The post on the Full Count Forum message board was short and to the point.
"I have a Louis Lowdermilk Red Cross as well as 6 other Red Cross brown background cards."
No one knew who the first-time visitor was and his statement seemed like so many others. Too good to be true. Collectors of the T207 tobacco set know that the backs featuring Red Cross Tobacco ads are beyond rare. No one knew they even existed before the mid-1980s and only five had surfaced since.
From his computer in Minnesota, collector Jay Behrens, who co-owns the forum with fellow hobbyist Ben Fisher, asked the newcomer--a man who called himself 'George'-- for pictures. When they arrived online, Behrens' jaw hit the floor.
"My first thought was someone was going to be trying to pass off a mash-up of a T207 and T215 pasted together," Behrens told Sports Collectors Daily. "When I finally saw the scan, I was in awe. There were 14 other cards in the scan and there was no evidence that any of the cards were fakes of any type. After exchanging emails with him about the collection I was convinced that these cards were legit."
As it turned out, 'George' was 81 years-old and the collection of eight T207 Red Cross backs was just part of a group of dozens of rare cards he had dating back to just after the turn of the 20th century. The cards had been in his family the entire time, stored in Baton Rouge, Louisiana by George's grandmother who had inherited them from his uncle who died in 1936. His uncle, born in 1903, was likely the original owner. The cards had been stored in an attic, tucked inside a Whitman's candy box. George inherited them decades later.
One of the key cards in the T207 set, Louis Loudermilk, is represented with a Red Cross back. That card alone will likely sell well into five figures. The other cards in the find included Miller, Nelson, Blackburne, Ragan, Tyler, Adams and Cunningham. All will be newcomers to the set's checklist.
While the population of T206 Honus Wagner cards isn't exactly known, but believed to be between 75 and 100, just 12 different Red Cross backs are known. The find more than doubles the known quantity, a remarkable development in the high dollar world of rare baseball cards. A Blackburne card with the Red Cross back sold for over $9,000 last spring through Robert Edward Auctions.
"T207 Red Cross backs are so rare that a sighting for a tobacco card collector is thought of as not a lot more likely than seeing a unicorn - it just doesn't happen," said REA president Rob Lifson.
Red Cross was a Louisiana product and a number of factors have decimated whatever surviving examples remained after being pulled from cigarette packs.
"I know that 12 of the 13 known t207 Red Cross cards have come from Louisiana," said Behrens. "Long time collectors and dealers I know that travel the country looking for cards say that original collections of the more common T215 Red Cross cards were found in Louisiana or with families that had migrated from there."
"Geographically, Louisiana has a lot going against it when it comes to paper collectibles.The high humidity leads to cards growing mold and mildew. The constant flooding destroys anything stored in basements. Anything stored in attic usually gets eaten by silverfish and termites. Let's not forget the paper drives of World War I and II. All these factors make it highly unlikely that paper collectibles will survive in that part of country."
But these were not cards mom--and grandma--threw out and today's advanced collectors are in awe.
"The reaction has been amazement all around," Behrens said. "To find an original collection of this magnitude and rarity is unprecedented. Finding one T207 Red Cross is amazing. Finding eight is unthinkable. Then to top it off the key card to the set is one of the eight and you have a once in a lifetime find."
It also wasn't all. Among the 80+ cards in the collection are 'Anonymous Back' T207s of Buck Weaver, Ward Miller, considered one of the 'big three' in the set as well as popular Latin star Raphael Almeida.
"All previous confirmed examples were Chicago players, leading to speculation that the T207 Red Cross backs were possibly intended to be a subset including only Chicago players," said Lifson. "But this find proves that the fact that only Chicago players were known previously was just a coincidence. The find includes non-Chicago players. This reminds me of REA's find of five T206 Ty Cobb with Ty Cobb Tobacco in 1997. Previous to that find, only six examples were known."
"The fact that Lowdermilk is included among the Red Cross backs is just icing on the cake. Because Lowdermilk was the only T207 rarity cited by Jefferson Burdick in the American Card Catalog, it will always be the most famous key rarity of the set. The Lowdermilk with Red Cross back in the find will make even the most advanced collector do a double-take. That's an incredible front-back combination."
Like collectors of the famed T206 set, T207 fans often chase the back variations. Other tobacco brands featured in ads on the card backs are Recruit, Napoleon, Cycle and Broadleaf.
"The Recruit and Napoleon backs are commonly found," Behrens explained. "All the other backs are hard to find and there are only a few players that appear on both the Recruit and Anonymous backs. Putting together a complete set is a major accomplishment that takes years, if not decades of dedicated collecting."
Behrens is acting as the middle man for George, passing information on to auction houses who are excited over the possibility of adding them to an upcoming catalog. George has done his research but he's not interested in hanging onto them any longer.
In an uncertain economy, card prices are down in some segments of the hobby, but scarcities still create bidding wars among well-financed collectors.
"The many other rare T207s included in the find are also highly desirable, and the collection of T215 Red Cross tobacco cards that accompany are a tremendous group of one of the era's rarest and significant T206-related sets," said Lifson. "There have been bigger finds and there have been more valuable finds, but card-for-card, this is one of the most interesting, important, and exciting 1910-era tobacco card finds in modern times."
"I think it's great that the collection came to be discovered on the Full Count message board. There's something very exciting about a fresh and significant collection turning up in that manner. This reminds me a lot of the Net54 forum's famous Colgan's Tin-Top find, including Jackson and Thorpe, a few years ago."
Remarkably, the cards from this find were on public display about 15 years ago. The Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur, Texas had a seasonal exhibit on baseball and asked area residents to loan them their collectibles. George did, but the rare nature of them went unnoticed.
"I got no calls or comments so I guess no one was aware of the significance," he wrote on the forum.
The cat is now officially out of the bag.