Michael Rorrer said his great aunt once mentioned having comic books she would one day give him and his brother, but it was a passing remark made when they were boys and still into superheroes.
Ruby Wright gave no indication at the time and she died last February, leaving it unclear that her late husband's comic collection contained some of the most prized issues ever published. The 345 comics were slated to sell at auction in New York on Wednesday, and were expected to fetch more than $2 million.
Rorrer, 31, of Oxnard, California, discovered his great uncle Billy Wright's comics neatly stacked in a basement closet while helping clear out his great aunt's Martinsville, Virginia, home a few months after her death. He said he thought they were cool but didn't realize until months later how valuable they were.
Rorrer, who works as an operator at a plant where oil is separated from water, said he was telling a co-worker about Captain America No. 2, a 1941 issue in which the hero bursts in on Adolf Hitler, when the co-worker mused that it would be something if he had Action Comics No. 1, in which Superman makes his first appearance.
"I went home and was looking through some of them and there it was," said Rorrer, who then began researching the collection's value in earnest.
He found out that his great uncle had managed as a boy to buy a staggering array of what became the most valuable comic books ever published.
"This is just one of those collections that all the guys in the business think don't exist anymore," said Lon Allen, the managing director of comics for Heritage Auctions, the Dallas-based auction house overseeing the sale.
The collection includes 44 of The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide's list of top 100 issues from comics' golden age.
"The scope of this collection is, from a historian's perspective, dizzying," said J.C. Vaughn, associate publisher of Overstreet.
Once Rorrer realized how important the comics were, he called his mother, Lisa Hernandez, 54, of League City, Texas, who had divided them into two boxes. She sent one to him and kept the other one at her house for his brother. Rorrer and his mother then went through their boxes, checking comic after comic off the list.
"I couldn't believe what I had sitting there upstairs at my house," Rorrer said.
Hernandez, who works as an operator in a chemical plant, said it really hit her how valuable the comics were when she saw the look on Allen's face after he came to her house to look through the comics she had there.
"It was kind of hard to wrap my head around it," Allen said.
Rorrer said he only remembers his aunt making the fleeting reference to the comics when she learned that he and his brother, Jonathan Rorrer, now 29 of Houston, liked comic books. He said his great uncle, who died in 1994 at age 66, never mentioned his collection.
The Action Comics No. 1 which Wright bought when he was about 11 is expected to sell for about $325,000. A Detective Comics No. 27, the 1939 issue that features the first appearance of Batman, is expected to fetch about $475,000. And the Captain America No. 2 with Hitler on the cover that had caught Rorrer's eye? That's expected to bring in about $100,000.
Allen, who called the collection "jaw-dropping," noted that Wright "seemed to have a knack" for picking up the ones that would be the most valuable and managed to keep them in good condition. The core of his collection is from 1938 to 1941.
Hernandez said it makes sense that her uncle even as a boy had a discerning eye. The man who went to The College of William and Mary before having a long career as a chemical engineer for DuPont was smart, she said. And, she added, Wright was an only child whose mother kept most everything he had. She said that they found games from the 1930s that were still in their original boxes.
"There were some really hard to find books that were in really, really great condition," said Paul Litch, the primary grader at Certified Guaranty Company, an independent certification service for comic books.
"You can see it was a real collection," Litch said. "Someone really cared about these and kept them in good shape."