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Honus Wagner Card May Fetch $1 Million

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NEW YORK (AP) — The most famous baseball trading card, the one with Honus Wagner's photo, is back on the market and could sell for $1 million.

``It's a better than 50-50 chance that it will, based on its history and the market for sports memorabilia,'' said Don Flanagan, executive vice president of Mastronet, Inc., one of the auctioneers.

The card, on display in Manhattan on Tuesday, sold for $640,500 in 1996. It already is the second-most expensive piece of sports memorabilia ever sold at auction, topped only by the $3.05 million for Mark McGwire's 70th home run ball.

The Wagner card is about 2 1/2 inches by 1 1/2 and looks like an extra large postage stamp. The card was issued by the American Tobacco Company in 1909 to be put on packs of its Piedmont cigarettes. It has had eight owners since 1985.

One was Wayne Gretzky, who joined with former Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall to buy it in 1991 for $450,000. The hockey great sold it four years later to Wal-Mart, reportedly for $500,000.

The retail giant gave it away in a sales promotion to a woman who put it up for auction, in part, because of the huge tax bill that resulted.

Michael Gidwitz of Chicago, who has owned the card since 1996, is a sports memorabilia collector and investment adviser. His four-year investment could pay off big if Flanagan is correct about a $1 million price.

Gidwitz credited the home run displays by McGwire and Sammy Sosa for heating up the market. That, and the growth of dot.com millionaires with plenty of disposable income.

Robert Edward Auctions, a division of Mastronet, is auctioning the card from July 5-15 through eBay, an online trading company usually in the $50-per-lot zone.

The usual eBay rules are being amended for this auction. Bidding will start at $500,000 and go up in increments of $50,000.

There will be no anonymous bids from cyberspace. Potential bidders must register and put $100,000 in escrow to show they mean business, according to Robert Lifson, director of Robert Edward Auctions.

``We want the bidders to be sure the bids ahead of them are legitimate,'' Lifson said. ``We don't want some 12-year-old kid calling up at 2 in the morning and making a bid.''

Lifson also said authenticity concerns are being addressed — especially after another auction house called off the $551,650 sale of the ball with which Wilt Chamberlain supposedly scored 100 points in a game.

The Wagner card has been authenticated by a company that performs such services.

Fifty to 60 T206 Wagner cards were printed. They were withdrawn because the Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop was anti-tobacco. This card is said to be in the best condition.

``Not only is it authentic,'' Lifson said, ``it is the Mona Lisa of all trading cards.''
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