DEFIANCE — The stash of rare baseball cards kept hidden in a northwest Ohio attic for more than a century began reaping its payoff Thursday night.
In a brisk online and live auction at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Baltimore, the best of a pristine collection filled with turn-of-the-century stars such as Honus Wagner and Cy Young fetched a combined $566,132.
The sale of 37 cards was the first step in setting free a collection experts say could represent the greatest single discovery in the sports card industry's history. The entire stash of more than 700 nearly mint cards is expected to bring in about $3 million, with the proceeds set to be split evenly among 20 cousins.
"It was a lot of fun," said Chris Ivy, director of sports auctions at Heritage Auctions, which conducted the sale. "The room was packed."
Family member Karla Hench, who helped find the cards, said the cards brought "fantastic prices and we're very excited that we can all share in this find. It's like a gift from our grandfather to keep passing on."
Karl Kissner, 51, a restaurant owner in Defiance, discovered the cards in February as he cleaned out his grandfather's attic. Untouched for more than a century beneath a wooden dollhouse, Mr. Kissner first thought the funny-shaped rectangular cards crammed into a dusty green box were a neat slice of Americana, then realized they were something more.
The cards are part of a rare 30-player set distributed with candy in 1910. Only 635 of the undersized rectangular cards from the E98 series previously were known to exist — and most of those showed the normal effects of age.
What made this find so special was the 700 cards were nearly pristine, the finest examples anyone had ever seen.
The best of the bunch was sold in three lots — one was a nearly complete E98 set, and another was a Honus Wagner card that was judged to be in perfect condition by Professional Sports Authenticator, a company that grades cards on a scale of 1 to 10, based on their condition.
The highest price ever paid for a baseball card is $2.8 million for a different Wagner card — a 1909 version produced by American Tobacco Co., which was included in packs of cigarettes. Only about 60 of Wagner's tobacco cards are known to exist after being pulled from circulation, either because the ballplayer didn't want to encourage smoking among children or because he wanted more money.
Sports card experts who authenticated the Defiance find say they came across dozens of cards that were just about perfect.
Mr. Kissner and his cousin, Ms. Hench, said the cards belonged to their grandfather, Carl Hench, who died in the 1940s. They think he gave away the cards at his meat market and stashed the extras in his attic and forgot about them.
One of Ms. Hench's daughters kept the house until she died in October, leaving everything inside to her 20 nieces and nephews.
Heritage Auctions plans to sell most of the Ohio cards during the next two or three years through auctions. The Hench family is evenly splitting the profits from the cards and all but a few have decided to sell their share.
Mr. Kissner said the money is nice, but the best part is how the discovery has brought his family together. Fourteen of the cousins planned to be at the auction in Baltimore.
"It started out with a walk down memory lane, and this is going to create nothing but new memories," Mr. Kissner said. "This is a blessing that will grow throughout this family."