A rare, vintage T206 Honus Wagner baseball card sold for $6.606 million on Aug. 16. The sticker price far exceeded the previous record for the priciest sports card of all time. Like fine art, sports memorabilia is a booming business, but the rarest and most valuable items are left to the big dogs.
What makes the Honus Wagner card so valuable?
Honus Wagner was a baseball player who played for the Louisville Colonels from 1897 to 1899 and Pittsburgh Pirates from 1900 to 1917. A World Series winner in 1909, Wagner built a Hall-of-Fame resume over his 20-year career. While many players from that era were trailblazers and had great careers, none have had their legacies enshrined with a baseball card like Wagner.
Only 57 of the estimated 200 T206 Honus Wagner cards have survived, making it one of the rarest and most expensive in the world. The card was designed and issued by the American Tobacco Company (ATC) from 1909 to 1911 as part of its T206 series. The ATC ended production of the card due to Wagner not wanted his image branded on packages of cigarettes. A non-smoker, Wagner did not give his consent to appear on the baseball card and threatened to seek legal action against the ATC if it continued to create more copies of his card.
In 1933, the card was first listed at a value of $50 in The American Card Catalog, establishing it as the most expensive baseball card at the time. Since then, the card has continued to set records and remains the most valuable trading card.
The value of a sports card depends on the condition it’s in. In order to be listed for auction, a card-grading company must give it a grade that helps determine the card’s value. This particular Wagner card received a grade of 3—only four T206 Wagners have been graded higher.
What are the most valuable sports cards of all time?
Honus Wagner is a household name when it comes to high-priced sports cards. It's worth noting that a card’s value is only how much buyers are willing to pay for it—other cards have surpassed the Wagner cards’ records at auctions.
In Jan. 2021, a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card sold for $5.2 million. A few months later, a 2003–04 Upper Deck Exquisite Collection LeBron James autographed rookie jersey card sold for the same amount. Most recently, a 2017 National Treasures NFL Shield Patrick Mahomes autographed rookie card sold at a private auction for $4.3 million, making it the most expensive NFL trading card ever.