is a great-looking card that elicits a positive response from everyone who sees it. The colors are noticeably brighter, fresher, and bolder than most other T206 Wagners, including examples that are graded much higher. It has its condition problems, as do most other Wagners, but it also has a fascinating and unique history. While all T206 Wagners have a story, this particular Wagner has a more interesting story than just about any other baseball card in the world! Whether this card will be valued by collectors at a level more than the Beckett Wagner (graded PR 1 by Beckett, sold for $317,250 at REA in 2008) or a level lower than the second-highest auction price for a low-grade Wagner (an SGC Poor 10 example that sold at Heritage for $227,050, also in 2008) is completely unknown. Valuing Wagners is very subjective. That’s for the bidders to decide. But whatever they decide, it has been a great pleasure for us to properly document the history of this card, one of the most noteworthy examples of card collecting’s greatest treasure. Reserve $50,000. Estimate $150,000+.



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