Secret stash hides a rare find

Published 8:57 pm Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A century-old Honus Wagner baseball card is one of the most legendary pieces of sports memorabilia in American history. Only 50 to 60 Wagner 1909-1911 Sweet Caporal Cigarette cards are known to exist.

One currently awaits auction at Dominion Coins in Chesapeake.

During the past 14 months, Wagner 1909-1911 Sweet Caporal Cigarette cards have sold at auction for as much as $399,500.

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“It’s amazing. This is the Holy Grail of the sports world, and to have it actually pass through your hands is something,” said Ray Ciccone, owner of Dominion Coin Company.

The trail intersects with Suffolk banker Keith Horton and includes two notes, hidden safes, a trip to New Jersey with the precious treasure and a charitable chapter still to be written.

A man living alone on an estate in Pennsylvania passed away. He had no children and wasn’t married. He left everything to his sister, a nun in a Baltimore convent, The School Sisters of Notre Dame.

If not for a note found in the dead man’s effects, Horton and Wagner might never have crossed paths.

“The note was the only way anyone ever found out about the safes,” Horton said. “It was, ‘Go in a closet, up above the top shelf, then turn a knob and remove a panel of the wall and there were three safes.’”

Inside those safes were hidden treasures: coins, guns, Civil War artifacts and 194 baseball cards.

Horton’s sister is a nun at the same convent, so that’s how he was asked for his services. Initially, the coins and their value was the primary concern.

“She knew I worked at a bank. With all the coins — most of them are silver coins — they wanted to know, are they worth anything?” Horton said.

“Then she said, ‘Oh by the way, do you know anything about Honus Wagner?’” Horton said.

The Wagner card included a note with a prediction.

Typewritten words announce, “Although damaged, the value of this baseball card should increase exponentially throughout the 21th (sic) century!”

Horton made one trip to the estate in Pennsylvania and then enlisted Ciccone to come on a second trip. Next came a trip to Sportscard Guaranty in New Jersey.

“It was obvious this guy knew everything about what he was buying,” Ciccone said.

The card’s edges, the border around Wagner’s portrait, are cut off. The Sweet Caporal Cigarette ad on the back has a spot smudged out. It and every other card, though, are authentic.

“Once we had an idea what all of this was worth, my wife said, ‘We’ve got to get this out of the house,’” Horton said.

There are a dozen 1903 Breisch Williams Company cards. The 1903 Cy Young is worth approximately $25,000.

There are 88 cards from 1909-11, one 1921 Tris Speaker card and 93 cards from 1953-1967.

As shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Wagner retired in 1917 as baseball’s all-time leader in runs, hits and stolen bases. Wagner, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Babe Ruth comprised Cooperstown’s inaugural class in 1936.

As great as it was, Wagner’s career isn’t the major reason his cards are many times more valuable than other ancient baseball legends.

Soon after cigarette companies — the Topps and Upper Deck of the day — published the Wagner cards, he demanded they be pulled from production.

Wagner played with a wad of tobacco in his cheek. According to his granddaughter in 1992, though, “he just didn’t want children to have to buy tobacco at a young age in order to get his cards.”

Wagner’s Sweet Caporal Cigarette card is the second-most valuable baseball card ever.

Three Wagner 1909-11 Piedmont Cigarette cards survive to the present. In 2008, Ken Kendrick, owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, bought one for $2.8 million.

The cards are to be auctioned in October by Heritage Auction Galleries. It’ll be a worldwide, live, online auction.

The estate and proceeds from auctioning everything in it will go to the The School Sisters of Notre Dame and its missions around the world.

The public can see the collection at Dominion Coin until Monday, Aug. 2, at which time the cards will be sent to the auction company.