When Michael Rorrer found 345 comic books neatly stacked in a basement closet as he cleaned out his great-aunt's Virginia home after her death, he thought they were cool but didn't think much about their value.
He later discovered that his late great-uncle Billy Wright had managed to assemble a remarkable comic book collection that included some of the most prized issues ever published, and kept them in good condition. And, on Wednesday, the bulk of Wright's collection sold for about $3.5 million.
Lon Allen, managing director of comics for Dallas-based Heritage Auctions, said Wright's 1939 copy of Detective Comics No. 27 that features the debut of Batman got the top bid at a New York City auction Wednesday. It sold for about $523,000, including a buyer's premium.
Action Comics No. 1, a 1938 issue featuring the first appearance of Superman, sold for about $299,000. And Batman No. 1 from 1940 sold for about $275,000.
"This is just one of those collections that all the guys in the business think don't exist anymore," Allen said.
The collection includes 44 of The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide's list of top 100 issues from the Golden Age of comic books: the late 1930s to the late ’40s.
"The scope of this collection is, from a historian's perspective, dizzying," said J.C. Vaughn, associate publisher of Overstreet.
Rorrer, 31, of Oxnard, Calif., found the comics in his great-aunt Ruby Wright's Martinsville, Va., home a few months after her death last February. His mother, Lisa Hernandez, 54, of League City, Texas, then divided the comics into two boxes — one for him and one for his younger brother.
After his box arrived in California in the fall, Rorrer mentioned the collection to a coworker, telling him about seeing a Captain America No. 2, a 1941 issue in which the hero bursts in on Adolf Hitler. Rorrer, who works at a plant where oil is separated from water, said 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 that his great-uncle had managed as a boy to buy a staggering array of what became the most valuable comic books ever published.
Once Rorrer realized how important the comics were, he called his mother, who still had the box for his brother at her house. He 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 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 a 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.
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. 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.