In 1991, I got a call from my friend Matt Federgreen, the proprietor of the Beverly Hills Baseball Card Shop and my co-host for a little segment I did on each of my half-hour-long Sunday night sportscasts on KCBS-Channel 2 in L.A.
Matt had been approached by Bruce McNall, the owner of the Los Angeles Kings and at that time the rising figure in hockey ownership and L.A. sports moguldom. McNall had made his millions buying and selling (and as the jury later agreed, often selling and re-selling and re-re-selling) antique coins, and he was fascinated by the upcoming auction of the Jim Copeland sports memorabilia. Big-money auctions were nothing new to the baseball card world, but this one was being handled by Sotheby’s, meaning the hobby was being mainstreamed into investment-grade collectibles.
The centerpiece of the Sotheby’s Auction was an unbelievably pristine copy of the 1909 American Tobacco Company card of Honus Wagner, hardly the scarcest, but handily the most famous, card in the landmark series we collectors call by its catalogue number “T-206.” McNall and a then-unidentified partner (who proved to be his star player, Wayne Gretzky) wanted the card and they wanted Federgreen’s expertise. The card looked brand new. It bore no earmarks of being a clever counterfeit. But it also bore no signs of nearly 92 years of aging. Unless somebody was standing at the printing press when the card was finished drying, and stuffed it between the pages of a book, and kept the book in a climate-controlled room from the opening days of the Presidential administration of William Howard Taft, and had only taken it out after the inauguration of George H.W. Bush, something seemed wrong.
Something was very wrong. I couldn’t go with Matt to the inspection of the Wagner that McNall had arranged for him. But Matt took a bunch of pictures, and the next time he came in to the studios he brought them.
Matt has a sly smile that usually gives him away. “Whaddya think?”
I took one look at the photos and said “It’s been trimmed.”
Matt laughed. “That’s what I told Bruce. He said thanks very much, he said he thought so too, he said he’d probably buy it any way, and he walked me to the door, and he paid me a very generous fee, and I left.”
I asked him to show me the photos again. They had rung too loud a bell. “I’ve seen this card before.”
Matt’s eyes lit up. By the following Sunday I had found in my rabbit’s warren of card-related stuff, photos of a Wagner that had been offered for sale in the early ’80s by a fellow who owned a baseball card store on Long Island outside New York City. I had no doubt and neither did Matt. Between his photos and mine we were looking at before-and-after shots of the same card.
Before and after somebody with the guts of a burglar and the skills of a circumcision specialist had trimmed the thing.
In its previous state the Wagner was an anomaly. It had very large white borders, and the card was thus perhaps 10% bigger than the average T-206. It looked like it had been hand-cut from a sheet of cards, and not done by a machine. Some of the corners were stubbed and worn from age. But the “face” of the card, the player’s image, the bright yellow background, the lettering, were shiny and virtually perfect. It had been handled, and handled an appropriate amount, since 1909. But whoever had done the handling had been very, very careful not to touch the face.
And then somebody bought it and actually cut away all the damage on the sides and sold it to Jim Copeland who had turned it over to Sotheby’s which would shortly sell it to Bruce McNall and Wayne Gretzky for $451,000. When McNall was exposed as a crook who would sell the same priceless coin to several different collectors (throwing in secure storage of it for a small additional fee – so that it was always around for him to show it and re-sell it to another collector even though he didn’t own it any more) Gretzky got full possession of the treasure and sold it off to Walmart as a publicity thing, basically at a break-even figure. The price has gone up and up and up, and “the” Wagner was finally sold to Conservative political figure and Arizona Diamondbacks’ owner Ken Kendrick, who five years ago paid $2,800,000 for it.
It’s not a fake. But it’s also not an original.
And for years, collectors and experts have murmured about the process by which a really nice Wagner had been altered, and the alterations hidden from the public (even receiving the stamp of approval by the presumptive “final word” of a card authenticating company which got enormous publicity – and undeserved credibility – for encasing the card in the first of its plastic “slabs”), and the card became the image of the sports memorabilia hobby.
But who was behind this? And, Heavens, who cut the card?
Now we have the answer, courtesy the FBI…
According to the indictment, in advertising portraying Mastro Auctions as the premier seller of valuable items, including the world’s most expensive baseball trading card, a Honus Wagner T-206 card, Mastro allegedly failed to disclose that he had altered the Wagner T-206 card by cutting the sides in a manner that, if disclosed, would have significantly reduced the value of the card.
The “Mastro” in question is Bill Mastro, who I have known since we were both teenagers. At age 19, he had bought a Wagner for $1,500 and thus completed his T-206 set. Those of us whose own massive collections might have been worth a total of $1,500 were aghast. My friend and mentor Mike Aronstein told me that some of Mastro’s relatives had actually gathered together to consider what we would now call an “intervention” or forcing him to seek psychological help. It was believed that no Wagner had previously sold for more than around $250. At the left is how this startling development was contemporaneously covered by a monthly publication I used to write for called The Trader Speaks.
Mastro was already buying and selling cards that were not intended for his own collection. By the ’80s he had gone from card dealer to the founder of one of the first sports memorabilia auction houses, Mastro Auctions, and would regularly work the phones to try to drum up publicity for his auctions.
It eventually became a $50,000,000 business. And now it’s gotten Mastro and some of his colleagues indicted. And not just for the deception regarding the Wagner.
More from the Department of Justice’s press release:
CHICAGO — Online and live auctions of sports memorabilia and other collectibles conducted during the 2000s by the former Mastro Auctions, which was based in suburban Chicago, routinely defrauded customers, according to a federal indictment unsealed today. William Mastro, who owned the former business that once billed itself as the “world’s leading sports and Americana auction house,” together with Doug Allen and Mark Theotikos, both former executives of Mastro Auctions, were indicted on fraud charges for allegedly rigging auctions through a series of deceptive practices, including so-called “shill-bidding,” designed to inflate prices paid by bidders and to protect the interests of consignors and sellers at the expense of unwitting bidders.
In short, if you bought from Mastro, you stood an excellent chance of bidding against people who were there only to drive up the price.
For that part of the story, I refer you to the whole press release at the Sports Collectors Digest website. The New York Daily News has even more detail on the extraordinary tale of “the” Wagner, which after two decades of whispering, we can now shout: has been deceptively altered.
Just for fun, I should note here that the entire story of what originally made the Wagner card scarce in the first place also doesn’t add up. The timeline is so messy that it has the card being withdrawn at Wagner’s behest (supposedly because he didn’t want to be involved in selling cigarettes to kids) after he saw an advertisement for it in a national sports magazine. But the ad didn’t appear until July, 1909 and the card was supposed to have been withdrawn in March, 1909. But I’ll save that tale of what might’ve been the first card made deliberately scarce, for another time.
Also, this isn’t the scarcest card of all time, nor even in this set (there are at least 75 of them; there may not be as many examples of the T-206 card of an A’s pitcher named Eddie Plank, and there are only three or four copies of a rare T-206 variation of a Yankees’ pitcher Joe Doyle, and there are unique examples of eight minor league T-206 ‘proof’ cards featuring players who never got into the issued set, and based on recent developments there may yet be a 525th card to add to the checklist). More on that some other time.
Lastly, if you’re ever actually talking about Honus Wagner – the immortal shortstop or the card or now the FBI Fraud Case – the name doesn’t rhyme with “bonus.” Honus was short for the Germanic version of John, Johannes. So he answered to “Honnis,” not “Ho-nus.”