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 and $1m.
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 decline.
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 unclear.
'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The T206 Honus Wagner card was issued by the American Tobacco Company from 1909 to 1911 but was famously withdrawn from sale after the player's anti-smoking stance.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.