By Peter J. Nash
Feb. 3, 2012
It is the best-documented stolen artifact in baseball history, an 1879 contract between player Ezra Sutton and Harry Wright’s Boston Red Stockings that was donated to the New York Public Library in 1921 by the widow of Hall of Famer A. G. Spalding. The contract was the property of baseball pioneer Harry Wright and part of his personal archive that was bequeathed to the National League in 1896 as part of his last will and testament; It was documented by NYPL staff in correspondence to baseball historian Dr. Harold Seymour in the 1950s; It was referenced in newspaper articles published in The Sporting News and the Christian Science Monitor in 1922; It appeared in a public exhibition at the NYPL in 1922; It was documented in the original research notes of Dorothy Seymour Mills, who examined the contract in the NYPL (her notes are now housed at Cornell University); It is even confirmed by the current testimony of Mills today as she recalls holding the very same contract in her hands in the 1950s when it was part of volume two of the Harry Wright Correspondence Scrapbooks once housed in the famous A. G. Spalding Collection.
However, despite all of that documentation, that same contract currently appears on the website of Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas, Texas, as a lot in its upcoming April baseball auction in consignment from author and songwriter Seth Swirsky who is also selling the infamous “Buckner Ball” from the 1986 World Series and the original letter that banished “Shoeless” Joe Jackson from Baseball back in 1921. Heritage says the contract is “currently being reviewed by our catalogers,” and that a “written description will be available along with high resolution images soon.”
Hauls of Shame published an article in June of 2010, chronicling the travels of the Sutton contract with the headline, “The Mysterious Journey of Ezra Sutton’s Stolen 1879 Boston Baseball Contract: From Barry Halper to Sotheby’s to Hollywood. Next Stop Home at the New York Public Library?
The controversy over the thefts at the NYPL in the 1970s came to a head in July of 2009, when Hunt Auctions offered a “rare cache of letters written to Harry Wright” in Major League Baseball’s All-Star FanFest auction. Reporting by New York Times sportswriter Jack Curry and testimony from Dorothy Seymour Mills proved that several letters in the Hunt auction were footnoted in the work she and her husband performed on early baseball history and thus confirmed that the “rare cache” of documents belonged to the NYPL. The Federal Bureau of Investigation stepped in and commenced an official investigation into the purloined letters that were targeted as part of the 1970s heist at the Fifth Avenue Branch of the Library.
At the time of the 2009 auction, it was also determined by this writer that several additional items sold at Sotheby’s in 1999 by New York Yankees limited partner, Barry Halper, were also documented in Dorothy Seymour Mills’s work as property of the NYPL. One of those items was Ezra Sutton’s 1879 c0ntract, which was purchased at Sotheby’s by collector Swirsky.
Before it appeared in the Sotheby’s catalog in 1999, the last public appearance of the Sutton contract was in the background of a photo of Halper, published in the 1984 New York Yankees yearbook. The contract was pictured in a frame hanging on the wall next to Halper’s desk in his Livingston, NJ, home. The agreement was also mentioned as “the earliest known player contract” in a 1995 feature article about Halper in Sports Illustrated called, “The Sultan of Swap.”
Beverly Hills songwriter Seth Swirsky purchased the contract for almost $5,000 at Sotheby’s in 1999 and, for the past decade, featured the contract as part of his collection on his website, Seth.com. In July of 2009, this writer first informed Swirsky that the contract was property of the NYPL, and in June of 2010, Hauls of Shame sent Swirsky all of the documentation illustrating that the contract was once part of the Spalding Collection.
Swirsky spoke to Hauls of Shame off the record and declined public comment on his ownership of the contract for the article. When Swirsky was first informed of the title issues with his Sotheby’s purchase in July of 2009, he removed the contract from his website Seth.com. The scan of the contract on the Heritage website is the first public appearance of the document since Swirsky’s removal of it from his own website.
As of June, 2010, it was unclear if the FBI or US Attorney’s had contacted Swirsky and taken possession of the stolen document. FBI special agent Jim Margolin at that time could neither confirm or deny that the Bureau had taken possession of the contract. Sources indicate that in the course of its nearly three-year investigation the FBI has taken possession of several stolen items, including all of the letters offered by Hunt Auctions in 2009. The current offering of the consigned contract on the Heritage website confirms that, despite the overwhelming evidence showing that the contract is NYPL property, the FBI and US Attorney have not yet taken action to recover the document for the NYPL.
Barry Halper died in 2005, and when the controversy over the sale of Harry Wright’s letters arose during the 2009 MLB sale, the Boston Herald contacted Halper associate and lead consultant for the 1999 Halper sale, Rob Lifson, president of Robert Edward Auctions, and asked him where Halper had acquired the stolen 1879 contract of Ezra Sutton. Lifson told Herald reporter, Dave Wedge, that he recalled Halper had acquired it in the “mid-1970s” from pioneer dealer Goodwin Goldfaden. In the summer of 2010 Hauls of Shame interviewed Goldfaden, who stated that he did not recall ever selling Halper the contract that was reported to have been the earliest baseball contract known to exist. Goldfaden also confirmed that Halper was one of his regular customers. Goldfaden denied comment on whether he had been questioned by FBI agents. Goldfaden passed away last month at the age of ninety-seven.
In the summer of 2009, when it was confirmed that Hunt Auctions was selling Harry Wright’s stolen NYPL letters, chatter in the baseball collecting community focused on long-standing hobby rumors that auctioneer Rob Lifson had at one time been arrested for stealing rare items from the NYPL and that collector Barry Halper, a long-time customer and associate of Lifson’s, had acquired many of the stolen items in his collection from Lifson. In the past, one high placed hobby executive even went so far as to suggest that Halper had to post bail for Lifson after he was apprehended. Adding to the suspicions about Lifson’s role in the thefts were the documented sales of many other items stolen from the NYPL collection that appeared in sales of Robert Edward Auctions and in the 1999 Halper sale at Sotheby’s, in which Lifson was Halper’s hand-picked lead consultant for the $20 million auction extravaganza.
Lifson made overtures to several in the hobby to suppress public mention of his apprehension at the NYPL with one of them being, Leon Luckey, the moderator of Internet collector forum Net54. Luckey had made it known that he resented Lifson’s public persona as a hobby crusader and he privately told others that he heard Lifson was responsible for the NYPL thefts. It wasn’t until Luckey received cease and desist letters from Lifson’s attorney that he instituted a hands-off policy in regard to Lifson on his forum. Luckey confirmed this to one former Net54 member when he told him, “I want to know who the heck stole them because I have a real good feeling of who I think it is-and I had to sign a cease and desist order and I can’t talk about him.” He also told the former member, “One of the suspects is the White Knight. There is certainly an auctioneer or a functioneer, I don’t want to be specific, that portrays himself above reproach and I don’t think anybody is above reproach.” While Luckey was pointing the finger at Lifson and his alleged wrongdoing, he was carrying his own baggage with a past conviction on drug-related charges. In the past, Luckey, himself, was a target for another former Net54 member, Scott Elkins, who attacked Luckey on his own forum stating that Luckey was an “ex-felon” and “current drug dealer” without offering any supporting evidence.
One current Net54 member had this to say about the Luckey-Lifson relationship, “It’s Conditional love… For $500 a month anyone can buy LL’s board protection. The hypocrite and cheap version of a hobby godfather.” The board member asked that he be quoted anonymously for fear of being banned by Luckey.
After being sent the cease and desist order, Lifson’s auction house has since become one of Luckey’s regular advertisers on Net54, where other members also freely post images of stolen NYPL items in their possession. One collector named Ken Wirt regularly posts images of a rare cabinet photo of baseball pioneer Alexander Joy Cartwright, that is listed on the NYPLs “Missing List.” The card was purchased in Lifson’s 2007 auction of the remainder of Barry Halper’s collection and the exact same photo is credited in numerous baseball reference books to the NYPLs Spalding Collection. In his auction description, Lifson even described the photo as “the only traditional cabinet card photo of Cartwright that we have ever seen or heard of.” He added, “It is possible it is unique.” Another Net54 member, Corey Shanus, publicly displayed several rare letters stolen from the NYPL Knickerbocker Club Scrapbooks in a coffee-table baseball book published by the Smithsonian and, yet another member, Barry Sloate, has been linked to other stolen NYPL artifacts including additional Knickerbocker documents, score-sheets from the 1850s and a rare pamphlet from the 1852 Eagle Ball Club of New York City.
As the controversy intensified in the summer of 2009, speculation about Lifson’s alleged role in the heist increased as well. In response, Lifson’s friend, New York Daily News writer, Michael O’Keeffe, provided a forum for Lifson to address the rumor and innuendo. In 2004, Lifson was a primary source for O’Keeffe’s book, The Card,which featured an entire chapter about Lifson entitled “A White Knight,” portraying Lifson as one of the hobby’s good guys who “wages a daily battle for respectability, fighting against the evils that lurk within the hobby.” O’Keeffe also wrote, “There is too much graft, too much fraud, too much money being changed in too few hands to think otherwise. Lifson put what is going on in simple terms. ‘It’s called stealing,’ he said.”
In O’Keeffe’s article from July of 2009, Lifson addressed the issue of his own involvement in the NYPL thefts stating, “I want to set the record straight regarding untrue accusations promoted (via rumor and innuendo) by a very few individuals who wish to attempt to hurt my reputation by suggesting that I am responsible in any way for the theft of any of the missing items that have been stolen over the years from the New York Public Library. It’s simply not true.”
At the time he published Lifson’s statement O’Keeffe, an apparently biased Lifson supporter, defended the auctioneer and revealed to this writer his thoughts on the alleged thefts. O’Keeffe was dismissive of the claims made against Lifson and said, “On one level, I look at it, I guess, as, so what?” He further stated, “We all did stupid things back in the day,” and continued saying, “When you’re a kid you do stupid things, so I would hate for someone to dig up something I did when I was seventeen, even with the caveat I think you mentioned yesterday, which is a legitimate point, that Rob (Lifson) says that he was the boy genius of memorabilia even in 1979. Well, if he was also attempting to steal stuff or doing stupid things at the library (NYPL) , yeah, then that’s relevant, but a lot of water is under the bridge after that.” (Click here for: OKeeffe Audio 1 ) At the time O’Keeffe made this statement, Lifson was actively promoting sales of his book on the REA website.
But then in December of 2010, Lifson confessed to Sports Illustrated that he had stolen items from the New York Public Library and that he’d been caught. The article claimed that Lifson told SI.com: “Thirty two years ago, he (Lifson) says, he was a precocious minor with too much money and freedom; one day while doing research at the library, high on a mix of drugs and alcohol, he secreted two photographs under a piece of cardboard attached to the outside of his briefcase. He was caught before he could leave the room.”
Back in 1979, Time Magazine reporter David Aikman wrote about a theft at the NYPL in which a “baseball card thief was caught when a guard saw him slipping the cards into a bubble gum box taped to his briefcase.” The culprit, according to Aikman’s original notes, was a nineteen year-old college student who also had substantial cash on his person when he was apprehended and claimed to have made that money selling baseball cards in just one day. At the time Lifson was a nineteen year-old college student at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and was considered one of the top dealers in the country for rare 19th century baseball items and cards. (Lifson’s company website states that, “By 1973, Lifson was one of the most active dealers in the country and already recognized as the most knowledgeable vintage card scholars in the field.”) By 1979, he was also the primary dealer supplying Barry Halper. Time reported that, when apprehended, the thief “had $5,500 in cash on him as well as a cache of smiling infielders.” In the article, Richard Couper, the president and CEO of the NYPL, described budget woes and security deficiencies at the Fifth Avenue Branch. Couper said, “The swipers here know what they are doing. We don’t even have enough money to inventory the materials.”
This writer has been investigating the NYPL thefts and Lifson’s alleged involvement in the crimes for the past fifteen years and can confirm that in another confession made by Lifson in 2002, the auctioneer contradicted the accounts he most recently gave to the New York Daily News and SI.com in 2009. In a phone conversation in 2002, (Click here for: Audio of Lifson Confession ) Lifson told this writer:
“It’s really a total non-issue, you know, I mean literally nothing, you know. I can even tell you what it is, I’m not embarassed, well, everybody can make a mistake. I, as a kid, went in there (the NY Public Library) you know to see the collection (Spalding Collection) and do check listing and stuff and I was so overwhelmed with what I saw, there I was, stoned, ok, and I was a kid, and I took a CDV, and you know they have incredible security, ya know, they saw me , and they saw me palm a CDV and the second I left, they just stopped me and took it away and you know, I got in trouble.”
Lifson expanded on the incident adding,” It wasn’t premeditated it was just a stupid, stupid dumb thing done as a kid, you know 20 some odd years ago when I was on.. When I was high, ya know. I signed in with my real name and everything and I didn’t know what I was going to see, ya know, and there I just made a mistake and I’ll not spend any time apologizing for it ya know, decades later. It’s not a concern, anybody, anybody who wants to talk to me about that I’m happy to talk to ‘em. Anybody who, who would be so small-minded as to hold that against me, fine, that’s, they can do that, you know, ah. When it comes to ethics and , ya know ah, ah, doing the right thing, I, I hold myself to a much higher standard than anybody else in this field.” Lifson again stressed that the incident happened when he was a “young kid” and also added, “Hey, people make mistakes, that’s why they’re called people, ya know and when you talk about something done as a teenager, ya know, as a kid, you know, holy Jesus, if anybody would hold that against me, ya know, God…”
When asked about the allegations that he was supplying Barry Halper with stolen materials from the NYPL for years and that Halper had to post bail when he was apprehended, Lifson stated the claims were, “totally fabricated, absurd.”
While Lifson stressed in his confession that he was just “a kid” when apprehended at the NYPL, he was a 19 year-old Ivy Leaguer who had three years earlier, at the age of sixteen, purchased the collection of pioneer collector Dr. Lawrence Kurzrok from his widow, Estelle, for “over $20,000.” Recently Lifson called that acquisition “probably the largest vintage baseball card deal in the history of collecting at the time in terms of dollars.” Kurzroc lived at 9 East 96th St. in Manhattan and Lifson was known to visit him on several occasions. By his own account in recent interviews Lifson says he, “Did a lot of dealing with Dr. Kurzrok for many years.”
Living in Rydal, PA, Lifson travelled the eastern seaboard regularly in his role as collector and dealer and was known to run ads soliciting materials in a wide range of publications including Ebony and Popular Mechanics. In some of his advertisements Lifson made the claim that he had, “Unlimited capital available for my wants.” Lifson’s father, Kalman, and his two brothers, Nathan Lifson and Burton Lifson, were linked to a “Waffle Iron” fortune as principals of the Dominion Electrical Manufacturing Company. Author William George says the company was known as the “world’s largest independent appliance manufacturer” by the time the Lifson family was bought out of the business in 1959. Lifson’s father, a Harvard educated attorney, also later became the president of CW Electronics Corporation, a world leader in electronic components. Hobby veteran, Ted Taylor, was like a mentor to Lifson when he was a teen and was witness to the Lifson’s wealth. Taylor told us, ” Rob was a very enthusiastic kid bordering on annoying and he always had loads of cash. It was amazing. His house was huge, too, in a very exclusive neighborhood. At that young age he just loved the rare 19th century material and would show it off at the early Philadelphia card shows.”
To date, the NYPL thefts have remained an enigma despite significant circumstantial evidence linking both Halper and Lifson to the sales of specific items missing from the Spalding Collection, including Harry Wright’s letters, documents from the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club and rare and valuable 19th century photographs including CDVs like the one Lifson confessed to stealing. One CDV currently on the NYPLs “Missing List” (along with one hundred other photos) is an 1870 image of A. G. Spalding’s Forest City team. There are only four examples known to exist, and they have sold at auction for upwards of $20,000. One of them is likely the NYPLs donated copy.
After Halper’s death in 2005, his widow consigned to Lifson’s auction items that constituted a small collection found in his home that REA described as personal items with sentimental value. Included in that group were two photographs stolen fron the Boston Public Library’s McGreevy Collection and several stolen photographs from the NYPL including portraits of Harry Wright, Alexander Cartwright and Andrew Peck. The image of Peck was a CDV that had the NYPL ownership stamp defaced to conceal the mark. Both photos from the BPL were recovered after they were reported by this writer and the Peck CDV was also recovered by the NYPL. REA, however, ended up selling the other portraits that appeared on the NYPL “Missing List.”
A big challenge for investigators is that Halper passed away in 2005 so is unavailable to be interviewed. However, an interview conducted by Hauls of Shame with a well-respected and prominent figure in the baseball community has finally shed some new light on the thefts that occurred decades ago. The source spoke with Hauls of Shame candidly about personal knowledge of the thefts but requested that we not quote or identify our source in any article we would publish. The source disclosed to us that in the early 1980s Barry Halper was questioned by a family member of the source as to what the origins were of some rare items Halper had shown him. Said the source, “Barry bragged to (my relative) that a lot of his collection came from that (the New York Public Library).” The source continued, “Barry said it was there for the taking and Barry was quite proud of it. (My relative) absolutely could not tolerate it.” We asked the source to confirm that the thefts were from the NYPL and the source stated, “Yes, the New York Public Library, he used to talk about how he did it.” When asked to delve further into details the source stated, “These were conversations he and (my relative) had, and obviously, (my relative) and I talked about it, but I can’t remember that Barry himself, but he also hired other people to do it and told them and how to go do this, so it was just something that once we knew, that was the end of the relationship (with Halper). It always amazes me because he was trading on he was always bigger than life, and people just let him get away with it and I just couldn’t believe it.”
We asked if the source had ever reported this information to anyone, and the source responded in the positive, without noting exactly who had been informed.” “It always amazed me that Barry continued to do what he did and never got-no one ever stopped him. Anything that you could tell me about Barry, would not surprise me, because he was totally, he had no morals at all on that stuff, it was just his for the taking he felt. And there wasn’t anything, and anyone who would come after him when, as I say (my relative) just walked away , now he did report it but Barry always, you know, he figured his money was more important and he could just buy anybody off.” This anonymous source also indicated that the only knowledge the source possessed of Halper’s part as the mastermind of the NYPL thefts was Halper himself, since the source was “without any proof other than Barry telling (my relative).”
Added to the revelation about Halper implicating himself is the direct evidence of Halper’s ownership and sale of so many items stolen from the NYPLs Spalding Collection. In 1977 Halper showed Bill Madden of The Sporting News, what Madden referred to as Harry Wright’s “collection of written correspondence.” Keeping the letters in “plastic covered pages of yet another scrapbook,” Halper showed off specific letters that are believed to be missing from the NYPL Collection. In fact, in addition to the 1879 Ezra Sutton contract, three entire scrapbook volumes 1, 3 and 4 of the Wright Correspondence Collection went missing sometime before 1983. Each volume is estimated to have housed at least five hundred documents each as compared to the second volume which is still part of the collection, though appears to have been cherry-picked of the Sutton contract and other assorted documents. Halper’s 1999 sale included additional items originating from NYPLs Wright scrapbooks and also documented in the original notes of Dorothy Seymour Mills housed at Cornell. The most striking example is the letter sent to Wright in 1875 awarding the Boston team the championship pennant. Mills’ original notes document that this letter was pasted into “volume 1, page 21,” but it appeared as lot 206 in the Sotheby’s 1999 catalog for the Halper sale. Halper sold the letter, just one of the approximately 1,500 missing from the NYPL, for $14,950. The auction also featured many other items originating from the NYPL including documents and photographs related to Wright, Henry Chadwick and the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club.
The 1879 Ezra Sutton contract appearing on the Heritage website as a consignment from Seth Swirsky is further proof linking Halper to the thefts. When made aware of the Heritage offering Dorothy Seymour Mills responded with this comment: “I don’t know how much clearer the record can be that the Ezra Sutton contract is owned by the NYPL. Surely the notes I took on it, which you found in my own handwriting, prove that it was part of the NYPL collection back in the 1950s, when Seymour and I were working on the first volume of our Baseball series for Oxford University Press.”
Chris Ivy, the Director of Sports Auctions at Heritage, did not return a call for comment. Heritage is offering another item believed to be NYPL property and originating from the Harry Wright scrapbooks, volume 3. It is an 1884 telegram addressed to Wright when he was manager of the Philadelphia Nationals.
Seth Swirsky did not return calls for comment to explain why he consigned the contract to Heritage while he had knowledge of the supporting evidence showing it is NYPL property and was aware of the Hauls of Shame article in June of 2010. It is unclear why Swirsky has not returned the contract to the library, or why he has declined to pursue Sotheby’s or the Halper Estate for restitution. Swirsky idolized Halper while he was living and once stated on a collector forum, “Barry was always there to help collectors and the collecting community. No derision should come this great man’s way.” He added, “Thank God for Barry Halper.”
The legacy of Halper, the once revered founding father of baseball collecting, has also been tarnished by multiple instances of his selling the Baseball Hall of Fame and MLB counterfeit artifacts including what he claimed was “Shoeless Joe” Jackson’s 1919 Black Sox jersey. Recently, the once prominent “Barry Halper Gallery” at the Hall of Fame appears to have been removed and replaced by a “Learning Center.”
When contacted for the library’s reaction to the offering of the Sutton contract, Angela Montefinise, NYPLs Director of Public Relations declined comment because of “the on-going investigation.” Special agent Jim Margolin from the FBI’s New York press office also stated he could not comment on the contract specifically, but did confirm that the FBI investigation into the NYPL thefts was “active and on-going.”
New York Yankees front-office officials, Randy Levine and Lon Trost, did not respond to our inquiry for comment about Halper, the deceased limited partner, whose ownership interest was passed on to his widow, Sharon Halper. As stated on the NYPL website the Yankees and the library have had a good relationship as, “The Yankees have partnered with the Library to help kids all over this great city, renovating the children’s room at the Bronx Library Center, sponsoring the Library’s Summer Reading program, and underwriting the purchase of thousands of books for Bronx libraries.”
Dorothy Seymour Mills told us from her home in Florida, “It’s hard to believe that the amount of readily available proof of Halper’s thefts, including his own confession, has never resulted in the NYPL’s suing his estate or any auction houses for prompt return of the library’s property. The Sutton contract obviously belongs to baseball posterity, with the NYPL as its overseer and protector, not to individual collectors or auction houses that must have made huge sums out of it and are still trying to sell it to unsuspecting fans.”
Pam Guzzi, the great-great granddaughter of the original owner of the Sutton contract, Hall of Famer Harry Wright, was shocked when she got the news that the contract had not yet been returned to the library and was again being sold. Said Guzzi, “It appears painfully obvious that the contract between Ezra Sutton and my great-great grandfather, Harry Wright, was among the articles belonging to, and subsequently stolen from, the New York Public Library. It is incredulous to me, that this document now appears on the auction block and I hope and pray and plead with the “powers that be” that the document be removed and returned to the NYPL. Harry Wright was known as a gentleman, a man of honesty and with great integrity and sense of fairness and I know with every fiber of my being that he would detest what has become of the baseball collecting “hobby” world. And I use the term, “hobby” very loosely, as I see it more as a money making scheme than a hobby. I hope that the NYPL and the FBI will bring these items back home to the Library where they belong.”
Guzzi, the direct descendant of the man known as the “Father of Professional Baseball” also commented on the standards of the memorabilia industry, stating, “I hope that new, stronger regulations will be put in place within the collecting world to provide stricter regulations regarding authentication of historical documents and inspection of such items to ensure that none are determined as stolen property. It is sickening that items that have been so well documented as stolen are somehow still able to make their way to the auction block and no one is being held accountable.”
UPDATE (Monday Feb. 6): FBI Pays Visit to NYPL; Heritage Will Withdraw Rare Stolen 1879 Contract: Hauls of Shame has learned that the FBI visited the New York Public Library on Friday in relation to the Spalding Collection investigation. It was not clear whether that visit was directly related to Heritage Auction Galleries’ posting of the stolen Sutton contract on their auction website. Also, late Friday, Chris Ivy, of Heritage, responded to Hauls of Shame’s inquiry, and on Sunday afternoon issued this statement: “The Ezra Sutton contract will not be included in the auction and we are going to work to have the piece donated to the NYPL on behalf of Seth Swirsky.” Ivy also stated the FBI had not contacted Heritage and also added that, “No decision has been made regarding the (Harry Wright) telegram.”