MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Finally, this hour, prosecutors in Chicago have revealed that the former head of a sports memorabilia auction house has admitted to altering one of the rarest and most valuable of all baseball cards. It's all part of a mail fraud case. We're not going to focus on that, but on the card itself and what makes it so special. It dates back to 1909 and the man on the front is Pittsburgh Pirate shortstop Honus Wagner.
This Wagner card was once owned by hockey great Wayne Gretzky and it was featured in a TV special back in the early '90s with magician David Copperfield.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED TV SHOW)
DAVID COPPERFIELD: The great shortstop Honus Wagner didn't want his young fans to have to buy tobacco to get his baseball card, so he had his cards recalled and destroyed. Only a few survived and this one is in mint condition. It's sort of a Mona Lisa of baseball cards. That's why it's worth so much.
BLOCK: Copperfield famously tore the card in half, although he didn't really, of course. Later, it sold at auction for $2.8 million. For more on what makes this card so special, I'm joined by Ken Goldin, the founder of Goldin Auctions in West Berlin, New Jersey. Ken, welcome to the program.
KEN GOLDIN: I'm glad to be here.
BLOCK: And we heard David Copperfield there give an explanation for why there are so few of these cards out there. They were issued by the American Tobacco Company, right, in cigarette packs. And the story goes that Honus Wagner didn't want kids to buy cigarettes to get his card. Is that true?
GOLDIN: Yes, the story goes that he contacted the company and they, on, you know, his say-so, withdrew the cards from production, supposedly destroyed everything but about 150, it's estimated, got out and maybe around 50 of them exist today.
BLOCK: Okay. Well, you've seen them yourself. In fact, you sold one recently, right? How much did you get for it?
GOLDIN: We actually sold a Honus Wagner card that was known as a jumbo because it had oversized borders and we actually set a record for the highest priced trading card ever sold at auction at $2.1 million.
BLOCK: That's a really shocking amount of money. Can you describe the card for us? What's his expression?
GOLDIN: It's kind of a stoic look, basically, just sitting there and, you know, in a studio shot. It's not an action shot.
BLOCK: Not an action shot. Okay. Well, tell us more about Honus Wagner. We heard a little bit, shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Hall of Famer, right?
GOLDIN: Yes, correct, correct. Honus Wagner was one of the original five members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. A lot of people forget that at the turn of the century, you know, late 19th century, early 20th century, he was the number one player in baseball. He held the record for most batting championships at the time. He went into the Hall of Fame with Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb and actually was elected in 1936 with the same number of votes as the great Babe Ruth, which shows you what type of esteem they held for him back then.
And he is, without question, considered the greatest shortstop ever to play the game of baseball.
BLOCK: Well, if you're a baseball card collector and you're holding a Honus Wagner card in your hand, is that a huge thrill? I mean, is that just a great feeling?
GOLDIN: Oh, I mean, you know, any - I'm going to be very, very sad to let the card that we sold go.
BLOCK: Are you?
GOLDIN: You know, it's certainly gotten me a lot of publicity. It's an absolutely gorgeous, stunning portrait of Honus Wagner, set across a, you know, an orange background. It's magical. But when you hold this card, I mean, I sold a piece of cardboard for $2.1 million. I mean, let's just look at it like that. A small piece of cardboard for $2.1 million. It is probably the lightest amount of multi-million dollar thing you can own, have in your hand.
I can't imagine that there is a diamond that weighs as little as that card weighed and would sell for more money.
BLOCK: Well, Ken, thanks for talking to us about Honus Wagner and his baseball cards. Appreciate it.
GOLDIN: No problem. Thank you for having me.
BLOCK: That's Ken Goldin, the founder of Goldin Auctions in West Berlin, New Jersey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.