STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's the reason that more than 100 people gathered at an auction house near Portland, Maine last night. They came to see a show of sorts. Serious bidders were there to take their shot at owning one of the oldest baseball cards in existence in America.
Maine Public Radio's Jay Field watched the bidding.
JAY FIELD, BYLINE: An hour before an auction, it's all about the browsing. The curious nudge their way past swords and canes, sarsaparilla bottles and a pile of 1950s-era baseball programs. They stop at the glass display case set apart in the middle of the room.
JASON CASAVANT: That's something else. Supposedly there's only two known to exist.
FIELD: Jason Casavant, who's from Biddeford, Maine, and wears a Boston Red Sox jacket, stares at a faded photograph from 1865. Nine men, players for the Brooklyn Atlantics amateur baseball club, huddle around their manager. They wear intense expressions and white jerseys. Casavant says he's a serious collector.
CASAVANT: Oh, they're speculating about a hundred thousand, right?
FIELD: Did you come with all cash or just checks?
CASAVANT: A hundred grand, that's a lot of money for a baseball card.
FIELD: But this isn't just any baseball card. Here's the story. Way up on the Canadian boarder, in a small Maine village called Baileyville, one day a man went antiquing. Lacey Gagne is with the Saco River Auction Company.
LACEY GAGNE: He was at a yard sale and he bought a photo album. And in the photo album was this picture.
FIELD: The man, who's asked to remain anonymous, took it to the auction house. Gagne says they began researching the card. A New Jersey company authenticated it and it turned out to be even rarer than first thought.
GAGNE: Well, we originally thought it was one of two, the other being at the Library of Congress. However, after further research we've learned that it's actually one of a kind and it was derived from a different negative.
FIELD: The Brooklyn Atlantics were a dominant amateur team that won the National Association of Baseball Players Championship in 1861, 1864 and 1865. The card is actually a photograph mounted on a card. In its book, "Baseball Americana," the Library of Congress says Brooklyn would hand them out to fans and opposing teams in a gesture of bravado.
FLOYD HARTFORD: Brooklyn Atlantics here. They say the world meets in Brooklyn - we'll find out. Somebody give me 50,000 to open it. Where do you want to do with it - 10,000, 25,000? I'll take 25,000.
FIELD: In no time at all, auctioneer Floyd Hartford had already gotten the price up to 50,000.
HARTFORD: Fifty-two, 55,000, 55,000, 5750...
FIELD: The bids then slowed, as Hartford narrowed in on the sale price.
HARTFORD: At 80,000 once, 8250...
(SOUNDBITE OF MURMURING)
(SOUNDBITE OF MURMURING)
HARTFORD: Eighty-one thousand? No? Sold, 80,000.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
FIELD: Auction house officials hustled the buyer, Jason LeBlanc, into a hallway off the main floor, where he met the media.
JASON LEBLANC: It's such a small thing that cost $80,000.
FIELD: It actually comes out to 92,000, with the auctioneer's commission. Leblanc, who's a financial consultant from Newburyport, Massachusetts, has bought memorabilia before and says he plans to use this as a financial investment to help his youngest son.
LEBLANC: Alex is the one we have that has some challenges in life. And we spend a lot of time in the hospital and, you know, a lot of time with therapists and doctors.
FIELD: For now, at least, LeBlanc says he plans to lock the card away in a safe deposit box. Though he quickly adds that he'll listen to offers from anyone who wants to pay two or three times what he paid.
For NPR News, I'm Jay Field. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.