The difference? The cards given to Bush by the Topps trading card company have a thick, clear coating on the front, while others floating around do not.
Given their scarcity, both versions likely will remain among the most valuable modern-day cards, said Joe Orlando, president of Professional Sports Authenticator in Santa Ana, Calif. Yet those who have purchased uncoated cards over the years - one sold last month for $3,367 - believing that they got one of 100 cards given to the president may feel a bit duped.
The discrepancy came to light when former White House chief of staff and avid baseball card collector John H. Sununu sent some of the 11 cards he was given by the president to Orlando's company to be graded. Surprised to see the thick coating on each card, experts initially told Sununu his cards weren't produced by Topps.
"I said, now, wait a minute, I've got a fairly good provenance," Sununu recalled Tuesday.
Chagrined, Sununu sent off a copy of the note Bush wrote him accompanying the cards and asked Bush's office to send another card from the president's stash and a letter verifying its authenticity. He also called former Topps CEO Arthur Shorin who, immediately after presenting the cards to Bush in 1990, traded the president three of his own cards for one autographed Bush card.
Shorin confirmed to the authentication company that his card, too, had the glossy coating. And together with Sununu's cards, it was enough for the company to conclude not only that more than 100 cards were produced, but that those given to the president differed from the others in circulation.
Orlando said it's not uncommon for cards to "escape" from manufacturing facilities under a variety of circumstances. In this case, he was told by a reputable dealer that a former Topps employee sold 70 of the uncoated cards after leaving the company.
"For the first time ever, this has been documented and studied, and it's clear that there are two different versions. That's meaningful for collectors," he said. "But it's not like one is real and one is not real. They're both real."
Sununu, a former governor of New Hampshire, was Bush's chief of staff when Shorin called and proposed printing cards commemorating Bush's time as captain of the Yale baseball team. The president didn't want a commercial venture, so he suggested having the company print just 100 cards for the White House, Sununu said.
Sununu estimates he has all but 50 of the cards produced by the two major companies between 1948 and 1964, and spends a lot of time looking to fill the gaps. About two years ago, he noticed the Bush cards popping up on eBay and other auction sites. That made him a bit suspicious, and prompted him to send his own cards off to be graded.
"There was an awfully large number of them, and I knew that nobody that George Herbert Walker Bush gave a baseball card to would sell it," he said. "You'd have to kill me to get these out of my cold hands."