DEFIANCE, Ohio – CBS has put a microphone on him, here in the house where the cousins found a gold mine in the attic. The local paper is here. Toledo’s come and gone. And now here’s one more guy with a notepad and a woman with a camera from Fort Wayne …
“Pretty crazy, huh?” the guy with the notepad says.
Karl Kissner chuckles.
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “By 1 p.m. today, it literally went viral …”
California called. Chicago. Australia, for pity’s sake.
From his pocket, Kissner produces a wad of crumpled notes from the New York Daily News, from Reuters, from a radio station somewhere out toward Des Moines.
“And Sydney’s calling at 5 tomorrow evening,” Kissner says.
He shakes his head and chuckles again. Guess inquiring minds are just naturally going to want to know about it when you hit the memorabilia lotto in the humblest of places.
It’s been more than four months since Kissner’s cousin, Karla Hench, popped the metal clips on the green box covered with decades of soot.
It was Feb. 29, Leap Day, and they were cleaning out the attic of the house on Perry Street that their grandfather, Carl Hench, bought in 1910 and which their aunt, Jean, left to the family when she passed last October. And inside that filthy little box, hidden away under an old dollhouse, they found something that would soon leave seasoned sports memorabilia dealers gasping.
In the box were about 700 baseball cards, bundled neatly in twine. And not just any baseball cards.
These were all cards from an extremely rare series called E98, issued around 1910. There were Ty Cobb cards and Honus Wagner cards and Cy Young cards and Christy Mathewson cards – 30 players in all, half of them Hall of Famers. And they were in near-mint condition, the colors still vibrant, the borders still crisp.
Four months along now, Kissner takes you back into the empty attic, past the place where Uncle Rudy’s steamer trunk sat and Grandma’s dresser (still neatly packed with clothes), to a corner back by the window where a stack of ancient schoolwork sat atop the box with the dollhouse in it, and, under it, the box that would bring the world running.
“They were stacked right here, far enough away from the window where they didn’t get any sunlight,” recalls Kissner, 51. “And the box they were in is an old women’s apparel box for nightclothes.
“It’s a real, real heavy cardboard box with metal ribbing that holds the corners together. So it never fell apart in the heat. So it preserved the cards perfectly.”
Not that Kissner and his cousin knew what they had, straightaway.
“We’re looking at them, and they’re weird,” he goes on. “They’re smaller and there’s no stats on them, no manufacturers, doesn’t say Topps or anything. We said, ‘Ah, too bad they’re not Topps.’ ”
“Little did I know …”
He soon would. Figuring the cards were either “worth nothing, or they’re worth something,” the cousins did a little research, and soon the cards were in a safety deposit box at the bank. Not long thereafter, Peter Calderon arrived from Heritage Auctions in Dallas to check them out, and then Kissner sent the cards to Professional Sports Authenticator.
“Oh, my God,” Calderon said when he saw them.
Professional Sports Authenticator, meanwhile, judged the cards to be the finest E98 series cards the company had ever seen.
The company grades cards on a 1-to-10 scale based of their condition. Up to now, the highest grade it had ever given a Ty Cobb card from the E98 series was a 7. Sixteen Cobbs found in the Ohio attic were graded a 9 – almost perfect. A Honus Wagner was judged a 10, a first for the series.
“This is probably the most interesting find I’ve heard of,” retired vintage sports card auctioneer Barry Sloane from New York told The Associated Press.
So how much are they worth?
Kissner says the best of them – 37 cards – are expected to bring around $500,000 when they’re sold at auction in August during the National Sports Collectors Convention in Baltimore. In total, Kissner says he’s been told the 700 cards could bring as much as $2.8 million.
The highest price ever paid for a baseball card is $2.8 million, handed over in 2007 for a 1909 Honus Wagner that was produced by the American Tobacco Co. and included in packs of cigarettes.
The Ohio cards will be evenly divided among the 20 cousins, says Kissner, executor of the estate and owner of Kissner’s Restaurant, which sits around the corner from the Hench house, which his aunt left in 2001 to move to Florida.
“She didn’t want to sell it, though,” Kissner says. “She wanted it kept up, and she wanted everything left in it as it was – frozen in time.”
Just how frozen, no one could have dreamed.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.