T206 Honus Wagner Card: The Holy Grail of Baseball Cards

November 13, 2022

t206-wagner

The 1909 T206 Honus Wagner card is the holy grail of baseball cards.

It's a historical rarity, with less than 100 copies known to exist. A key figure to one of the most well recognized tobacco card sets of the pre-war era. 

And it's also the most valuable baseball card in the hobby.   

All of this rarity is also adding to its value on today's market. Investors have never lost money buying a T206 Honus Wagner card.

But does it have the potential for more growth in the future?

Read on as we discuss the history, rarity, values and the long term investment potential for the T206 Honus Wagner card. 

A History Of The T206 Honus Wagner Card

From 1909 to 1911, the American Tobacco Company (ATC) inserted baseball cards across its sixteen brand tobacco packs.

The cards were part of a promotion for ATC to keep customers loyal to its cigarette brands. Some believe the cards acted 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 T206 Honus Wagner card story is folklore, but the summary goes something like this. The American Tobacco Company started producing the Wagner card early in their production run in 1909 but soon stopped making the card.

Many believe this was due to a cease and desist from Honus Wagner, ordering ATC to remove the card from the set. 

Some believe Wagner wanted the card pulled since 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

How Many Honus Wagner T206 Cards Exist?

Today the estimates are that roughly 50 to 100 Wagner cards have survived and are in circulation. It was also the lowest produced card in the T206 White Borders set. 

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

PSA has graded 36 T206 Honus Wagner cards, as shown in the chart below, with the majority graded a PSA 2 or lower. 

t206-wagner-psa

SGC has graded 18 total Honus Wagner T206 cards.

Together, between PSA and SGC, there are 54 total T206 Wagner cards graded. 

Beckett has graded none. GAI has graded one T206 Wagner card. 

The T206 Wagner Was Only Issued With Three Advertising Backs

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 the most common.

Many counterfeit T206 Wagner cards are found with an advertising back that was not issued. The most common fake is a T206 Wagner with a Polar Bear back. 

We are then left to speculate how many Wagner cards exist outside the graded population. 

Scott Reader's Inside T206 book from 2009 noted that he believed that between 50 and 75 copies exist, with the number of survivors in an excellent or better condition somewhere in the single digits. 

However, since we now know of 55 total graded copies, there are probably closer to 100 T206 Wagner's in circulation.

There are likely ungraded Wagner cards in private collections. 

How Much Is A T206 Wagner Worth?

A recent T206 Wagner card in Good condition sold for $7.25 Million at a Goldin auction, breaking all previous records. 

sgc-2-wagner

This beauty recently sold at Goldin Auctions for $7.25 Million

Other low-grade copies have also sold at auction, with Poor to Fair condition T206 Wagners in rough shape selling for between $1.5 Million to $4 Million. 

For example, this Wagner with a significant crease, in Fair condition (PSA 1.5), sold for $3.7 Million at auction. 

wagner-fair

This PSA 1.5 Fair T206 Wagner sold for $3.7 Million at a recent Goldin Auction.

PSA's SMR pricing table is below, although SMR pricing is usually not reflective of the actual market values. 

t206-wagner-value

Has The T206 Wagner Been A Good Investment?

Over the last 20 years, investors in a T206 Wagner card have outperformed the S&P 500 stock market index, averaging about 17% annualized returns.  

No one has ever lost money investing in a T206 Wagner card.

"There’s a reason why no Wagner card has never sold for less than it was previously purchased for – the card is art, it’s history, it’s folklore"

I've examined historical auction data for the T206 Wagner card, and one thing is clear; buyers that have sold after 10, 15, or 20+ years have done well.

Not earth-shattering returns, but excellent appreciation in value.

Here's one example of a PSA 1 Wagner sold for $1.4 Million at a 2020 auction.

wagner-t206-poor-psa

The same 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.

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

A more recent transaction involving another PSA 1 Wagner saw the seller earning a 17% annualized return.

The card, purchased for $399,000 in 2009 was sold at auction in early 2022 for $3.1 Million at a Mile High Card Company auction.

t206-wagner-poor

This PSA 1 Wagner recently sold for $3.1 Million at auction

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 PSA 3 graded Wagner sold for $6.6 Million at Robert Edward Auctions (shown below) in 2021 and we discovered another PSA 3 that sold back in 2008 for $685,000. 

wagner-psa-3

Slightly better condition Wagner's with recent history have also earned nearly similar returns. 

Over the past twelve years, an investment in a PSA 3 graded Honus Wagner T206 card would have resulted in an 19% annualized return, which still handily beat out the S&P 500, which returned 16% on an 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:

wagner-estimated-values

What's The Future 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 an excellent investment. 

If there is one card in the hobby that I could pinpoint as having minimal downside, it would be the Wagner card. 

Even in deep recessions, vintage sports cards hold their value quite well, as collectors cling to their prized possessions in times of trouble. 

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

The Wagner card is often compared to the 'Mona Lisa' for its one-of-a-kind importance and scarcity throughout the hobby. 

Even if you thought we might be in a sports card 'bubble,' the Wagner card should continue to appreciate over time. 

And we can see, based on past auction values of the Wagner card, it has been an excellent investment, outperforming the stock market over the last twenty or so years. 

In addition, vintage cards have become an excellent diversifier for even non-collectors, with those investors looking to asset classes such as art, antiques, and collectibles as non-correlated assets. 

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 say 20 years, the Wagner card is likely to be a wise investment from a return perspective. 

Estimated Value of T206 Honus Wagner Cards in 2040

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 15%, this is ultimately what Wagner values would look like in 2040.

Be sure to come and see me in eighteen years to see if that PSA 8 Wagner has hit $370 Million!

honus-wagner-estimates

Anything can happen in the future; that $3 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 $37 Million card in under twenty years.

Again, this is all speculation and an exercise done for fun, but the Wagner T206 card remains one of the best investments for deep-pocketed vintage collectors. 

If you can't afford a Wagner, consider some of the other Hall of Famers from the T206 set, which should also be a good long-term investment. 

The Wayne Gretzky T206 Wagner

The most controversial T206 Wagner card is the one that is recorded as having the highest grade in the PSA registry.  

Known throughout the hobby as the 'Gretzky Wagner', the card was acquired by Gretzky and then LA Kings Owner Bruce McNall in 1991 for $450,000. 

psa-8-wagner

Gretzky sold it shortly thereafter to Walmart for a customer promotion. It later was sold for several million dollars to former Arizona Cardinals owner Ken Kendrick. 

However, the card was later found to be trimmed by one of the original owners - a scammer known as Bill Mastro of Mastro Auctions.

Thus, PSA made a huge error in actually grading the card at Near Mint-Mint. 

There's a great book that discusses the card in detail called, 'The Card'. 

All Vintage Cards

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