There are, by Josh Evans's estimate, about fifty T206 Honus Wagner tobacco cards in circulation. The founder and chairman of Lelands.com Auctions also knows that for every one out there, an interesting story goes with it.
On Thursday, July 24, the first day of the National Sports Collectors Convention in Atlantic City, an elderly couple ("perhaps late 70s, early 80s"), arrived at the Convention Center and approached four dealers with news of a Wagner card in their possession. It had never been circulated; it belonged to the woman's father, who got it new soon after it was issued in 1910.
The card was not in good condition. But the reason soon became clear. Her father had kept it in his wallet for more than 20 years, from the '20s to the early '40s. He did that not because he was a Wagner fan, but because he was aware that it was a special card. (The established tale of the card is that Wagner had it pulled from circulation because he did not want his picture marketed to children along with tobacco products.)
This would be one of the earliest anecdotes attesting to people valuing and appreciating the card as early as the 1920s.
"I drove to their home Saturday in Smithville, N.J." said Leighton Sheldon, Director of Card Acquisitions for Lelands.com. They also had 450 other T206s, about 250 boxing cards and some 1200 non-sports cards from that era. And by the weekend, she had agreed to consign the cards to Lelands for its next auction.
It is not known how many Wagner cards exist that have had single-family ownership since its issue. This is surely a remarkable part of the story.
The card, "The Atlantic City Wagner," could not be PSA graded, for it was slightly trimmed to accommodate the gentleman's wallet, no doubt. But it was encased and labeled "authentic" by PSA. The card is quite worn, but it is a Wagner and it has quite a story behind it.
"We put it in a bank vault in the early '80s," said the current owners, who wish to remain anonymous. "We were robbed around that time. The robbers did not take the tobacco cards. But we knew then that we were lucky and we should get it into a vault."
The auction will take place on November 20. Lelands has placed a $10,000 reserve on the item. They will also item, as single lots, the other 450 T 206s, the 1200 non-sports cards, and the 250 boxing cards.
Lelands.com was founded in 1985, and has auctioned the Barry Bonds 73rd home run ball, the Mickey Mantle Collection, the Boston Garden Collection, the Wilt Chamberlain 100-point ball, Babe Ruth's first Yankee Stadium home run ball, and other notable artifacts from sports and Americana.