As the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Baltimore can tell you, it happens.
In an online auction last November, the winning bidder offered $220,000 for a rare 100-year-old baseball card. After the original bidder failed to make good on his offer, the auction house found another buyer willing to pay the $220,000 figure.
The card was left to the School Sisters of Notre Dame Atlantic-Midwest province through the will of the brother of a deceased member of the order.
The card was discovered in the brother’s safe deposit box with a handwritten note that read, “Although damaged, this card will be exponentially valuable in the 21st century.”
The antique card, one of a series produced by the American Tobacco Company during the early 20th century, features Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as one of its first five members in 1936.
Wagner is considered the greatest shortstop ever by most baseball historians. Ty Cobb even called Wagner “maybe the greatest star ever to take the diamond.”
The final sale price surpassed initial auction estimates of between $150,000 and $200,000.
Of interest to gift planners is the fact that, had the donor decided to use the card to make a charitable gift during lifetime, his deduction would have been limited to the cost basis of the card, not its value. That is because gifts of tangible personal property are limited to the donor’s cost basis in the property unless the charity uses it in ways that are in keeping with its mission. Few charities could meet that qualification in the case of the Honus Wagner card. The “related use rule” does not apply to gifts left through one’s estate, so the donor’s estate would be entitled to a deduction for the full appraised value of the card. See Page 2 for more on charitable contribution limits.
Sister Kathleen Cornell called the bequest a “tangible sign of the goodness of people to us.
“We are grateful to benefactors like the one who gave us this Honus Wagner card because such generosity enables us to continue our ministries,” Cornell said.
The Sisters plan to use the proceeds from the auction to support the order’s educational ministries in North America and the work of order members in Latin America and Africa.
That “exponential value” predicted by the original donor certainly was realized by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. A pack of cigarettes—complete with Honus Wagner baseball card—cost a few cents a century ago.
Now, 100 years later, the Honus Wagner card—without the pack of cigarettes—is worth more than Wagner and his entire Pirates team would ever have imagined.
And the beneficiaries of the sale of that card, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, can now tell you what it feels like to receive a wonderful gift that was 100 years in the making.
Why so rare?
The T206-series Honus Wagner card is likely the rarest and most expensive baseball card in the world largely because Wagner refused to allow production of the card to continue. He did not want children to buy cigarettes to obtain it. The American Tobacco Company ended production of the Wagner card with fewer than 200 cards ever distributed to the public.
Wagner had been at the top of his game throughout the early 1900s and was even considered the game’s greatest player at the time. He had appeared on advertisements for a number of other products such as chewing gum, gunpowder and soft drinks.
The American Tobacco Company tried one other time to persuade Wagner to allow his image on a card. A 1912 issue of The Sporting News reported that Wagner did not give his consent to appear on the baseball card. In response to the authorization request letter, Wagner wrote that he “did not care to have his picture in a package of cigarettes.”
Wagner played in the National League from 1897 to 1917, almost entirely for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He died in 1955 at age 81.