(WATCHUNG, NJ) - Nearly 100 years ago, a young student filled a composition book with something besides essays. Lightly and lovingly glued row by row into its blank pages were dozens of trading cards he had accumulated.
Exactly how they were acquired remains a mystery. Some were probably obtained as premiums received when satisfying a sweet tooth with a caramel. Others, perhaps, were gifts from older relatives who knew of the youngster's hobby. There were cards that featured the flags of nations, cards that contained images of great explorers, vacation spots and landmarks, animals, fish...and athletes.
Generations passed and on an early autumn day some 100 years after the last one was placed into the book, the young collector's great nephew called New Jersey to ask vintage trading card specialist Robert Edward Auctions if the collection was worth consigning.
"Occasionally we get calls from relatives with old cards similar to these," said company president Rob Lifson. "When he called, he was describing all these 1910 era nonsport cards, and we weren't too optimistic about value. They're fun to look at but cards of lighthouses and fish and animals just aren't worth much even though they're very old. That's what it seemed we had here, but we had him go through every page just to be sure."
The book's edges were dog-eared and brittle. The cards were described as mounted on pages with tape at the tops; some were a little ragged, some were in especially nice shape, clearly untouched for decades. The cards had been painstakingly separated by set. Page by page, cards were described. "After enduring descriptions of cards basically featuring wildlife from the whole world, a ballplayer appears!" recounts Lifson. "It was a bit of a false alarm." The album held five common T206s in rough shape worth maybe $100. Two more cards (Ramly Tobacco) followed, giving some more hope, but the next twenty-four pages had only the most common and modest value 1910 era cards. "The whole collection at this point was looking like it might be worth a few hundred dollars." Finally, coming to the end of the album, nestled "between a group of very unpopular track stars and an extremely unexciting collection of fish cards," the owner found a pocket of four pages of baseball cards and began listing the names. From his description, it appeared to be a group of what baseball card collectors know as the E90-1 issue. American Caramel cards. Chief Bender. Home Run Baker. Addie Joss. Wee Willie Keller. Fred Clarke. Even a nice Ty Cobb. Things were looking up.
And then he listed "Jackson". Lifson stopped him and had him describe it. Twice. "I told him I thought he just hit the jackpot." The Jackson card is not only a rarity in the E90-1 set. It is his rookie card. "He drove the album from Baltimore to our New Jersey office the next morning. When we turned the pages, it was better than we could have hoped." Pristine white borders and the familiar image of one of the collecting world's most iconic and valuable cards stared up from the top center of the page. "The E90-1s were in the best shape of all. It looked like the great-uncle played with all the other cards quite a bit. But not the E90-1s. The baseball caramel cards were really sharp, and even though they were mounted, it was with just with a tiny hint of glue at the top. They were practically tipped in and could easily be removed."
The Jackson was among the finest. "The Joe Jackson rookie card in the album is probably the nicest high-grade example we have ever seen. This card hasn't even seen light since 1910!"
A PSA 5 example (EX) had just sold in REA's spring 2010 catalog auction for over $44,000. Suddenly, a nice little book of antique non-sports cards had become a century-old shelter for one of the hobby's holy grails.
"He was excited and who could blame him," Lifson said of the collector who quickly decided to consign the book of cards to REA's 2011 auction.
The E90-1 is one of just a few sets that include cards of Jackson issued during his playing days. This card is also recognized as his rookie card and is one of the scarcest in the entire E90-1 American Caramel card set. Only a few dozen have been graded and authenticated.
Caramel cards are prone to being found in a trimmed state as collectors cut them down to fit into plastic storage sheets when they arrived in the 1970s. However, the cards in this collection have obviously remained in their original state. In total, there were 45 E90-1 examples in the book, all attached to the pages with a drop or two of now very old glue. It doesn't detract from their pristine appearance and they could no doubt be removed if the winning bidder chooses to do so. The decision will be up to the buyer.
The book will be sold as is; a little slice of century-old collecting history. "We think the right decision is to sell the group as the original collector kept it," Lifson said.
The Jackson card pictures him in his Philadelphia A's uniform, one he would wear for only a short time before Connie Mack traded him to Cleveland. Of course, Jackson's career would eventually take him to Chicago where he became a central figure in the investigation of gambling by players on the 1919 World Series--the Black Sox scandal. He had a Hall of Fame worthy career but has never been elected because of the lifetime ban handed down by baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
Beyond the Jackson are some other American Caramel rarities; horizontal poses of Keeler and Joss among them.
Still, it's the Jackson card that will be the main attraction.
"It's such an important card, obviously, and to have one in our auction, presented in such a unique way speaks to the entire history of card collecting," Lifson said. "It's a special find. We're so used to telling people that their cards have value but aren't worth a fortune. It's a pleasure when every once in a while we get to say, 'Yes, your cards are actually worth a small fortune.' This is the best caramel card he could have possibly had from the era. It's one of the most important cards in all of vintage card collecting. And it's the most valuable. The family is very happy. It's like they won the lottery."
Robert Edward Auctions provides free catalogs upon request and is still accepting consignments for its next auction. To learn more about Robert Edward Auctions, to receive a complimentary copy of the catalog, or to inquire about consignments, visit www.robertedwardauctions.com or call 908-226-9900.
Robert Edward Auctions, LLC is one of the world's leading specialty auction houses, devoted exclusively to the sale of rare baseball cards, memorabilia, and Americana.