Honus Wagner T206 Baseball Card – Is It A Good Investment?

wagner-t206-poor-psa For many readers (including myself) the T206 Honus Wagner card is mostly out of reach from an affordability standpoint. 

A recent example for the card in Poor condition sold for $1.4 million at auction

So unless you have some serious cash hanging around, the Wagner might not necessarily be an affordable investment at the moment.

Still, I thought it might be fun to examine the current values and populations for the T206 Wagner, while trying to see if we might be able to determine a future value for the card.  

Of course this is just an exercise, and nothing in this article should be construed as fact; we are mostly having some fun with numbers to see what the possibilities are.  

Do you have a T206 Wagner card?  Get in touch with me at chris@allvintagecards.com — I’d love to see it! 

A History Of The T206 Honus Wagner Card

The T206 White Borders set was issued from 1909 through 1911 and today is the most sought after vintage baseball card set.  The cards were inserted in cigarette packs sold by the American Tobacco Company (or ATC).  The cards were issued in sixteen different tobacco packs, as a promotion to try and keep customers loyal to its cigarette brands.  It is also thought that the cards were used as an added 'stiffener' for the cigarette packs. 

polar-bear-pack

Example of a Polar Bear Tobacco pack that likely contained a T206 card

The story of the T206 Honus Wagner card is one of folklore, but the summary goes something like this.  The American Tobacco Company started producing the Wagner card early on in their production run in 1909, but was quickly forced to stop producing the card.  This was due to a cease and desist from Wagner which ordered ATC to remove the card from the set.  

Some say that Wagner wanted the card pulled, due to the fact that he did not want to be associated with a tobacco product and ruin his image.  But many dispute this fact, noting that Wagner was a frequent chewing tobacco user and it was more likely due to a contractual dispute.

wagner-chewing-tobacco

A picture of Honus Wagner later in life going for a handful of chewing tobacco.

Scott Reader summed this up well in his fantastic piece about the T206 Set:

Some advanced T206 collectors, such as Olbermann, have argued that Wagner’s withholding of consent had less to do with an anti-smoking bias than money. These critics of the anti-smoking thesis note that Wagner was featured in advertisements for tobacco products (including cigars) leading up to 1909, and was an admitted user of chewing tobacco. From this, they conclude that Wagner's pronouncements about moral objections to cigarette smoking were themselves, excuse the pun, a “smoke screen.” - Scott Reader, Inside T206

Overall, it is unknown how many T206 Wagner's exist today, but it is quite clear that there were far fewer Wagner's produced versus nearly every other card in the set.  Today the estimates are that roughly 50 to 100 Wagner cards have survived and are in circulation. 

How Many Honus Wagner T206 Cards Exist?

While we can speculate how many Wagner cards actually exist, we do have SGC and PSA population reports, which at least provide concrete data as to the graded population of Wagner cards.

To date, PSA has graded 35 T206 Honus Wagner cards as shown in the chart below, with the majority graded a PSA 2 or lower.   Note also that SGC has graded 12 Honus Wagner T206 cards for a total of 47 between the two popular grading companies.  None have been graded by Beckett.  GAI has graded one that I'm also aware of. 

population-report (16)

Note that the T206 Honus Wagner card was only issued with the Piedmont 150, Sweet Caporal 150 Factory 25 and Sweet Caporal 150 Factory 30 backs. The Sweet Caporal 150 Factory 25 version is more common.

This then leaves us to speculate how many Wagner cards exist outside of the graded population.  Scott Reader notes that he believes that between 50 and 75 copies exist in all, with the number of survivors in excellent or better condition somewhere in the single digits.  It is very likely that there are ungraded Wagner cards in private collections. 

A Look At Historical Values For The T206 Wagner Card

I've examined historical auction data for the T206 Wagner card and one thing is clear; buyers that have sold after a period of 10, 15 or 20+ years have done quite well.  Not earth shattering returns, but a very solid appreciation in value has been realized.

Here's one example on a PSA 1 Wagner that was recently sold at auction for $1.4 Million at auction.

The same exact card was sold at auction back in 2004 for $101,000.  I can't confirm if it was the same buyer that sold the card this year, but that's good for a total 1300% return or roughly speaking, a 17.3% annualized return over sixteen years.

wagner-t206-poor-psa

Over the same period, the S&P 500 returned a rough 8.8% annual return.  Thus a Wagner purchased in 2004 outperformed the stock market by nearly 9% per year over sixteen years. 

wagner-psa-1-returns

In addition we looked at historical data for a PSA 3 Wagner, and while we didn't have enough sales data to look at identical cards, we compared similar condition PSA 3 copies. 

A recent PSA graded Wagner sold for $3.25 Million at Goldin Auctions (shown below) and we discovered another PSA 3 that sold back in 2008 for $685,000. 

wagner-psa-3

Thus, here's a look at the rough returns for a PSA 3 Wagner.  

Over the past twelve years, an investment in a PSA 3 graded Honus Wagner T206 card would have resulted in an 11.6% annualized return, which still handedly beat out the S&P 500, which returned 9.3% on annual basis. 

psa-3-wagner-returns

Given some of the auction activity of late, we can get a rough estimation of Wagner values.  Here's my estimate:

T206 Honus Wagner - Poor Condition (PSA 1):  $1.4 Million
T206 Honus Wagner - Good Condition (PSA 2):  $2.5 Million
T206 Honus Wagner - Very Good Condition (PSA 3):  $3.3 Million
T206 Honus Wagner - VG-EX Condition (PSA 4):  $4.5 Million
T206 Honus Wagner - Excellent Condition (PSA 5):  $6 Million
T206 Honus Wagner - NM-Mint (PSA 8):  $8 Million + 

What Is The Investment Potential For The T206 Wagner?

Given the scarcity and the importance of the Wagner card throughout the hobby, I view it (for those with some very, very deep pockets) as a very smart investment.  If there is one card in the hobby that I could pinpoint as having very little downside, it would be the Wagner card.  

As I've discussed before, even in deep recessions, vintage sports cards hold their value quite well, as collectors sort of cling to their most treasured items in times of trouble.  The Wagner card is a card that is often compared to the 'Mona Lisa' for it's one of a kind popularity and scarcity throughout the hobby.  Even you thought that we might be in a sports card 'bubble' the Wagner card should continue to appreciate over time. 

Graph of PWCC Top 100 Vintage Cards (in Blue) versus the S&P 500 (in Red) since 2008

And we can see, based on past auction values of the Wagner card, it has been a great investment, outperforming the stock market over the last twenty or so years. In addition, vintage cards have become a great diversifier for even non-collectors; with those investors looking to asset classes such as art, antiques and collectibles as a non-correlated asset.  

I know that 99.9% of those reading might not be able to find or even afford a Wagner T206 card, but this article is just here to prove that over time, and let's just say 20 years, the Wagner card is likely to be a smart investment from a return perspective.  

We've shown that a Wagner purchased sixteen years ago has appreciated roughly 17% per year, while one purchased in 2008 has appreciated by nearly 12%.  If we split the difference and estimate that future returns for a Wagner card are 14.5%, this is ultimately what Wagner values would look like:

Estimated Value of T206 Honus Wagner Cards in 2040

T206 Honus Wagner - Poor Condition (PSA 1):  $21 Million
T206 Honus Wagner - Good Condition (PSA 2):  $38 Million
T206 Honus Wagner - Very Good Condition (PSA 3):  $50 Million
T206 Honus Wagner - VG-EX Condition (PSA 4):  $68 Million
T206 Honus Wagner - Excellent Condition (PSA 5):  $90 Million
T206 Honus Wagner - NM-Mint (PSA 8):  $120 Million

Sure anything can happen over a few year period; that $1.4 Million Wagner in Poor condition might not increase precipitously in value over the next few years, but if it can attain similar past returns, it could ultimately be a $21 Million card in twenty years.

Again, this is all speculation and an exercise done for fun, but I'd still say that the Wagner T206 card remains one of the best investments for deep pocketed vintage collectors.  If you don't have the funding for a new Wagner, consider some of the other Hall of Famers from the T206 set, which should also be solid investments for the longer term. 

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