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'Mona Lisa of baseball cards' goes on the block

Anne Marie Owens

Honus Wagner was considered one of the game's best all-around players. He batted 17 consecutive .300 seasons.

Honus Wagner is not as renowned as Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle, but his image graces the most valuable card in baseball, which is expected to sell for as much as $1-million when it is auctioned off next month.

The 1909 baseball card, once owned by Wayne Gretzky and later auctioned as a lucrative prize in a Wal-Mart draw, is being unveiled in New York today as part of a one-month publicity blitz aimed at increasing interest over the card's sale.

It will be auctioned on July 5 on eBay, the Internet auction site better known for selling $50 collector's items.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame lists Honus Wagner of the Pittsburgh Pirates as one of the sport's greatest all-around players. He was a sensational hitter, a brilliant baserunner and a flawless fielder "despite his awkward appearance."

Mr. Wagner requested that his famous card, the Honus Wagner 1909 T206, be discontinued from distribution by American Tobacco. Even though he chewed tobacco himself, he did not want to set a bad example for young fans.

There were only 50 of the cards produced. Only nine of them are left and most are ripped or bent.

The card to be auctioned next month is in pristine condition.

Don Flanagan, a spokesman for the Hoboken-based auction company that is brokering the sale, said the card's interesting lineage of ownership has added to its value: "It's attained a life of its own as a result of its popular history."

Mr. Gretzky bought the card at a Sotheby's auction in 1991 for US$451,000. He sold it for about $500,000 to a sports card distributor for a raffle deal with Wal-Mart.

Patricia Gibbs, a 41-year-old Florida postal worker, won the Wal-Mart raffle. She quickly sold it to avoid paying taxes on the winnings.

In 1996, it was sold for a record $641,500 to Michael Gidwitz, a Chicago investor and an avid collector of sports memorabilia.

Mr. Gidwitz decided to sell the Wagner card because of the hot market for vintage baseball cards. The minimum bid he will accept for the sale is $500,000.

"Every time this card gets sold, it raises the bar for baseball cards," said Frank Racaniello, the New York publicist organizing the pre-sale publicity tour for the card. "This is the Mona Lisa of baseball cards."

The card, protectively sealed and encased, will begin making the rounds today at Mickey Mantle's Restaurant, with future viewing sessions scheduled for other establishments.

Mr. Racaniello said they decided to conduct the sale through eBay because it allows for a broader market than the exclusivity of traditional auction houses.

National Post

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