Debra Colvin remembers talking to a friend of hers, a collector of sports memorabilia, about a mysterious tobacco baseball card she and her husband had inherited from her mother-in-law.
"Those are not worth anything unless you get a Honus Wagner," her friend told her. Given that the name on her card read "Henry Reccius," she let the matter rest.
It wasn't until months later, when she was deleting pictures from her camera, when she came upon a picture she had taken of the card. Googling "Henry Reccius," she found a reference to "the Mona Lisa of all trading cards." And then she noticed, in small print, the name "Hans Wagner" on the card.
"We didn't put two and two together," said Ms. Colvin, of Port Townsend, Wash.
What the Colvins found is considered Honus Wagner's rookie card, distributed between 1897 and 1899. Theirs is only the third one known to exist.
This month, the card will go up for bid from the Lelands auction house, billed on its website as "Honus Wagner: Rarest of All."
"It could sell for $50,000 very easily," said Michael Heffner, president of Lelands. "Conservatively, $25,000." The auction at Lelands.com begins May 18 and ends June 15.
Honus Wagner is best known for his starring role as a shortstop with the Pirates, when he won eight National League batting titles. But he entered professional baseball in Louisville, Ky., home to the Henry Reccius cigar company, which manufactured the card.
The Colvins' card is not the T-206 Honus Wagner card, which has fetched as much as $2.8 million. "This card is rarer, but it's also less famous," Mr. Heffner said. "People don't even know that such a card existed."
The card is significant not only because it is Wagner's first baseball card, but because it sheds light on his views on tobacco. As legend goes, Wagner did not believe in promoting tobacco consumption among children, and ordered his image pulled from the T-206 cards, manufactured by American Tobacco Co. As a result, fewer than 200 of the cards were distributed.
Other experts speculate that Wagner actually wanted the cards pulled because he wasn't being compensated for the use of his image.
The fact that Wagner allowed his image to be used on the Reccius card could indicate that he wasn't opposed to tobacco, Mr. Heffner said. Or possibly he just changed his mind.
Hearing that a Reccius card had been found, "I was amazed," Mr. Heffner said. The popularity of television shows such as "Antiques Roadshow" and "Storage Wars" has raised awareness of family treasures to the point where most of the good stuff has already been found, he said.
"Twenty-five years ago, I used to find stuff every day that was fresh and exciting and new," he said. "It's very rare these days to find the new discovery of fresh material."
Ms. Colvin is also thankful that she was able to find the card. Her jubilation after seeing the card's value online was followed by a sinking feeling: Where had she put it?
The couple had considered moving and had packed up some of their belongings. They also own a secondhand store and had moved items back and forth. She and her husband embarked on a frantic, five-hour search of their home without finding the card.
"I almost had a heart attack," she said. "I thought my mother-in-law, who left this for us, was turning over in her grave."
Her husband drove to check their store, where he found the card hidden in a display case. In theory, it could have been sold there without the Colvins realizing its value.
Her mother-in-law, Alice Colvin, had kept the card with a World War II ration book. Debra Colvin doesn't think that Alice Colvin realized its value because she never mentioned it to anyone in the family. Rather, Debra thinks that Alice kept it for its novelty and for the pro-union message written on the back of the card.
Alice Colvin was a treasure hunter, Debra Colvin said, hunting for vintage finds and even once winning a gold-plated metal detector in a contest.
"At auctions and garage sales, we found some pretty good stuff, but certainly nothing like this," Ms. Colvin said.
Anya Sostek: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1308.