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eBay invokes new rules for baseball card auction

The company is auctioning off the most valuable baseball card in the world, but collectors might want to review the rule changes before stepping into the bidder's box.

eBay is auctioning off the most valuable baseball card in the world, but collectors might want to review the rule changes before stepping into the bidder's box.

The T206 Honus Wagner card, dating from the early 1900s, went on sale today with a minimum bid price of $500,000, and it almost instantly was bid up to $550,000. To bid on it, collectors must agree to some new rules, including pre-registering with the seller, making a $100,000 deposit and agreeing to pay a 15 percent buyer's premium.

eBay's rules change is a response to moves made by Sotheby's and others to capture the high-end auction market, said Evie Black Dykema, e-commerce analyst with Forrester Research.

"eBay doesn't have the same cachet that Sotheby's does," Dykema said. Unlike the traditional auction house, "eBay treats high-end retailers the same way that they treat amateur baseball traders or a Pokemon trader."

But not for this card, made even more special by having once been owned by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and former Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall. They bought the card in 1991 for $451,000, then sold it in 1995 to be used as a top prize in a contest. Michael Gidwitz bought it in 1996 from the prize winner for $640,500.

Robert Edward Auctions, which is handling the auction for Gidwitz, said based on recent sales of similar cards, the Wagner card could fetch a price of up to $3 million.

"I would be shocked if it didn't bring $1 million," said Robert Edward president Robert Lifson.

Lifson said the company insisted on the new rules to avoid problems. They are similar to rules at traditional auction houses such as Sotheby's and Christie's.

Although eBay continues to dominate the online auction market, there are signs that the offline giants are carving a niche for themselves with high-end auctions.

Last week, for instance, TV producer Norman Lear and Critical Path chairman David Hayden bought an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, bidding $8.1 million on Sotheby's online auction site.

In addition, eBay has battled persistent fraud claims concerning its high-end and collectibles auctions.

In May, eBay voided the sale of a painting that appeared to be by late modernist Richard Diebenkorn after discovering that the seller placed a bid on the item. Experts later cast doubts on the painting's authenticity.

In April, a group of sports collectors sued eBay, charging that the company knew about the sale of fake sports memorabilia on its site, but did little to stop it.

The rules for the Wagner card differ from--and sometimes contradict--those normally seen on eBay auctions. That rankled some eBay sellers, who vented their anger on eBay's message boards.

"Why is (this) seller allowed to invent all sorts of rules that nobody else could get away with?" one eBay member asked. "Why is eBay endorsing so many clear violations of its own rules? What about all of the 'normal' sellers who are the bread and butter of this place? Why the class distinctions?"

eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove said the changes were invoked because of the "special" nature of the Wagner card auction.

"For right now, this is going to be a one-of-a-kind event, but you never know," Pursglove said.

The T206 Honus Wagner card was part of a set issued by the American Tobacco Co. between 1909 and 1911 and is one of the rarest and most sought-after baseball cards. For unknown reasons--some say because Wagner did not want to encourage children to smoke, others say he wanted to be paid more money to appear on the card--Wagner demanded that the company stop issuing his card.

According to Rich Klein, a price guide analyst at Beckett.com who covers the baseball card market, the Honus Wagner card on eBay is one of some 50 to 200 that are known to exist.

"There are rarer cards in the business, but this is always the Holy Grail," Klein said.