Nuns' Wagner card goes to new buyer

Published Dec. 21, 2010 1:11 a.m. ET

It's been a blessed year for the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who catapulted to prominence when they put a rare Honus Wagner baseball card up for auction to support their charitable mission.

Problem was, the winning bidder never paid up.

On Monday, the Baltimore-based order of Roman Catholic nuns got their $220,000 — the original bid — but have a different collector to thank.

Dr. Nicholas DePace, a Philadelphia cardiologist, wired them the money and owns the card. He's been collecting sports memorabilia for 30 years, and he's a longtime client of Dallas-based Heritage Auctions. A staff member at the auction house reached out to him in early December after the winning bidder missed a 30-day deadline to purchase the card, and DePace agreed immediately to buy it.

''God bless him,'' said Sister Virginia Muller, the former treasurer of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who was entrusted with the card.

The winning bidder was Doug Walton of Knoxville, Tenn., who owns seven sports card stores in the Southeast. He told The AP at the time that he was willing to overpay for the card because of the story behind it and said he was the highest bidder by $45,000.

Walton did not return a message left on his cell phone Monday. Greg Rohan, president of Heritage Auctions, said the auction house had been unable to reach Walton.


''Once in a blue moon, every auction company has a strange situation like this,'' Rohan said. ''It doesn't happen very often, but you have to be prepared for it.''

The Wagner card, produced as part of the T206 series between 1909 and 1911, is the most sought-after baseball card in history. About 60 are known to exist, and one in near-perfect condition sold in 2007 for $2.8 million, the highest price ever for a baseball card.

The School Sisters of Notre Dame inherited their card from the brother of a deceased nun after he died earlier this year. It had been in the man's possession since 1936 and was unknown to the sports memorabilia marketplace. It's in poor condition, but collectors prize any Wagner card.

The American Tobacco Company ended production of the card shortly after it began. According to sports historians, Wagner was either upset about his image being used to promote tobacco products or the shortstop simply thought he wasn't being paid enough.

''The Flying Dutchman,'' played for played for 21 seasons, 18 of them with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He compiled a .328 career batting average and was one of the five original inductees into baseball's Hall of Fame.

DePace, a Catholic, said he was moved that the nuns planned to use the money for their schools and ministries for the poor in 35 countries and didn't want to see them shortchanged. He bid on the card when it was auctioned but thought the price was too high. Now, he feels the price is more than fair.

''I'm ecstatic about it. ... I will argue that this Wagner card is the most significant Wagner card because it's the American story about how people just get a baseball card and they hide it in the safe,'' DePace said. ''There's a treasure there, and the treasure comes out, and now the treasure's going to be shared with tens of thousands of people.''

Muller said the order wasn't informed until Monday about the snag in the sale. She said she was surprised by the 11th-hour development but said Heritage Auctions handled the matter appropriately.

''If we hadn't received the money today, then I would have been concerned,'' Muller said. ''They went ahead and pursued someone else. There was no reason for us to know.''

DePace's vast memorabilia collection includes game-worn uniforms of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Wilt Chamberlain and a game ball from the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants, known as ''The Greatest Game Ever Played.''

He plans to open a nonprofit museum next year in Collingswood, N.J., a Philadelphia suburb, to showcase his holdings, and will display the card there.