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It is the most valuable piece of cardboard in the whole world: the T206 Honus Wagner PSA 8 NM-MT. It was printed in 1909 to be included in cigarettes from the American Tobacco Company, and shows a stiff and blocky young man with his hair parted in the middle, with a "Pittsburg" [sic] shirt buttoned all the way up. It isn't much to look at, but it was most recently sold to an anonymous collector for over two million dollars. This is all true, but also it is unbelievable; there must be something wrong here somewhere. And there is something wrong, all over the place in the world of sports collectibles, according to the story in _The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History's Most Desired Baseball Card_ (Morrow) by sports journalists and investigators Michael O'Keeffe and Teri Thompson. You don't have to be interested in sports or collectibles to find this book amusing and enlightening, as it profiles collectors and their obsession with accumulation, and as it casts doubt on the integrity of many aspects of the enormous sport collectible market.
The authors admit that "Wagner's baseball card seems to have become more significant to twenty-first century baseball fans than Wagner himself." That's really too bad, for Wagner was a fine baseball player, inviting comparison with Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, both of whom were selected with Wagner as inaugural entries into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939. Cigarette companies in the 1880s started putting them into packs of ten cigarettes. Honus Wagner is the rarest card of the 1909 - 1911 set produced by the American Tobacco Company; There are around fifty of Honus Wagner's cards, each of them valuable, but most in poor condition. _The Card_ is about the one known as The Card, the one that is in superb condition; it has bright colors, its edges are clean and white, and the corners are sharp enough to draw blood. And that's the problem; The Card is, in the view of many, just in too good condition. There is a great peculiarity of the baseball card obsession: retouching or repairing a card is forbidden, or if not forbidden, it takes almost all the value of the card away. You can refinish antiques, and even the greatest Old Master paintings get retouched and no one minds as long as the work is done well; but baseball cards must not be doctored. And there are baseball card doctors who remove stains, smooth out wrinkles, build up flabby corners with wheat paste, and scalpel or laser rough edges to make the remaining ones sharp. There are serious doubts about the authenticity of The Card, explored at length here. The Card is now all sealed up in a special case, and no owner is likely to open it up to let appraisers reevaluate it.
It isn't just The Card that has authentication problems. Other cards do, and other sports hardware does; even bats, balls, and mitts that are authenticated by their previous owners as having been used in important games may not be the actual equipment as claimed. There are authentication services that for a fee will grade cards, but like any company, they want to please their best customers and are inclined to look favorably on cards from their favorites. Sometimes the services that do the authentication are also the ones that own the property and are auctioning it. Sometimes there are shills in the auctions to make the price go sky high. There is little policing by dealers, the authentication services, or governmental authorities. What used to be a fun hobby for kids has outgrown kids and has become a playground for rich fraudsters. The authors have hopes for the hobby, and there are those who are pushing for reform. There are some honest brokers profiled here, and maybe they will eventually have their way, but it hasn't happened yet. _The Card_, a brightly written and entertaining look at a unique realm of folly, reminds us that baseball may nominally be the national pastime, but the actual one is making a buck any way one can.