1991 Topps Desert Shield #150 Cal Ripken Jr.

On August 2, 1990, Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait. Condemned by counties around the globe, members of the United Nations Security Council immediately levied economic sanctions against Iraq.

One of the main concerns about this invasion was the significant threat Iraq posed to Saudi Arabia. Following the conquest of Kuwait, the Iraqi army was within easy striking distance of Saudi oil fields. Control of these fields, along with Kuwaiti and Iraqi reserves, would have given Iraq control over the majority of the world's oil reserves.

Acting on the concern that the Iraqi army would attempt an invasion of Saudi Arabia, President George H. W. Bush announced that the U.S. would launch a "wholly defensive" mission to prevent Iraq from invading Saudi Arabia. Under the operational codename of Operation Desert Shield, U.S. troops were sent to Saudi Arabia and were ultimately joined by coalition forces from 34 nations including the United Kingdom and Egypt.

The Persian Gulf War, often referred to as the Gulf War or Operation Desert Storm – the operational name of the military response, saw the initial conflict to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait commence with an aerial "shock and awe" bombardment on January 16, 1991. Followed by a ground assault, the coalition forces liberated Kuwait and declared a cease-fire and victory on February 28, 1991.

During the Gulf War, Topps produced a short-run of a 792-card set that was specifically distributed in special 15-card packs to American troops who were serving in the war. Paralleling their regular 1991 issue, the Desert Shield cards were distinguished by a gold-foil stamp on the front of the card that commemorated the operation.

Today, these cards are rare and highly desirable in high-grades. The reason they are extremely difficult to find in good condition is because of the rough-and-tumble route they endured as they traversed the harshness of the Middle East, combat zones and shipment back to the United States in over-stuffed duffel bags.

As with any cards that are rare and desirable, forgeries are a well-documented problem with cards from the 1991 Topps Desert Shield Baseball set. While some of the bogus cards are fairly easy to detect, others have been convincing enough to fool collectors who are not savvy as to what they should be looking for.

The most obvious sign of a fake card is the Desert Shield stamp having been printed in an extremely bright color. When you hold the card, the bright printing is easy to detect, but in a scan placed on an Internet auction, the stamp can appear to be gold-foiled with its silvery appearance. It is important to know that the genuine Desert Shield gold stamps are not as bright as they are in the forgeries. Unscrupulous sellers are certainly aware of that fact, which is why they will use various computer art or photo enhancement programs to darken the stamp.

1991 Topps Desert Shield #740 Ryne Sandberg

According to those who are extremely knowledgeable of these cards, there are various forgeries known to exist. Along with the printed stamp, another version of a counterfeited card has a prominent point on the bottom of the shield. If you compare one of these cards with a genuine issue, you will see the bottom of the shield on a legitimate card is rounded. An additional telltale sign of a bad card is that the fake stamp is a bit larger than on a real one.

Another counterfeit variation is found within the flag on the stamp. The flag may be larger, from left-to-right, and have less of a wave on a fake card. Other problems are impossible to notice in a scan, and even difficult to detect by looking at the card without magnification. If you look at a genuine card under magnification, you will notice a pattern of dots that make up the flag's stars. The pattern is that of four vertical dots, followed by a series of three dots, then four, and then three again. On a counterfeit card, the flag's stars are not clear and, under magnification, you would notice there are no dots at all.

Another thing to look for in spotting a forgery is in the palm tree. On a real card, the tree's coconuts are very distinct, while on a fake care they are blurred. Conversely, the tree's leaves have been known to be more defined on the counterfeits and, on some, the leaves touch the line above the word "operation." On the real card, the leaf is separated from the line.

If, by virtue of the aforementioned information, you are getting the feeling that you may have to wage a little war of your own to put together a high-grade set of these war cards – your feeling would be correct.

"This is one tough set to put together in an ultra high-grade," said collector Mark Christmore who has compiled a high-grade set. "I first heard about these cards while working for General Dynamics, who made many of the cruise missiles that were used in the Gulf War. From the first time I saw them, I was determined to compile the highest-quality set possible."

Today, joining his wife, Dawn, in the financial services industry, Mark works as a senior financial analyst. The parents of five-year old twins, Nathan and Natalie, Mark and Dawn are committed to family. "The thing that is most important is our family," said Mark.

"Sports Market Report" recently had the opportunity to visit with Mark and view his impressive collection that is usually shielded away in a safety deposit box. He talked of his passion for the cards and the challenge of compiling a complete set in a high-grade.

SPORTS MARKET REPORT (SMR): Mark, what was it about these cards that attracted you to them with such a passion?

MARC CHRISTMORE (MC): Well, it's a very tough set to put together in high-grade. Many of the cards are rare, and the story surrounding its production and distribution is very interesting. A lot of collectors are not familiar with these cards but, for those that are, they know they were only issued to the men and women who were serving in the military during the Gulf War. No complete sets were ever issued and there were only roughly around 6,500 sets ever produced. Unlike any other cards of the era, the only way to have acquired these cards was through someone who was serving in Iraq. That means they are very difficult to locate, especially in high-grades.

So, what initially attracted me to these cards was the overall rarity of a complete set. The cards had been short-printed and then they were issued in an area in which they were carried around a lot – in less than ideal conditions. High-quality cards are extremely difficult to find because even unopened packs have not produced good quality cards. That was because they were banged up by being stuffed in duffel bags. As for the packs that were open, it was almost a sure thing those cards would be damaged.

SMR: The set contains some heavy hitters. Did that add to the appeal for you?

MC: It is a set that is loved by many people – although it is usually loved from afar being as that it takes so much patience to put a set together. Putting a set like this together is true collecting. It's not just something you can just go out and buy. Besides that, yes, I think it also has appeal because of the great number of stars and Hall of Famers in the set – Nolan Ryan, Cal Ripken, Ken Griffey Jr., the rookie card of Chipper Jones. The set has so many difficult and highly desirable cards.

1991 Topps Desert Shield #1 Nolan Ryan

SMR: What were the most difficult cards for you to come by?

MC: Of course, the most difficult cards to find are the commons. Nobody wanted the commons. When soldiers opened the packs and saw a star, they may have kept it. Otherwise, if they didn't recognize the player, they threw them away. I have talked to many soldiers who were in Iraq who have told me they saw 55-gallon drums filled with these cards that had been thrown away – and you just know the majority of those cards that were thrown away were commons. That is why the commons are far more difficult to locate than the star cards. A great example of that is the #759 card of Bobby Cox. For a long time, there was no Cox card that had ever graded a 9 or 10. I finally located a PSA Gem-Mt 10 and, to this day, there is only one PSA 10 and one PSA Mint 9.

SMR: What are the specifics about your set?

MC: Well, it's a 792-card set and I have every card. My set has a current graded weight of 9.761 on the PSA Registry. Out of the 792 cards, 112 cards have never produced an example that has graded a PSA 10. I have 600 of the cards in PSA 10, 191 cards in PSA 9, and one lagging PSA NM-MT 8 – the #361 Scott Garrelts card that I am doing everything I can to find an upgrade. There are only three PSA 9 and no 10s of that card. I have 82 "Pop Ones" in my set, and 125 "Pop Twos" in PSA 10. That shows how difficult the set is. Just think about it – 112 of the cards have never graded at PSA 10!

SMR: How were you able to put this set together?

MC: I was fortunate to come across two boxes of cards, that came from two servicemen, who were just returning from Iraq. My initial set came from combining those two sets together. That original set had about 300 cards that had graded as 10s. There were also a lot of cards that were graded 5s and 6s in that original set, so it took a lot of work to upgrade all those cards to bring it up to where every card except one is PSA 9 or better. I would love to have this be the perfect set someday but as of now, there has never been a full-mint set put together.

SMR: How did you go about doing the upgrades?

MC: I located a dealer on the East Coast who helped me complete my set – that was in late-1991 and early-1992. After completing the set, I got out of collecting until 2007. Then, sort of out of the blue, I decided to go online to see what Desert Shield cards were selling for. As soon as I did, the bug came right back. But this time, it was totally different because, unlike when I first put the set together, PSA was now a major force in the hobby. PSA, as a third-party authenticator and grader, changed everything about collecting for me – for the better. The debate was gone on what a card's grade was. That was the thing that really got me back into collecting.

At that time, the number one set was available. It had been put together by someone who had really put a lot of hard work and time into the set. So, I bought that and added it to my set. I initially added about 30 cards and then it snowballed from there. I also spent a lot of time working trades. The people who collect these cards are great. I would not have been able get it where it's at without the help of collectors like Ron Anderson, John Nguyen, James Dial, John Boswell and others who I met through the PSA Registry. The Registry is so great. I work with so many collectors I have met through the Registry that have helped me structure deals. I can't emphasize enough that without the PSA Registry, I would have never been able to put together my set. It brings together a great group of collectors who all work hard to help each other out. I love working with other people who collect these cards – helping them make their sets better while helping myself with my set. However, that said, now that my set is so high in grade, I'm not trading as much. Structuring trades and working with other people who love and collect these cards was the only way this could have been completed. When you get into these cards you quickly learn the supply is so limited.

SMR: Before putting this set together, had you been a longtime card collector?

MC: What first got me into collecting was going into an ice cream shop when I was 10-years old. I had gotten a 1964 half dollar back in change and, when I showed it to my father, he explained it was the last coin made that was 90-percent silver and that it was worth more than its face value. Well, hearing that got me hooked. I started collecting coins. I enjoyed that, but found it to be frustrating. When you went to buy or sell a coin there was always a debate on if it was MS 63 or MS 65. It was very discouraging and to be honest, it kind of soured me on coin collecting. Then when PCGS came along and started grading it added so much to the hobby. There was no longer a debate and it took away the mystery. It is the same thing with PSA when it comes to cards.

SMR: Do you still collect coins, or any other cards or sets?

MC: (Laughs) No. I have been totally focused on this set, so I really don't collect anything else.

SMR: In the world of card collecting, it seems that this set is not that well-known by many collectors. Is that fair to say?

MC: I think it is an obscure set and I think that is because of its rarity. But, I have noticed something lately – dealers are beginning to recognize the value and rarity of these cards. The high-quality gem cards are becoming very scarce, although there has been a recent find of PSA 9s. I have seen more and more dealers scrambling for them because they believe these cards will have future desirability. It is for that reason that I think this is the last chance collectors will have to try to compile a set before the dealers completely lock-up the high-quality cards into sets. Today, you can still find cards out there at decent prices, but that will change – it has already started to change. I have shown the set to collectors who admire the cards but wouldn't have the patience or the financial resources to put a set together. In Gem-Mt condition, this set will cost you quite a bit. But, in the PSA 8 range, a nice set could be put together for a decent price. PSA graded 8 cards are by all means respectful looking, nice cards. But, I think as time goes by, even the 8s will start getting harder to find. It's a fun set to put together although it is a bit overwhelming. There have been some forgeries of some of the rare cards. But, of course, PSA would spot that in a split second, so I would advise you to only buy PSA graded cards. One of the other things I've noticed, why these cards are becoming rare – is because, like me, the collectors who have taken on the challenge of trying to put a set of these cards together really come to love them and they don't want to part with them.

1991 Topps Desert Shield #790 Ken Griffey Jr.

SMR: Do you have a favorite card in the set?

MC: My favorite card in the set is the Ken Griffey, Jr. card. It is such a classic pose – his swing. I also love the Jones card.

SMR: What are your future goals for the set?

MC: My primary goal is to put together a complete perfect set, which just may be a lifetime challenge. My shorter term goals are to locate a PSA 9 #361 so I will have a full mint or better set of cards. While I am on the search for a #361 Scott Garrelts card, the number one card I am looking for is a #5 Cal Ripken in PSA 10, of which there are currently only seven PSA 9s and no 10s.

SMR: Along with the rarity of these cards, they most likely also have an emotional attachment to some of the men and women who received them during the war. Have you found that to be the case?

MC: I have shown my set to many Gulf War veterans and they by all means have nostalgic feelings about these cards. It brings them back to their time of service to our country – when they put their lives on the line. When these cards were issued, I'm sure baseball cards were not much on their minds. They were concerned with doing their job and in simply surviving. I have had veterans tell me they saw a lot of these cards used for fuel to start campfires or that they were given away to kids that soldiers would come across. I have also heard that many soldiers didn't care about the cards at all and opened them just for the gum and then threw the cards away. I'm sure at the time none of them thought of these as being a rare issue of cards and, even if they did realize that, they had to travel around and there was no way to protect them except to stuff them into a bag or something. These cards just weren't their focus, which is what makes them so rare and of course so valuable in higher-grades. There have been rumors that some cards and packs did not make it overseas. There is no real confirmation on that, but I can believe it because I have seen some packs in extremely nice condition.

SMR: It's pretty obvious that you have a true passion for this set.

MC: I think the people who get into these cards have the same passion I do for them. There is a real emotional attachment when it comes to this set. I value the men and women of the military and have great respect for the sacrifices they made to serve our country. Because of that, I thought putting this set together would be a great way to honor them. That has been my goal and I am still striving to make it a complete Gem Mint set in honor of those men and women who have given so much to our country.