The Cohens vs. The Monster

Apr 21, 2010

If you have been in the sportscard collecting hobby for more than 10-minutes, you are well aware that the T206, 1933 Goudey and 1952 Topps sets are the three most important issues of all-time. Of this highly desirable trio, the T206 set is the best known and the set that collectors consider to be the most coveted. Issued from 1909 to 1911 in cigarette and tobacco packs through 16 different brands owned by the American Tobacco Company, the T206 set is a landmark issue in the hobby due to its size, rarity, and the quality of its color lithographs. It also doesn't hurt that the set includes the Honus Wagner card of which a high-quality sample sold for nearly three-million dollars.

While some T206 cards in lower grades are easy to find at relatively low prices, T206 examples in high-grades are extremely rare and very expensive. John Blattner, a longtime card dealer, recently told Sports Market Report that any collector who decides to take on the challenge of assembling a T206 set is putting themselves up against a formidable opponent. "The T206 set is nicknamed "The Monster" due to the enormous task of assembling over 500 cards, many of which are not available to the average collector," said Blattner. "Therefore, the goal of most collectors is just to obtain every card in any grade they can find."

Pointing out that there are currently 141 collectors who have their T206 sets registered on the PSA Registry, Blattner said it is important to recognize that, for the most part, the condition and completion of the majority of these sets is low. "Of the 141, sets only 29 have achieved a 50 percent completion rating," said Blattner. "This reinforces the formidable task of completing the set in any grade."

Richard Cohen proudly admits to having been born with the collecting gene.

While Blattner calls the challenge of assembling a T206 a labor of love, he is also quick to add that while passion may be the compelling force, completion can only be attained with a lot of luck and money. "This set could take many years to complete unless someone happens to be in the right place at the right time with the financial means to buy a partial set or a large group of cards," he said pragmatically.

This past year, opponents worthy of taking on the T206 challenge have surfaced within the sportscard hobby. Weighing in with the perfect mix of passion, an intuitive gut and the financial wherewithal, Richard Baron Cohen and his son, Adam, are as fit as any collector in the hobby to take on "The Monster."

Richard Cohen owns the single largest collection of early-19th porcelain exceeded only by the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

"Richard and Adam Cohen have accepted the challenge to assemble a T206 set worthy of the PSA Hall of Fame," said Blattner. "Known as the "Twinight Collection," the Cohens have made a substantial jumpstart by purchasing 74 high-grade T206 Hall of Fame cards. With 14 PSA MINT 9s, five NM-MT PSA 8.5s and 55 NM-MT PSA 8s, these are some of the best graded T206 cards in existence with many ranked at the top of their population."

Richard and Adam Cohen, who are also working on compiling a collection of autographs of Baseball Hall of Famers, both know a high-grade T206 set will be very difficult to complete, but difficulty has never been an obstacle when it comes to the passion that drives Richard Cohen.

Richard's porcelain collection consists of more than 250,000 individual objects.

Born in Manhattan in 1957, Richard attended Horace Mann High School and then matriculated at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. His family was involved in the development of New York City office buildings and he now owns Chudnow Manufacturing, a company that makes post-mix beverage dispensing equipment for companies such as Dairy Queen. Proudly admitting to having been born with the collecting gene, Richard was a stamp collector as a child. "I stopped collecting for a number of years right after I got married," said Richard. "But then I got back into it a bit. My problem with stamps was that I was constantly frustrated because they did not exist in the quality I was looking for. I wanted 1860 to 1865 stamps that were unhinged and perfect – they simply didn't exist. Because they didn't exist, I couldn't buy them so I auctioned off all of my stamps."

Moving on from stamps, it would be an understatement to say that Richard's affinity has been eclectic when it comes to the items he collects. "I collect very fine examples of portrait miniatures," said Richard. "I collect trees – Dwarf Maples, Dwarf Conifers and Japanese Maples that I have in an exotic garden at my home. I collect Three Stooges memorabilia and I also like hippos, so I collect hippopotamus items. And then there is porcelain."

When it comes to Richard Cohen, the comment: "And then there is porcelain," would be akin to Willie Mays saying: "And then there is baseball," or Michael Jordan saying: "And then there is basketball." Does that mean Richard is a serious porcelain collector? Well, Richard's amassment is the single largest collection of early-19th Century porcelain, only exceeded by the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Christie's Fine Art Auction House has called his porcelain collection: "The top of its genre."

Richard's collection consists of more than 250,000 individual objects with over 3,000 vases, plates, accoutrements, dinner settings that include a $300,000 set of plates used by Lady Emma Hamilton who was the mistress of Lord Nelson and the muse of artist George Romney, and a $900,000 series of gilded plates produced by the Sèvres workshop in the 1830s and '40s. Of the most interesting items in the collection is a 141-piece set that was personally commissioned by Richard himself from Denmark's Royal Copenhagen porcelain factory. Incorporating his love of hippos and porcelain, Richard paid $500,000 to create a one-of-a-kind hippo-themed porcelain set. To do this he dispatched a photographer to capture images of hippopotamoi in over 100 zoos throughout 33 countries. Cohen then chose the best photos to be hand-painted on plates, saucers and bowls by renowned porcelain artist Jorgen Steensen.

When pressed on how his porcelain passion came to be, Richard reveals it was purely serendipitous. "It all started on July 3, 1994," he recalled. "I was walking down a street in London and passed an antique shop that was getting ready to close for the day. In the window, I saw these Royal Vienna Chargers – large porcelain plates that had topographical paintings on them. So I went in and asked the lady about them, ended up buying them, and she and her husband became close friends of mine. She pointed me in the right direction to continue to collect porcelain and, over the years, I have made very few mistakes. It just started from there and it has never stopped. It drove my first wife nuts," he laughed. "But it has become an important part of my life. I spend a lot of time in Europe where I am very well known because of my porcelain collection." In fact, Richard has become so well known for his collection that he has been knighted as a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters) by the French government for contributing to French cultural heritage.

Richard's extensive collection of Three Stooges memorabilia includes some of the trio's personal items such as Larry Fine's violin.

When not in Europe, Richard's home is in Centre Island, New York. With well-known neighbors such as Billy Joel and Rupert Murdoch, Richard's sprawling mansion, known as "Twinight" was designed to replicate the Petit Trianon Palace in Versailles.

Sports Market Report recently caught up with Richard at "Twinight," so named because of the magnificent evening hues that illuminate the palatial home that sits just to the south of Long Island Sound. When asked about his relatively new foray into card collecting and his decision to compile the preeminent T206 set, Richard said he comes from a totally different background than the typical sportscard collector. "I am foremost a porcelain collector on a very high-end scale," he said. "I currently have an exhibition of the best pieces in my collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It includes neoclassical and European porcelain from the late-18th Century and on to the early-19th Century. That is my serious collection so to speak. I have had it on exhibition in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, and now New York. I also have a very extensive collection of Three Stooges memorabilia including some of their personal items such as Larry's violin and his social security card."

Amongst Richard's interests are very fine examples of portrait miniatures.

Richard said he first got interested in cards by collecting the 1959 Fleer Three Stooges set and now owns the top five Stooges sets on the PSA Registry. "All of my Stooges sets are in the top 15 on the Registry," said Richard who has no qualms in admitting that he was never a fan of the comedic trio. "As a child, I was not a fan of the Three Stooges at all," he said matter of factly. "I never watched them and thought they were ridiculous, but my middle son, Eric, always enjoyed the Stooges. A while back I had made a decision that I wanted to leave each of my children a collection after I pass and, knowing Eric really like the Stooges, I started collecting one sheets and various memorabilia related to them."

Over the past 20 years, Richard collected more and more Stooge's memorabilia and actually got to personally know many of the Stooge's family members. "Larry's sister was a close friend of mine, as was Moe's son and daughter, and Shemp's daughters," said Richard. "I got to know them well and they knew I collected the things that they had. That was how I put together my Stooges collection."

According to Richard, he has singlehandedly run up the value of 1959 Fleer Three Stooges cards by buying up all the best examples. "When I began putting the Three Stooges card sets together, you could get a PSA 9 for around $200," Richard explained. "Today a card like that would cost you $3,000. For me it wasn't just about getting one set. At one point, I owned 19 sets of the 1959 Fleer Stooges cards and, while I have since traded much of that away, I still have 12 sets."

While Richard's Three Stooges collection will be left to Eric, it is for his son, Adam, that he is compiling the T206 set. "Growing up, I was never a collector," Adam said with a laugh. "In our home, collecting was something my dad did. He was into collecting trees and Three Stooges memorabilia that my brother has an affinity for, and porcelain which really exploded. So, because he was the big collecting guy, there was really no room for any other collections in the house."

A former high school teacher who now works for his father, Adam said he harbors a great interest in the history of baseball. "I have always been fascinated with the history of the game and I can't read enough about it," he said. "The game has been filled with so many fascinating and interesting characters and when it comes to the T206 cards there is just something about the way they were produced – the colors, and the fact that it is such a huge set. I thought it would be a great challenge to put a set of them together."

The Cohens own many T206 cards that are ranked at the top of their population.

Adam said he began joking with his father that the T206 cards would be a great thing for them to collect. "We finally got serious about it and decided to do the T206 collection because we wanted to do something together – a father and son activity," said Adam. "So, he provides the payroll and I do all the research."

Adam's job as researcher comes naturally being as that it is the work he does for his father's porcelain collection. "While I am not a porcelain collector myself, I'm the logistics guy for his exhibitions," said Adam. "I did all the legwork in Berlin, Paris, Vienna and back here in the United States. I handled all of the insurance, piece inspection, coordinated with the moving company – all of the tasks that have to be handled and then some."

While in an enviable position to be able to locate cards and have his father pay for them, Adam said that putting the T206 set together means much more to him than just finding the cards and buying them. "For me ,it's the experience my dad and I are sharing together. That makes this undertaking more intrinsically valuable for me. This is a great way for me to spend time with my father. I would encourage any family to do something like this. There are a lot of life lessons that can be taught while doing this sort of thing – things a parent can teach a child and things a child can teach a parent. By doing this, I appreciate him more and am closer to him than I ever have been in my life. I've learned a lot about him and about how he approaches something as opposed to the way I do. It has been an invaluable experience. My father is larger than life in his approach to things. He lives by gut instinct. He shoots first and asks questions later. That has worked well for him. He has made porcelain purchases that may not have been advisable but that have worked out well in getting him to the top of the porcelain collecting world."

"I believe my compulsion to collect is to be in control, by bringing things together that belong together and to do it in the best way possible," said Richard Cohen.

Adam went on to say that his father's gut instinct is very different than his own more logical approach. "I absolutely come to collecting in a very different way than my father does," said Adam. "I come to it with more of a business mentality. When I look at a card and a price, I am looking to see if I feel it is a good deal – if it is a good investment. I have a hard time going over the top for something other than something that is super rare or valuable. I have a hard time pulling the trigger on buying an expensive item. He, on the other hand, does it all on instinct. His instinct has served him well, but that doesn't fit my personality. I'm more cautious and careful. When we go to porcelain dealers all over the world they are all excited about seeing him while I'm the guy who doesn't get the warm greeting. That's because I'm the one who is carefully examining things – trying to realistically gage the piece and the price and figure out why it is being offered. With my dad and me its good cop, bad cop," he laughed.

Asked if he is approaching the T206 collection with the same reserve, Adam contends that even though he is passionate about the cards, he is also being practical. "We know it will be a very difficult task to complete this set," said Adam. "When we first got started, it was a bit overwhelming. We had dealers coming out of the woodwork offering anything and everything and frankly, we weren't really sure which way to go. Now we are working with John Blattner who is a wonderful advisor. He has guided us extremely well and has shown us how to go about putting this set together – what's out there – what's not out there – what's worth it and what's not. He has been in the sportscard business for decades and has an experience that cannot be taught. He is like many of the people we deal with in porcelain – people who are in business to make money but who are also very conscientious about being of help to protect and continually improve the hobby. I have found that the people in the card hobby make it very interesting."

Richard Cohen is adamant that every T206 card he buys must be graded by PSA.

Richard agreed with his son's comments. "With cards, the history is great, but so much of it is about the people you meet along the way," he said. "As for the roles we play in this – I'm the romantic. I think the T206 is a very romantic set. It's a beautiful series. I don't like the Cracker Jack cards and I would never think of buying a Mickey Mantle rookie card. There is no love there for me. It's a great card that has great value and that's great but for me it's too close to a modern era. The T206 cards are from another time – a bygone era – the relative infancy of baseball – that's what interests me about those cards. I love the eye appeal and the way they are printed – the way the lithograph process was done – you just don't have anything like that today."

Pressed on why he believes he views collecting from a romantic standpoint, he shrugs and said he has given a lot of thought to why he has been a lifelong collector. "When I was writing the preface to my book on porcelain collecting, I was thinking about how very chaotic the world is," said Richard. "How there is not much order to it. But when we collect things, it is something we can control and I think that control really comes into play when it comes to cards. Because they were manufactured in a series and in sets, the overall compunction is to locate every card of a particular series or set to have completion. So, my attraction to cards is the search for completion and clarity. I don't just try to complete a set, I try to make it the best possible set. To bring things that are separate – together – is the big thing for me. Maybe it has something to do with separation anxiety as a child, who knows, but I believe my compulsion to collect is to be in control by bringing things together that belong together and to do it in the best way possible."

Both Richard and Adam agree that the most import thing that has been brought together during this challenge is their relationship. "Our decision to put together the T206 set is something that brings together all of my father's drive and energy and excitement about collecting and my love of baseball history," said Adam. "It brings us together by giving us something we can do together."

While Richard said he has friends who don't have any understanding as to why he pays such incredibly high prices for items that are not high art, Adam said he finds the cards to be as compelling as any fine piece of porcelain. "There are certain T206 cards that I am instantly compelled by – that I am instantly attracted to," said Adam. "These cards radiate energy – they really do. They speak to you. To me the Jake Beckley card is just beautiful. I am very compelled by that card. That red background and just something about the expression on his face – it's one of my favorite cards in the set."

While Adam may have a special attraction to the Beckley card, the Holy Grails of the set – the Honus Wagner and the Eddie Plank cards – will give them their biggest challenge. The Cohens have been offered the legendary Honus Wagner card in various grades. "I've looked at the Wagner and have seriously thought about it," said Richard. "But the price was just too high, and I don't think I really know enough about cards right now to make an investment like that. Maybe someday. Could I see myself buying that card? Absolutely! I would have no desire to have that card in a PSA 1, or 2 or 3. It would have to be one of the best."

One thing Richard is adamant about is that every T206 card they buy must be graded by PSA. "I won't buy a card that is not a PSA graded card. That is the bottom line with me," said Richard. "It is vitally important to have a grading system and a third party authenticator. It is a necessity and PSA has proven to be the standard. They have a huge amount of power in the hobby. If you think about it, PSA's power is really enormous. I mean the difference between a Hall of Fame T206 card getting a grading of a PSA 9 as opposed to a PSA 8 can be tens of thousands of dollars. That's a lot of money!"

As for the PSA Registry, Richard said he feels it is very important. "The PSA Registry lets me see where I stand," he said. "For someone like me, the PSA Registry is just wonderful because it is a way to see who has what and it's a way for me to gage my set in comparison to others. I know some people don't show what they have, I choose to keep mine open, although I know that is a double edged sword because if I am missing one card and someone has that card, they can hold me up for a high price."

The Cohens know that they are taking on what may be their toughest collecting challenge. "We went into this knowing it would be a long road," said Richard. "I've bought a lot of cards this year – a huge amount including a large private collection. I spend about 90 percent of my time collecting. When you collect on the level that I do, it is not just fun, its work. When you collect on my level, you really have to work at it and, at times, it gets to a point where it is not fun anymore. But then you go to bed and the next morning you wake up and its fun again!"