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Hidden Treasure -- An unopened package of cigarettes from 1910

Beckett Baseball by Chris Roush (December 1992)

One of the great finds in the hobby almost walked unnoticed out the door of Orve Johansson's Largo, Fla., baseball card shop late last year. But because of the shop owner's concern for his customers, Johansson's now the owner of a rare, unopened package of 1910 Piedmont cigarettes. The pack's cellophane wrap still is intact, and the package contents remain hidden from the world.

Hard-core baseball card enthusiasts know that Piedmont was one of 16 cigarette brands that contained baseball cards - T206 tobacco cards - including the most famous card of them all, the T206 Honus Wagner. That sort of find generates the same excitement one might have when sending out wedding invitations or discovering a rare and expesnive antique long forgotten. In other words, the cigarette pack that slipped out Johansson's door could contain a baseball card that, if in Mint condition, potentially could fetch between $500,000 and a million dollars.

But the find almost went undetected.

A man carrying a small cardboard box entered the store one afternoon. While Johansson waited on several customers already in the shop, the man wandered around and looked at the merchandise for 15 minutes. Finally, tired of waiting, the man and his box headed for the door. Johansson, not wanting the customer to walk away unsatisfied, caught him outside. The man opened the box. Inside were Bowman and Topps cards from the 1950s and ... the Piedmont pack.

"I was flabbergasted," Orve recalls.

The card collector said he had stumbled upon the unopened prize during a visit to an antique shop in the Florida Panhandle. He bought it for the unbelievable sum of $5. Realizing what he had purchased, the man was directed to Johansson, who specializes in older cards and memorabilia.

Negotiations followed. Soon after, the two struck a deal: the Piedmont pack for $3,000 in cards and cash. Both were thrilled with the deal. "I would have gone as high as $7,500," Johansson says. "When he said $3,000, I tried not to act too excited."

While collectors sometimes go to extremes to find a 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. RC in an unopened pack, or hope that a George Brett or Robin Yount RC is in the 1975 Topps pack they've tucked away, Johansson's find could yield higher stakes.

And it's all because of Wagner.

Last year, hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky and Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall paid $451,000 for what is believed to be the best-conditioned T206 Wagner card in existence. Fewer than four dozen of the cards, in any condition, are known to exist.

Long Odds

A T206 Wagner straight out of an unopened pack should be in Mint condition, with sharp corners and bright colors. The card's extremely rare because Wagner, according to his granddaughter, Leslie Blair, didn't like the idea of children having to buy tobacco in order to obtain the card. Wagner had the cards pulled form the set immediately. Most, presumable, were destroyed.

Blair also said that Wagner wasn't against the card being released, and he would have consented to the card being distributed to kids for free, but he was against the concept of children having to purchase something to get the card.

Johansson isn't sure what card his Piedmont pack holds, but he realizes the sheer number of tobacco cards issued that year work against him. Still, it's an unopened pack…

"When you look at it as a realist, the odds are very great that it's not going to be Honus Wagner," Johansson says. But there's still Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, some of the all-time greats." There's also Eddie Plank, the second rarest card in the series. Few Plank card exist because someone in the factory dropped and broke the printing plate.

Johansson declined an offer to have the card examined by a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a medical device that could determine if the card inside the pack pictures a player portrait - like a Wagner or Plank - or if the layer on the card is holding a bat or throwing. And so far, he's refused several serious offers for the pack, now stored in a safe-deposit box.

"I get about two calls a week on it," he says. "A guy from Kansas heard I had it and called. Most people want to know if I still have it and if it's for sale. They all say let them know before I sell it."

He says he may sell the pack, probably in an auction, by the end of the year. The money won't go to buy more cards. But for now, Orve says he'll hang on the pack. "It's like holding a lottery ticket," Johanssons says. "At least you have a pot."

Thanks to his unwillingness to let a customer walk away unsatisfied, Johansson's the proud owner of a rare hobby find.


Periodical - A T206 pulled from a 1910 era Piedmont pack
Periodical - Post-1910 Piedmont Pack with T206 Card Enclosed! (Recently Opened)

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