DEFIANCE, Ohio – Karl Kissner picked up a sooty cardboard box in his grandfather’s attic. Taking a look inside, he saw hundreds of baseball cards bundled with twine. They were smaller than the ones he was used to seeing.
The names were familiar: Ty Cobb, Cy Young, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Connie Mack.
Then he put the box on a dresser and went back to digging through the attic.
It wasn’t until two weeks later that he learned that his family had come across what experts say is one of the most exciting finds in the history of sports card collecting, perhaps worth millions.
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The cards are from a rare series issued around 1910. The few known to exist were in so-so condition, with faded images and worn edges.
But the ones from the Ohio attic are nearly pristine, untouched for more than a century. The colors are vibrant, the borders crisp and white.
“It’s like finding the Mona Lisa in the attic,” Kissner said.
Sports card experts who authenticated the find say they may never again see something this impressive.
“Every future find will ultimately be compared to this,” said Joe Orlando, president of Professional Sports Authenticator.
The best of the bunch – 37 cards – are expected to bring a total of $500,000 when they are sold at auction in August during the National Sports Collectors Convention in Baltimore. There are about 700 cards in all that could be worth up to $3 million, experts say.
The cards belonged to Carl Hench, who died in the 1940s. Hench ran a meat market in Defiance, and the family suspects he got them as a promotional item from a candy company. They think he gave some away and kept others.
“We guess he stuck them in the attic and forgot about them,” Kissner said. “They remained there frozen in time.”
After Hench and his wife died, two of his daughters lived in the house. Jean Hench kept the house until she died last October, leaving everything inside to her 20 nieces and nephews. Kissner, 51, is the youngest and was put in charge of the estate. The house was filled with three generations of stuff.
They found turn-of-the-century dresses, a steamer trunk from Germany and a dresser with Grandma’s clothes neatly folded inside.
In February, Kissner and cousin Karla Hench pulled out the dirty green box and lifted the lid. Not knowing whether the cards were valuable, they put the box aside.
After Kissner did a little research, he put the cards in a bank vault.
Kissner sent eight to expert Peter Calderon at Heritage Auctions in Dallas, which recently sold the baseball that rolled through the legs of Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series for $418,000.
Calderon said his first words were “Oh, my God.”
The cards are from what is called the E98 series. Their maker is unclear, but the series consists of 30 players, half of them Hall of Famers.
Heritage Auctions sent the cards to Professional Sports Authenticator, which had previously authenticated fewer than 700 E98s. The Ohio cards were the finest examples from the E98 series the company had ever seen.
The company grades cards on a 1-to-10 scale based on their condition. The highest grade it had ever given an E98 Ty Cobb card was a 7. Sixteen Cobbs found in the Ohio attic were graded at 9 – almost perfect. A Honus Wagner was judged a 10.
Heritage Auctions plans to sell most of the Ohio cards over the next two or three years through auctions and private sales so that it doesn’t flood the market, Ivy said.
The Hench family is dividing the cards and money among the 20 cousins named in their aunt’s will.
“These cards need to be with those people who appreciate and enjoy them,” Kissner said.