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Old 01-20-2002, 06:03 PM
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Default Article in WSJ 1/19/02

Posted By: Elliot

Did anybody see this article about the downtrend in card prices. It talks a lot about the fall in price and the recent relative proliferation of the t-206 Wagner card, and quotes Mike Gidwitz. Unfortunately, I no longer have the hard copy of the article and you need to be an online subscriber to access the WSJ website. Can somebody else post the link and/or the hard article?

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Old 01-20-2002, 06:47 PM
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Default Article in WSJ 1/19/02

Posted By: Bill Cornell

January 18, 2002

The Great Baseball-Card Slide:
As Cards Emerge, Prices Cool


Joe Orlando authenticates baseball cards for a living, and thought he'd seen it all. Then a collector he never met shuffled up to his booth at a sports memorabilia show in Philadelphia late last year and threw a creased Honus Wagner T-206 on the table. "My eyes bulged out," says Mr. Orlando, of Los Angeles. "An authentic Honus is a find of a lifetime."

Well, at least it used to be.

The Honus Wagner, printed in 1909, has long been the most valuable card in baseball. Thought to be super-rare because the Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop had them yanked from the market, prices for Honuses skyrocketed in the last decade. One even soared to $1.3 million in 2000. So how come Mr. Orlando's eye-bulging find is priced at $75,000, more than a fat $1 million short of the record?

Holy Grail of Baseball Cards

The Holy Grail of the baseball-card hobby is getting a bit tarnished. As high prices send people scurrying to their attics, the "rare find" is becoming almost commonplace. One New Jersey auctioneer has sold four in the past two years, with bids for ones in even "good" condition starting as low as $25,000. Moreover, Honus isn't the only one having trouble hitting homers. With baby boomers and dot-com millionaires out of the ballpark for the best cards, prices in the $500 million sports-card market are easing. Among the players likely headed south: Joe DiMaggio, Seattle Mariner Ichiro Suzuki and home-run hitters in general, as the achievements of Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire make it look easy.

But nowhere is the fall from grace as surprising as with Honus. "The consensus has long been that this card is the greatest card of all time," says Michael Gidwitz, the Chicago collector and dealer who sold the near-mint Honus for $1.3 million two years ago. Now, he says, so many Honuses have been unearthed by the publicity that "some of the fantasy is gone."

Why is the card so famous in the first place? Legend has it that Wagner, one of the first five men inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, was worried he would encourage younger fans to smoke, so he had his card pulled from cigarette packs. (Baseball cards used to come with tobacco, not gum.) Another scenario: Wagner, who was pictured on a later card cramming tobacco into his cheeks, pulled the T-206 series cards because he wasn't being paid enough for the use of his likeness.

Only 24 Honus Wagners were thought to be left back in 1991 when hockey player Wayne Gretzky and coin dealer Bruce McNall teamed up to buy one for $451,000 in a high-profile auction at Sotheby's. That record price shook about 15 more cards out of old shoeboxes, most with a crease or two. By 2000, when Mr. Gidwitz sold his card for $1.3 million, dealers had upped their estimate of known Honus Wagners to 50, including one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Two years later, and including the most recent find, some dealers are conceding there might be 60 out there -- or more.


Batter Up
With spring training coming up, here's a look at baseball cards that dealers say make good buys -- and a few that don't:

Card Price Up/Down Comment
Babe Ruth 1914 rookie $80,000 Up This lesser-known card depicting an unknown Ruth is super-rare: fewer than 10 are known to exist.
Ozzie Smith 1979 Topps $400 Up Good news: His induction in July into the Hall of Fame will bump up value. Bad: There are a ton of them.
Mark McGwire 1985 Topps $1,600 Down Prices plummeted 75% when Barry Bonds broke Mr. McGwire's home-run record last year.
Mickey Mantle 1952 Topps $275,000 Up A classic card sought by virtually every major collector. But only three exist in gem-mint condition.
Mickey Mantle 1951 Bowman $20,343 Down Lower-grade cards are down 10%; dealers say it's a correction after years of skyrocketing prices.
Ichiro Suzuki 1993 BBM $145 Down Prices soared in 2001 for the American League MVP. In 2002, he needs a perfect season, or value tanks.
Satchel Paige 1948 Leaf $55,000 Up His card, along with those of other famous black players, has long been undervalued, experts say.
Joe DiMaggio 1938 Goudey $13,393 Down Down 40% since 2000, when a scathing new biography soured some collectors.


Sure, $75,000 is still a lot for a baseball card, but for collectors who learned as children that the T-206 Honus Wagner was the "card of cards," it's a shock. "You've got to be kidding me," says Scott Zieher, a New York collector who says he'd expect, even for one with rounded corners and two creases, "triple that price." This isn't all about the card's condition, either: Leila Dunbar, director of Sotheby's collectibles department and a star of the "Antiques Roadshow," notes that the price difference between the cheapest Honus and the most expensive is a widening gulf as new ones turn up.

Where are they coming from? In some cases, collectors are just digging through old shoeboxes more ferociously than ever, turning them up. Also, sometimes the new "discoveries" aren't so new at all. MastroNet's Robert Lifson, the auctioneer who has sold four recently, says cards that have been passed over are sometimes miraculously rediscovered with a new history.

Other Cards Are Headed Up

Overall, sports memorabilia sales have been on a slide for five years, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. But baseball cards were particularly hard-hit as kids abandoned them for Pokemon cards. Sotheby's and Christie's, too, halted regular big-money auctions of cards, leaving sales to local hobby shops, trade shows or online auctions. Spring training still gives cards a price bump, but that's mostly for new cards of the rookies. On eBay, prices of baseball cards are down 25% from two years ago, according to

So, if some of the sheen is coming off the T-206 Honus Wagner and other players, what cards are rising? For starters, try Babe Ruth's true rookie card. Issued in 1914 when Ruth first played with the Baltimore Orioles of the International League, the card trades at around $80,000, and, in Mr. Lifson's opinion, is "headed straight up." At this point, the card is far rarer than the Honus; there are less than 10 known.

At a lower price-point, Sotheby's Ms. Dunbar picks several early black baseball players, including Satchel Paige. Another good bet: the T-206 Joe Doyle, which sells for around $180,000. "Slow Joe Doyle," as he was called, pitched for the New York Americans back in 1905. Printers made a mistake and printed "Nat'l" as the league after his name instead of "American." The error was fixed, but a handful are known to exist with the mistake -- and those are the pricey ones.

"We're saying that there are about 10 of those in existence," Mr. Lifson says. "At least for now."

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