Defiance, Ohio is about to become famous. Located in what’s known to locals as ‘The Black Swamp’, an area once left mushy by a retreating ancient glacier, the city is now home to what may be the most improbable and potentially valuable discovery in the history of sports collecting. It's generating gasps from a society that can't get enough of shows like American Pickers, Pawn Stars and Storage Wars. Only this is something really worth getting excited about.
A recent find of hundreds of virtually untouched 1910-era E98 cards in an old farmhouse there more than doubles the number certified by PSA and significantly increases the Population Report for this series in Near-Mint and higher grades.
As Sports Collectors Daily reported last week, the cards in what's being called 'The Black Swamp Find' were found in a box sitting under an old dollhouse, untouched in decades.
A group representing the find’s best cards will be offered in an auction of high end sports memorabilia conducted by Heritage Auctions during the National Sports Collectors Convention in Baltimore, Maryland and online on August 2. Additional cards will be offered by the auction company in the coming months. When all is said and done, it's possible they could sell for $2-3 million combined.
"It's a cliché, but this is one of those once-in-a-lifetime discoveries that came out of nowhere: the ultimate buried treasure find. It's one thing to find a $10,000 autographed baseball or a $50,000 coin, but it's extraordinarily rare to find a single group of vintage baseball cards worth millions of dollars," said Joe Orlando, president of Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), which graded and authenticated the cards.
Karl Kissner and his family say they belonged to their grandfather, Carl Hench, who died in the 1940s. The house was passed down to two of his daughters who lived there for many years. When Jean Hench died last October, she left its contents to her 20 nephews and nieces.
As the youngest survivor, Kinch was given charge of the estate. The Hench family kept everything and it took them several weeks to comb through what was inside.
Carl Hench ran a meat market in Defiance, and family members believe they were given to him as a promotional vehicle by the company that produced them. He likely gave some away but then brought the rest home. That’s where they stayed, preserved in an undisturbed setting, virtually as mint as they were when they were delivered from the printer when the horse and buggy was still the most common method of transportation.
As the Associated Press reported Tuesday, Kissner's cousin Karla picked up a dirty green box while the duo looked through the attic in late February. She lifted the metal clips holding the lid down and discovered hundreds of what collectors know as E98 cards thought to have been distributed with the purchase of caramels or similar candy in 1910.
Not knowing what they were at the time, Kissner decided to bring them to the office of the restaurant he runs where he went online and searched for information. When he discovered what he might have stumbled onto, he walked them over to a nearby bank and put them in a vault.
The find of more than 700 cards once thought to be scarce has turned the vintage card collecting world on its ear. For example, no E98 Ty Cobb card had scored anything higher than an 8 on PSA’s Population Report. The ‘Black Swamp Find’ had 16 Cobb cars that were graded mint 9 after they were shipped off for grading by an incredulous crew at the auction company. One of the Honus Wagner cards merited a PSA 10, the first ever.
"There would have been more mint grades except for the centering on many of the cards; that's just how they were originally cut during their production a century ago," Orlando explained.
"I've never seen anything like this where cards were fairly hard to find in any grade, but now one submission has doubled the population of PSA-graded examples, with most of the cards possessing a level of quality never seen before in the hobby. Some collectors may have given up hope of ever owning a set or even a single card from this set in high grade. Yet, now hobbyists have the opportunity to do exactly that, which was unimaginable prior to this discovery. I anticipate this find will boost interest in this historically difficult card issue."
The E98 baseball card set consists of 30 cards, and 17 of the 30 players depicted are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame including names familiar to today's generation of fans: Cobb, Wagner, Christy Mathewson, Cy Young and the double play combination of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance made famous by a sportswriter’s poem.
The family members plan to split the proceeds.
"In terms of how this will impact the collecting market, it can be argued that this is the most significant find of vintage baseball cards ever reported when you evaluate the find in context," said Orlando.
The Associated Press takes us inside the attic and shows us exactly where the cards were found with this segment of raw video:
A local TV station stopped by on Wednesday, too:
Tuesday night, the Black Swamp Find was featured on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams (see below).