Van Gogh, Cézanne, & Tobacco Trading Cards: The Detroit Institute of Arts Exhibits Card Collector Powell Miller's Complete T206 Set

Apr 29, 2018

Van Gogh, Cézanne, & Tobacco Trading Cards

The Detroit Institute of Arts Exhibits Card Collector Powell Miller's Complete T206 Set

Established in 1885, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) houses more than 100 galleries and a collection of about 66,000 works including Vincent van Gogh's Self-Portrait, the first Van Gogh painting to enter a U.S. museum collection.

Renowned for the diversity of their collection, the DIA holds significant American, European, modern, contemporary, and graphic art, along with works of African, Asian, Native American, Oceanic, and Islamic artists.

While visitors to the DIA certainly expect to see the works of some of the world's greatest artists, over the next three years, some may be surprised to also see a rotating exhibit of one of the most popular sports card collections ever manufactured: the T206 set, a landmark collection of 524 cards that were issued by the American Tobacco Company from 1909 to 1911 in cigarette and loose tobacco packs.

Revered by today's card collectors for its set size, the legendary players included in the set, the rarity of the cards in high grades, and the quality of its color lithographs, it would come as no surprise to those who know, love, and collect these cards that they are being exhibited among the paintings of Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, and Marc Chagall. 

The T206 collection that is now on display was amassed by Powell Miller, a Michigan attorney who also collects game-used sports memorabilia and has been ranked as the third highest-graded T206 set in existence by Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA). It is currently on exhibit at the DIA through September to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Detroit Tigers 1968 World Series Championship.

Billed as "Play Ball! Baseball at the DIA," the exhibit of Miller's T206 cards is accompanied by vintage material from Miller's collection including Tiger baseball cards, programs, and other publications, as well as the jersey Mickey Lolich wore in Game Seven of the 1968 World Series, a game-used bat autographed by Kaline, and items from "Kaline's Corner," the outfield section of Tiger Stadium that was named in his honor.

Two baseball-themed art works from the DIA's permanent collection are also on view: the 1993 large-scale painting Hard Ball III by Robert Moskowitz and a new acquisition by contemporary Guatemala-based artist, Dario Escobar, who has created a unique installation of cut Detroit Tiger baseball bats that make up the outline of the Motor City's skyline.

"The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has done baseball card exhibits since the 1990s," said Nancy Barr who serves as DIA's co-chief curator and oversees the museum's departments of prints, drawings, and photographs. "So when we met Powell Miller, and saw his wonderful collection, we thought it would be a great opportunity to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Tiger's 1968 World Series win with the art of baseball cards here at our museum."

While Barr says she believes those who visit the museum will find the artistic beauty of the T206 cards to be compelling, she also feels there are other factors they will find fascinating.

"Along with the art and design and printmaking process, it will be the rarity and scarcity of the cards themselves that will captivate people," said Barr. "The Powell Miller Collection will be no different than our exhibiting any beautiful and rare works of art. Powell is no different than any of the great patrons and collectors who share a passion and interest in fine art and are willing to share it with the public. I think this will be a very popular exhibit." 

As for the man behind the collection, Miller, a lifelong baseball fan who was born and raised in Detroit, attended the University of Detroit High School before matriculating at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and Wayne State University Law School.

After earning his law degree, Miller joined a prestigious Detroit law firm where he worked until 1994, when he established his own practice which focuses on all aspects of litigation. A frequent lecturer on securities litigation at the University of Michigan School of Law, Miller has also served as an adjunct professor at the University of Detroit Law School teaching trial practice.

Earlier this year, as the process began to transport Miller's treasured T206 set from his office to the DIA, Sports Market Report (SMR) caught up with the impassioned collector who, along with his love for sports cards and memorabilia, is equally enthralled with the game of baseball, especially when it is played by his beloved Detroit Tigers. 

Powell Miller (PM): Having grown up in the Detroit area, I have always been a big-time Tigers fan. I have loved the game of baseball since I was a kid, which, in a way, was odd because neither of my parents were sports fans. So the reason that I became this giant baseball fan has always been a family mystery. But I was the kind of kid who always had a baseball in my hand. I played Little League and had become a big card collector by the time I was eight.

Sports Market Report (SMR): Did you ever get to any Tigers games when you were a kid?

PM: I did. My dad took me once in a while because he knew how much I loved to go. I think it was torture for him to go to those games because he really had no interest in baseball or sports whatsoever. Neither of my parents did; although, ironically, my mom slowly began to develop an interest in the game as I got older.

She was a college sociology professor who came from England, and she always referred to the catcher as the wicket-keeper. She didn't really care about baseball at all until I was in my late high school and college years. Then, in a rather surprising turn, she really became a huge fan. She loved to listen to games on the radio and really got to know the game inside and out. In fact, one of the highlights of my mom's life came when she and I sat in the broadcast booth during a Tigers game.

SMR: How did that come about?

PM: In the late 1980s, when I branched out from card collecting and started to collect memorabilia, I went to my first live auction. The auction benefited Sparky Anderson's charity which was called CATCH [Caring Athletes Team for Children's and Henry Ford Hospitals]. During that auction I was the under bidder on a game-worn Wayne Gretzky jersey, but I won the chance to be in the Tigers' broadcast booth for three innings with Ernie Harwell who was the longtime play-by-play man for the Tigers.

I bought that for my mom because she listened to Ernie all the time, and when we got to the game that day, Ernie was so nice he not only let me stay in the booth with them, he also invited us to stay for the entire game. I'll never forget - at the beginning of the game, just as they went on-the-air, Ernie said: "Powell Miller and his mom, Edna Miller, are in the booth with me and are guaranteeing a Tigers victory today." That was truly a great memory.

SMR: So, would you say you really got serious about collecting in the late 1980s?

PM: Well, I had been collecting cards since I was very young. But then I became the kid whose cards were thrown out when I was in high school.

SMR: You weren't THE kid. That happened to almost EVERY kid, which is why so many cards have such high values today.

PM: [laughing] True. Anyway, I started collecting cards again in the late 1980s. But it wasn't until the early 2000s that I really started collecting in a serious way. That's when I fell in love with the T206 cards. That became my total focus.

SMR: There is just something about those cards that has reached out and grabbed so many collectors like few others ever have.

PM: That's because it is an amazing set in every way. It has it all: legendary players, historical significance, rarity, beautiful images - just everything a card collector loves. For me, it is also the pure enjoyment of the chase - of finding all of these cards and upgrading them. I think there is also the competitive instinct in me that enjoys climbing [the ranks on] the PSA Set Registry.

SMR: You have every card in the set including the "big ones." Let's talk about those. Tell us how you came about finding your Eddie Plank card.

PM: I got my first Plank card, which was graded a [PSA EX] 5, from a great friend who is a collector and lives in Atlanta. Then, a while later, I did a private deal with an auction house and upgraded it to a [PSA EX-MT] 6. That was very special. To get the Plank card in a [PSA] 6 is a big deal.

SMR: And your Honus Wagner card?

PM: Again, through an auction. Getting that card was another surprise to me. Once again I had held off until the last day to put in a bid and I got it. I felt I got that card for a great price, $282,000. I've seen that card go for around $600,000 in PSA [PR] 1, so I feel I got a great deal.

Mine is what I consider to be a high-quality [PSA] 1, and as any lover of the T206 set knows, it's thrilling to own that card. I love looking at that card and have had it prominently displayed in my office. I have what I call "The Wall of Cards," where they are all displayed on the wall.

SMR: It's always interesting that some collectors keep their cards stashed away while others choose to display them.

PM: It was the way I decided to decorate my office. I have clients and friends, even our local police officers, who come over to my office with their children to see the cards. Every time a kid comes to see the cards, I give them a low-grade T206 card. Part of my reasoning for doing that is to instill a love of the hobby with the next generation. If you want to see a kid's eyes really light up, give them a card that is over 100 years old.      

SMR: Like most collectors, I'm sure there are times you just sit holding one of your cards and try to imagine its path - who first bought it, how it survived through the years, etc.

PM: I do that all the time. You think of that person who originally got it when it was fresh and new, how many hands it has passed through, where it has been, and who first realized it had value and should be preserved.

I also have a sub-collection of T206 cards that are autographed. You don't find many of these cards that have been signed, but they really fascinate me. Along with the mystery of a card's history, these signed cards have the added element of having actually been held in the player's hands for a few moments.

By the way, I also have a set, minus the big six, of raw [ungraded] T206 cards.

SMR: So, you do purchase ungraded cards. Have you ever bought a significant card raw with the hope that it would grade well?

PM: I have, but my interest in doing that has been dulled, and I don't think I would ever do it again. Whenever I have done it, the cards have graded lower than I thought they would, so I have come to realize that my eye is not as good as I may have thought at one time. Because of that, I have become very careful when it comes to raw cards and would never buy an expensive card that wasn't graded.

PM: As much as you, and all card collectors, have a pure love for T206 cards, let's be honest, in high grades they are also investment grade collectibles.

PM: No doubt. And that means there is a level of financial wherewithal one needs to put a collection like this together. I'm not one of the hobby's heavy hitters, but I'm also not pleading poverty by any means. I have been successful in my work, but I'm not the CEO of a huge publicly held company or the owner of an NFL franchise. I'm not a guy who can just go out and buy a PSA [NM-MT] 8 Ty Cobb card on a whim.

When it comes to the big cards in the set, I have been able to go for, maybe, one a year. But I have never purchased even one card for investment purposes. Now, many of these cards have, in fact, appreciated in value since I bought them, and I believe they will continue to do so. That is a nice added benefit to collecting T206 cards in high grades. I think they will continue to appreciate because that's just the way of the world with anything that is high quality and rare.

Things like that, no matter what they may be, will almost always prove to be good investments over time. But I never really think about the investment aspect of my collection and have no intention of ever selling them. I guess I should never say never, but I really don't ever see myself selling my cards. So whatever their future value may be, that will benefit my survivors.

SMR: Out of curiosity, is there any particular T206 card you are most fond of for one reason or another?

PM: Not necessarily. But I do have to say, my Dummy Taylor card is special to me because a janitor who works in one of the buildings I own is deaf. A while back, I gave him a raw Dummy Taylor card and he was very touched by it. He identified with Taylor - with someone who had the same disability as he has and yet became a professional ballplayer. It's just a common card, nothing really special, but whenever I see it I think of my connection with someone I know who was deeply touched by that card. Besides that, of course, as a Detroit fan, the Ty Cobb cards are special to me.

SMR: Besides the T206 cards, have any other offerings ever captured your attention?

PM: I have a Michael Jordan rookie card in PSA [GEM-MT] 10. I actually have a few rookie PSA 10s from the modern era, but I'm not really a collector of modern cards. I do have some cards from the 1970s and 1980s in PSA 10, an Alan Trammell, a George Brett. I also have a lot of great cards from the 1950s and an autographed Mickey Mantle rookie card. Today, I am really becoming more and more interested in autographed cards.

SMR: The services of PSA are invaluable to collectors. Can you address the value that third-party authentication and grading means to you as a high-end collector?

PM: The hobby is all about trust and credibility. Without PSA, I don't believe there would be a market for trading cards, certainly not at the level that exists. They have earned market trust that is accepted by everyone. Collectors can quibble about the grade of a card, but that's just for fun. When it comes to putting out any amount of hard-earned money, every collector, from a beginner to a serious high-end collector, needs assurance as to what they are buying and if they are paying a fair price. In today's hobby, everyone - buyers and sellers alike - all put trust in PSA's determinations.

SMR: Earlier you referenced that you enjoy the PSA Set Registry.

PM: I really do. I love to look at it to see where I rank, what other collectors are doing, and where they are with their sets. The Registry makes it fun and competitive for collectors. It's a great hobby, and the more people in it, the better. I think the Registry has been a huge part of what makes the card collecting hobby what it is today.

SMR: Do you collect anything other than cards?

PM: Yes. I have a collection of high-quality Revolutionary War letters. I also have a significant collection of baseball memorabilia that, along with my T206 cards, will be on loan to the Detroit Institute of Arts for three years.

SMR: How great is that?

PM: I'm excited about it. And I am especially thrilled because the Detroit Institute of the Arts is a very prestigious museum. It has the works of legendary artists: Van Gogh, Monet, you name it. So it's very impressive that they also recognize the T206 cards as a revered collection of art that will, hopefully, open the eyes of thousands of people, especially young people, to these items and to respect them as a viable part of art and Americana.

SMR: It must be wonderful to be able to share your collection with so many people who would otherwise never get to see things like this. That said, won't it be sad to walk into your office without seeing your cards?

PM: [laughing] No, because of all the other things I have on display. I have bats that were used by Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and Babe Ruth; the boxing shoes Apollo Creed wore in the first Rocky film; first issues of Batman and Captain America comic books; a Dream Team signed basketball; a pair of Michael Jordan's game-worn Nike Air Jordans from his rookie season; LeRoy Neiman designed balls...

SMR: [interrupting] Yeah, but do you have anything good [laughing]?

PM: Right! [laughing] My office is really a sports memorabilia museum that I love to share with people. So, I will still have plenty of things to display while I loan my T206 cards and some memorabilia to the DIA, where many more people can get to see them in a real museum.

SMR: Your T206 cards will now take their place next to some of the great masters of the art world. In just a few words, can you synthesize your feelings about these cards?

PM: It is a set that captures an era of baseball that showcased incredible players and great looking cards. When I first saw them, they grabbed my attention and became a real passion. Putting a complete collection of these cards together is a beautiful challenge. As any collector knows, it is extremely difficult to get all 524 cards, and yet, people of any financial level can collect these cards. Obviously not in high grades and, of course, some of the cards are impossible to come by unless you have very substantial financial resources. But those big cards aside, it is a very collectible set in low grades.

Along with my main T206 set, I also have what may be an unusual collection of ungraded commons that are in good condition. I have accumulated a lot of those cards with populations that are one-of-ones. It is always a thrill for a collector to know that you own a card that no one else has, that not even the richest person in the world will ever be able to own unless you decide to sell them.

It's becoming extremely difficult for me to upgrade any of my cards because I have purchased the best I can find and the supply is so rare. But, it still happens. So I am still able to upgrade my cards here and there, and the thrill is just as great every time I add something new.

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Play Ball! Baseball at the DIA

The Detroit Institute of Arts is now celebrating the great American Pastime in "Play Ball! Baseball at the DIA," which will run through September 16. The exhibition features works from the DIA's permanent collection as well as rare baseball cards, memorabilia, and collectibles from the Powell Miller collection. This exhibition coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Detroit Tigers 1968 World Series Championship.

The Detroit Institute of Arts is located at 5200 Woodward Avenue on Detroit. For more information about the exhibit, call (313) 833-7971.

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For more information on the 1909-11 T206 baseball card set, please visit