Honest! Metro Detroit man scores Abraham Lincoln autograph in box of trading cards

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

The best "pull" Dan Black ever had out of a box of trading cards was a pretty darn good one: The famous Ken Griffey Jr. 1989 Upper Deck rookie card, numbered the first card in the set. Even better, it graded out a 10, or top shape, and recently earned him a nice $1,400 sale.

The Griffey card, though, now takes a back seat — like, way back — to Black's latest stroke of good luck.

Last month, opening up a hobby box of Historic Autographs' "Civil War: Divided" series, Black couldn't believe his eyes when staring him in the face was the signature of Abraham Lincoln.

West Bloomfield's Dan Black shows off his new prized possession, an Abraham Lincoln autograph.

Historic Autographs, based out of suburban Philadelphia, made just 800 boxes of the limited series, and in the 800 there were are four authentic Lincoln autographs, and Black pulled one of them.

"I was in total shock," said Black, 36, of West Bloomfield. "I was opening it at night, right before I went to bed. I was in shock the rest of the night. It was hard to get to bed."

Black has been into card collecting for a long time. He started around age 4 of 5, mostly with sports cards. Back then, the industry was white hot, but it eventually fell off big-time — around which time Black pretty much abandoned the hobby, too, probably for 10 years.

In recent years, at the urging of his dad, an avid collector who's into piecing together old football sets, Black got back into it, just as the industry has started exploding again — and this time, he's into more than just sports cards.

The "Civil War: Divided" series came out in December, and caught his attention. Black ended up recently purchasing three boxes, at more than $400 apiece. It's one of the most expensive products ever done by Historic Autographs, which also deals in sports memorabilia and has issued more than 40 Babe Ruth autographs over the years.

"I was a history teacher for many years, and I've been a sports-card, baseball guy since I was little," said Kevin Heffner, owner of Historic Autographs Company. "And I thought there was a void in the market for these types of products. You'll see Panini or Topps doing Americana types of things, but we found our home in doing non-sport and historical stuff.

"Our motto, we're a collector-driven company, and it makes me so happy to see collectors like (Dan) get the best hits ... pulling out a card you're gonna fall over for."

Heffner's company now is working on a POTUS series, due out sometime later this year and one that will be even more expensive than the Civil War series. The POTUS series will feature at least two presidential autographs, up through LBJ, in every box; only 360 will be made.

These aren't your typical boxes, like you see with sports cards, when a box may carry 20 individual packs. The Civil War box is essentially one pack, with 14 "base cards" (out of a set of 100), a coin or two minted during the Civil War era, and two or three inserts, including battlefield dirt — which, no, wasn't collected directly from a federally protected battlefield, like Gettysburg, but rather just outside the jurisdiction.

Soldiers "didn't color within the lines," Heffner said.

Then there are the autographs. That's what takes Heffner and his staff the most time putting together these limited-edition series, is acquiring the autographs, usually via auction houses. That's also what eventually sets the price of the boxes, depending on how much he had to front.

Dan Black's autograph of Abraham Lincoln.

Besides four Lincolns, the Civil War boxes also feature autographs of key battle figures like Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and William T. Sherman, and key figures like Frederick Douglass and presidents who served in the Union Army.

In one of Black's other boxes, he scored a Davis autograph, or rather his initials.

But the Lincoln, obviously, was the score (four score?), coming directly sealed, and authenticated by Beckett. In an added bonus, the autograph also includes the date, which is rare in "cuts" — or autographs cut from non-historic documents, for framing purposes.

The date on this one: July 1, 1864, during Lincoln's presidency (that makes a huge difference for a collector), less than a year before he was assassinated. 

In doing his research, Black reached out the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill. Daniel E. Worthington, director of papers, got right back to him, and immediately knew where the signature was from: a standard military commission, or paperwork for when an officer received a promotion. Lincoln usually signed his name "A. Lincoln," but on military commissions tended to used his full name. Worthington didn't know which officer Black's autograph was for, but again, given it was cut, there's not the likelihood it was anybody overly noteworthy.

Back then, presidents had to personally sign so many things. Heffner said about three presidents later, the auto-pen was created and put into use.

Black said appraisals he's had on the autograph put it anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000 — that's a whole lot of Lincolns — though he's in no hurry to sell.

"But I'm going to hold onto it for now," Black said.


Twitter: @tonypaul1984