Is it art or is it defamation? What happens when an eccentric collector with too much money gets his hands on multiple examples of the most famous baseball card of all?
After being shown four different facets of this magnificent collection, I began to wonder if there was an end to it. Instead, I was led into a small room that contained a table and two chairs, where the only thing visible for my perusal was a tiny stack of cards. They were face down, but I suspected immediately that they were from the famed T-206 series of a century ago.
"The collector has several complete sets of these," I was told by a diminutive curator who joined me at the table while an armed guard stood at the door. "But what he has always been especially keen on, of course, are the Honus Wagner cards." With that, he flipped over the small pile of cards and my jaw sprung and fell agape. There were a half-dozen Wagner T-206 cards in front of me, in various conditions.
"There are only fifty or sixty known to exist," he said, "but that figure only refers to those outside this collection." Then, he reached inside his jacket and produced an envelope from which he pulled a dozen more such cards. "Then there are these."
With that, he turned the cards face up and expertly fanned them on the table in front of me. They were more Honus Wagner cards. Or, rather, they had been at one time. I was left speechless.
"What you see before you are various Wagner cards that the collector commissioned a number of artists to, shall we say, enhance. His reasons for doing so are both personal and complex, and I will tell you what I am allowed to."
I was simultaneously appalled and intrigued. Who would do such a thing? Each one of them, while perhaps not in the same league with the famed Gretzky card condition-wise, would still set a buyer back a year's salary or more. One by one, the curator showed me the cards and gave me a brief description of each.
"This crude defacement was the work of the collector's eight-year-old nephew. He gave the boy a permanent marker and told him to have fun with it. After he popped the cap and inhaled deeply for a few moments, the kid rendered this."
"It was, quite simply, an attempt by the commissioned artist to frenchify Mr. Wagner."
"When the collector commissioned this work, the Coneheads were at the peak of their popularity and he was enraptured by their otherworldly antics. That was the inspiration for this piece."
Pittsburg with an ‘H'
"It drove the collector to distraction that the city of Pittsburgh had dropped the H from its name for the period of 1890 to 1911, and it was during this window that the famous T-206 Wagner card appeared with no ‘H' visible. No sooner was the card produced, than the city went back to its previous spelling. The collector thought this needed to be corrected on at least one card."
"Were you aware that Andy Warhol was from Pittsburgh? The collector thought it only natural, then, that Warhol have a crack at one of his Wagners. He mailed it off to him with a sizable check. This is what came back, four days later. Of course, we cannot know if Warhol himself did the actual work, or delegated it to one of the staffers at The Factory."
Fats Wagner, Headless Wagner, Balloonhead, and Count Wagner
"After acquiring these four cards at a series of auctions, the collector sent them out for transformation to the same artist. His instructions were these: "Overweight reserve catcher, Washington Irving, vintage Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, and das vampyre."
"Der Ring des Nibelungen is one of the collector's favorite works -- he would while away days at a time, listening to it as he watched episodes of Home Run Derby -- so he paid to have this card modified to portray its composer."
"An artistic portmanteau, if you will, Leonardo's masterwork melded with the face of The Flying Dutchman."
Not instantly recognizing the face portrayed in this image, I sat and stared at it for a while as the curator offered no explanation. Concentrate though I did, there was still no recognition on my part. Who or what was this supposed to be? The curator remained silent. Then I had an idea. I made sure to watch his eyes when I asked my question to gauge his reaction. "Might," I said, "this be a portrait of the collector himself?" I noticed a slight dilation of the curator's pupils, which quickly corrected; his eyes returning to their dull gaze.
"Why, that's preposterous," he said. But I now knew otherwise.