Bill Mastro, once the biggest name in the US sports memorabilia business, has admitted to a federal judge that he doctored the world’s most valuable baseball card to make it appear in mint condition.
The sale of the 'near mint' T206 Honus Wagner
card at a succession of record-breaking prices, peaking at $2.8m in
2007, helped spark the trading card and memorabilia boom of the
1980s and '90s.
Mastro Auctions of Illinois dominated the
sporting collectables industry before it was shut down in 2009 in
the midst of a wider investigation into memorabilia fraud by the
FBI. A Chicago court was told on October 10 that the government
could prove that Mastro had committed numerous acts of fraud
between 2002 and 2009, including the regular use of 'shill' bidding
to hike prices at his sales.
It emerged that Mastro Auctions' bidding records
were partially deleted and destroyed prior to July 2007 when it was
first reported that the Chicago FBI office had launched an
investigation into the company. Prosecutors believe the scheme
conducted between 2002 and 2009 cost collectors between $400,000
But, after years of speculation and innuendo, it
is Mastro's public admission that he trimmed the sides of 'the
world's most expensive baseball card' with a paper cutter that has
upset a baseball-card collecting community already in steep
Bill Mastro bought the T206 Honus Wagner card,
seemingly cut from a printer's sheet, from a Long Island dealer in
1985 for $25,000.
In order to improve its appearance and sharply
increase its value, he trimmed it to suggest it has been carefully
preserved for decades after it was removed from a pack of
cigarettes in 1909. After the card was declared 'near mint' by the
grading authorities, Mastro sold it to a collector in 1987 for
$110,000, a much-publicised transaction that changed the face of
memorabilia dealing. Mastro was caught bragging about his deception
on a wiretap.
"On numerous occasions, defendant Mastro made
public statements regarding the Wagner card during which he denied
making any alterations to the Wagner card," the court was told.
"These statements were false as defendant Mastro had altered the
Wagner card by cutting its side borders."
Charged with serial counts of wire and mail
fraud, Mastro and his associates now face up to five years in
prison - with the status of the 'near mint' T206 Honus Wagner now
'Record Baseball Card'
The T206 Honus Wagner card was issued by the
American Tobacco Company from 1909 to 1911 but was famously
withdrawn from sale after the player's anti-smoking stance. Only 57
examples are recorded, of which the card first sold by Bill Mastro
in 1987 for $110,000 is the only one graded as 'near mint'.
It has a well-known commercial history, selling
in 1991 for $451,000 to ice hockey star Wayne Gretksy who sold it
four years later for $500,000 to Walmart for use as the top prize
in a promotional contest. In 1995 a Florida postal worker won the
card and auctioned it at Christie's New York for $640,000 and it
changed hands again in 2000 for $1.27m and twice in 2007, for
$2.35m and $2.8m.
The current owner of the card is Ken Kendrick,
owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks.