This is the pitch: The greatest baseball card and sports memorabilia collection ever formed is expected to bring at least $5 million to $7 million on March 22 and 23 when it is auctioned in a four-session sale at Sotheby's in New York.
While Christie's is hammering down $10 million worth of French porcelains, 18th century French furnishings, Old Master paintings and Chinese works of art collected over a life time by the late Mrs. Harvey S. Firestone Jr., the tire fortune heir who died in October, Sotheby's may get even more for a collection of gum and cigarette cards, candy wrappers, baseball bats, press pins, score cards and old photographs of sports heroes collected in just three years by James Copeland, a 45-year-old Californian and owner of a chain of sporting goods stores.
Among the all stars is the most sought- after of all baseball cards -- the rare Honus Wagner T-206 Piedmont Cigarette Card, which is in the finest condition of the 40 known. Some say it may go for more than the estimated $125,000 to $150,000.
An uncut sheet of 25 cards issued by the Goudy Gum Company in 1934, one of only five copies known, carries an $80,000 to $100,000 estimate. It is proof that the gum company didn't print card 106 with Napoleon (Larry) Lajoie's picture on it until after the Col. 0ANTIQUES, from 0Kkids who collected the 1933 series complained that they couldn't complete their sets.
Another Nap Lajoie card in the sale should bring $25,000 to $35,000. The full 1933 Goudy Gum set, which in addition to a Lajoie card includes four cards picturing Babe Ruth, is estimated at $50,000 to $75,000! But then a single crumpled "Ruth's Home Run" candy wrapper circa 1929 carries a $3,500 to $4,500 estimate!
The lot with the highest expectations is a collection of 151 World Series press pins, from 1911 to 1988, expected to leave the ballpark at $250,000 to $300,000. There are only two other complete collections in existence -- one in the Baseball Hall of Fame -- and neither compares in condition.
"The collection is awesome, not just in quantity but in quality," said Bill Mastro, a dealer who cataloged the 873 lots for sale. "When Joe Brown of the Pittsburgh Pirates sold Copeland his press pin collection, Copeland combined his own complete collection to make up the best."
Mr. Mastro was on his way to Japan to show the highlights of the collection to prospective bidders through an arrangement with the Seibo Department Store. On his way back he planned to stop in Los Angeles for a week of exhibitions before returning to New York where the collection will be on display at Sotheby's for a week beginning Saturday.
Mr. Mastro, 38, who lives in Palos Park, Ill., has been passionate about baseball cards for 30 years. He sold Mr. Copeland the major portion of his collection and arranged the sale at Sotheby's. He is acting as spokesman for Mr. Copeland, who guards his privacy.
"Copeland never intended becoming a collector," said Mr. Mastro. "He took his son, Rick, to the National Baseball Card Convention when it was in San Francisco, and was transported back to his own youth. That was the beginning."
Mr. Copeland started at the top with a 1952 Mickey Mantle card in mint condition. It is one of those cards at the end of a series that didn't get wide distribution and is in great demand. It's estimated to bring $12,000 to $15,000 and could go higher because it is pristine.
"After Copeland had acquired the rarities he filled in the sets. When he had a set, he figured maybe he should get the whole run and the collection started to mushroom," Mr. Mastro recounted.
Early on, Mr. Copeland realized that condition was as important as rarity and he bought duplicates, to make his sets even better. He was a dealer's dream of a client.
"When I bought a huge collection of postwar cards in Los Angeles, I loaded it into my car and drove right over to Copeland's and flipped it quick, working on a small percentage," Mr. Mastro said.
Mr. Copeland apparently got tired of his collection about a year ago. "He just had enough of it," Mr. Mastro confessed.
The Copeland sale at Sotheby's puts sports memorabilia collecting into the big leagues.
"This could be the sale that changes the market. It is the first time sports memorabilia has been offered to an international audience," noted heavy hitter Josh Leland Evans of Lelands, the sports memorabilia dealers and auctioneers, who recently sold a Honus Wagner card to Mastro for $115,000.
"It's a barometer sale," echoed Bob Schmierer, a Maple Glen, Pa., sports memorabilia show promoter. "There is a tremendous amount riding on it. If the Japanese get hooked you are going to see great stuff coming out of the woodwork and prices you wouldn't believe."
Some suggest the timing is unfortunate, that the sale is a year too late for the market peak, and if reserves are high, many lots won't sell.
"There is no question business is tougher now," said Hoboken, N.J., dealer Robert Lifson, 30, who sold Mr. Copeland his own $1 million collection of early baseball photographs and memorabilia year ago.
"Still I see the sale as a buying opportunity for the best," he added.
The illustrated sale catalog costs $30 at Sotheby's, $35 by mail from 1334 York Ave., New York, N.Y. 10021. The collection will be on exhibition March 16-20, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Sundays, and March 21, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.