For most baseball memorabilia collectors, the 1915 Cracker Jack card set — 176 cards printed in color on thin paper — is the holy grail of the hobby and all-but-impossible to find.
One near-mint set was sold at auction in 2008 for $157,000.
Joe Lawson knows all that, and on Sept. 3 he will auction off an incomplete set, missing two cards, at Tacoma’s Hamilton Auction Gallery.
It’s not in the same shape as the set sold in ’08, but it’s likely to be the most expensive item Lawson has auctioned in his 20 years in the business. He’s received calls of interest from across the country.
“We’re a mom-and-pop auction house,” Lawson said. “We’ve handled some expensive things, like a Renoir watercolor, but I don’t think we’ve ever sold something for more than $35,000.
“This baseball card set could bring considerably more than that.”
Don Knutsen, who owns Northwest Sports Cards, had the chance to look them over and help authenticate them.
“The colors were so vibrant, some people thought they were fakes,” Knutsen said. “We sent four cards to Beckett to have them authenticated, and there’s no doubt they’re authentic. The paper stock is so good, the ink is beautiful — it was really neat to see them.
“In 26 years, I’d never come across a set like this.”
Among the cards in the set are those of Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Jackson’s card alone, in near-mint condition, has sold for as much as $97,000.
When Beckett professionals graded the cards Knutsen sent, they said they were in “very good to excellent condition.”
Whatever the set goes for will be considerably more than what was paid by the Lakewood couple who now own it.
“My wife and I were driving in Kansas in 1979 and stopped at an auction being held at a farm, and they were bringing things out of the barn to sell,” said Peter, who asked that his last name not be used. “I’m afraid if we gave our names, someone would break into our home looking for valuables.”
Ah, but on with his story.
“My wife saw a box of board games she wanted, but when they came up no one even bid on them,” Peter said. “The auctioneer threw in an old dictionary, and she bid $15 and won the box. On our way back to the car, a man stopped her and said he only wanted the dictionary, and gave her $15 for it.
“When we got home, we were looking through the board games, and these cards were in the bottom of that box. Neither of us knew much about baseball cards. I put a rubber band around them and threw ’em in a drawer.”
They stayed there for more than 10 years.
The story nearly brings a tear to Knutsen’s eye.
“Had they stored them in protective holders, they’d be worth considerably more today,” he said. “You don’t hear stories like that often, but when you do, it makes you want to go to Kansas and find a small-town auction.”
The cards’ new owners, meanwhile, didn’t learn they had any value until about 1990, when a friend of their daughter saw them and sent them to a coin dealer.
The dealer offered them $20,000 on the spot.
“I was slack-jawed,” Peter said. “We put them in a safety-deposit box.”
Since then, he admitted, they’ve had more fun telling the story to friends than they would have had selling the cards. Now 67 years old and retired, Peter thought it was time to let them go.
“We’re getting rid of junk we harvested over the years, and we send things to auction all the time,” he said. “My wife has been an avid collector of bargains over the years — the thrill of the hunt, I think.”
The couple knew Joe Lawson because they’d been to his auctions and all but adopted him. Peter’s wife called him, with affection, “our problem child.” When they decided to sell the Cracker Jack cards, they could have gone to any national auction house.
They might have gotten a better price that way, since big auction houses have clients on waiting lists around the country.
That didn’t matter to the Lakewood couple.
“We like Joe, there was never any question that he would be the one to sell them for us,” Peter said.
What are those cards worth?
“Like any collectibles, probably less than they were seven or eight years ago,” Peter said. “But more than we paid for them.”
Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638