Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Gretzky Wagner

This week, I finished reading The Card by Michael O'Keefe and Teri Thompson, which explores the world of the PSA 8 T206 Honus Wagner pictured at right. The book takes this "Mona Lisa of cards" from a Reagan-era sale at a small card shop to its present status (sold to an anonymous SoCal collector for $2.8 brazillion dollars) and expands the scope to baseball in general, Wagner's personal life, the history of his birthplace (Carnegie, PA), card trading and grading, and the score of people intimately involved with the card's ballooning value.

Rather than retread the book and its conclusions about the card, a few other things appeal to me about the whole melange of myths, opinions, and weirdness that comes of having this particular symbol for one's hobby.

In an artistic sense, the Gretzky Wagner resembles the real Mona Lisa. Both are smaller than you'd expect for their significance, relatively light on the eyes, and given over to an obsessive level of "scholarship." (It took until 2008 for the art world to "confirm" who actually sat for the painting. See Wikipedia for more.)

The pair differ in one important sense, of course. You could never hope to own the painting, a true one-of-a-kind. Enough money--say, a few hundred grand--will get you a Wagner. That card will probably be pounded, folded, spindled, or mutilated. Even the PSA 8 version was, as is well-known now, probably trimmed from a printed sheet sometime in the modern era. Any kind of restoration is typically verboten for grading companies, but figures regularly into Mona Lisa's life and the fine art world in general. So why overlook it here?

One can argue card collectors in general (and PSA specifically) needed a gold standard card to distinguish itself as more than a hobby. This led lots of people to believe or not believe in it, kind of like a sainted artifact. The book goes into some detail--perhaps too much--on accusations and recriminations for card fakery and who gets to do the authenticating. (Conflicts of interest abound in many situations.)

Prior to the grading industry, the Wagner hyper-valuation, and general rise in collectibles speculation, who could say what it meant to be a card "investor?" Wal-Mart, one of our era's biggest card sellers, faced declining revenue in the 1990s. They made a show of purchasing The Card, running a (profitable to them) store-based competition, and then giving it away live on Larry King. The winner, a Florida postal worker, quickly sold it through Christie's auction house, ending a chain of transactions with no "collectors" involved.

In my collecting lifetime, an outsider's first reaction turned almost 180 degrees. "You really collect pictures of other guys?" became "wow, what's your most valuable card?" (Not that others need validate us, since God knows we're secure in our masculinity and possess amazing self-esteem.) My girlfriend even pushes me to set aside a display area in the house for my collection, rather than accuse me of never growing up. If that's all due to the perfect storm of Honus Wagner, PSA, Wayne Gretzky, Wal-Mart, and the hand of fate, should I complain?

From the book's wind-down, we learn that the card was recently re-holdered by the latest owner and is no longer tagged as the "Gretzky Wagner." That probably means the end of featured show appearances, too, such as at this year's National in Chicago...

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