Breaking News

By Peter J. Nash

August 28, 2012

Babe Ruth's last will and testament has finally made its way back to the NYC courthouse it was stolen from.

A little over two years ago, and The New York Post reported that the last will and testament of the “Sultan of Swat” was missing from the New York City courthouse where it was originally filed in 1948. But thanks to a court action brought by the New York State Attorney General’s office against hobby veteran Mark Lewis, the last document ever signed by Babe Ruth is back where it belongs.

Surrogate’s Court archivist, Kim Sulik, recently confirmed that the document had been returned to the Court, however, it was only this week that obtained a copy of the Court’s decision in the State of New York vs. Mark Lewis, which was filed earlier this year at the New York County Clerk’s office.  The original action was filed against Lewis by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo when he was still Attorney General.

Judge Marilyn Sugarman, appointed special referee in the case, said in her decision, “Although no evidence was presented with respect to whether, in fact, it was Mr. Lewis who removed the last will and testament of George Herman “Babe” Ruth, again, there was sufficient evidence that it is currently in his possession.”   Lewis was ordered to return the stolen document within thirty days and complied with the Court’s order.

Chief Clerk, Diana Sanabria, released this statement for “I’m thrilled to have the will back at Surrogate’s Court, and I’d like to thank Mr. Lewis for returning it to its rightful place. Even though we say the will belongs to Surrogate’s Court, it, as well as our other records, really belong to the people of the state of New York. When documents go missing from government archives, then everyone loses out on the chance to have access to our shared history.”

The theft of the will dates back to the 1990s as part of a string of heists of rare Baseball Hall of Famer signatures found on a myriad of wills and legal documents.  An investigation of those thefts led to the conviction of a Boston Court officer named Joe Schnabel who admitted to investigators lifting and peddling the wills of baseball legends including “Old Hoss” Radbourn, George Wright, Hugh Duffy, Tommy Connolly, Tom Yawkey, Ned Hanlon and the now recovered will of Babe Ruth.  Schnabel pleaded guilty to only two counts of larceny and was sentenced to one year of probation with a fine of $5,000.

Despite that conviction in 1999, still missing from court house files all over the country are the wills of other Hall of Famers including Jimmy Collins, Joe McCarthy, Jesse Burkett, Jack Chesbro, James O’Rourke, Roger Connor, John J. Evers, Tommy McCarthy, Tim Keefe, Harry Wright and even Jackie Robinson.

When he was interviewed two years ago by, Mark Lewis said, “Thirteen years ago I bought Jackie Robinson’s will at the National Sports Collectors convention for $500.”  The Robinson will has been missing from a Stamford, CT, courthouse for at least sixteen years. When asked, Lewis couldn’t recall the name of the person that he purchased the stolen Robinson will from. Lewis did, however, claim to remember who he purchased the 1948 Ruth will from for $30,000. “I bought it from Babe Ruth’s lawyer’s grandson, who was named Lowenstein,” said Lewis.

This shaky Babe Ruth signature is found on his last will and testament that has been returned to the NY Surrogates Court.

The attorney who drafted the Babe’s 1948 will was named Melvin G. Lowenstein, who along with co-executor Paul Carey II was in charge of the Ruth estate.  When we contacted the Lowenstein family two years ago, Lowenstein’s son, Peter, also an attorney, stated that no one in his family ever had in their possession, or ever sold, Babe Ruth’s 1948 last will and testament. Lowenstein said, “My father died in 1971 and he would have never had an original copy of Ruth’s will in his file.  The only item of note that was retained by the firm was the meeting minutes book for the Babe Ruth Foundation, which has Babe Ruth’s signature. No one ever had Babe Ruth’s will, and no one in my family ever sold a will.”

Mark Lewis (left), founded Card Prices Update in the 1980s and battled Dr. James Beckett (right) and his attorney, Herman Kaufman (center) in hobby-related litigation that was decided by the same New York Supreme Court that ruled on Babe Ruth's will.

In a 2001 New York Times article Richard Sandomir reported that Lewis “bought the 1948 will (in 1999) for $30,000 from the grandson of one of Ruth’s lawyers.” In 2001 authentication company Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) published an article featuring the Mark Lewis collection of Babe Ruth artifacts and quoted Lewis as saying: “How can these items be for sale? That’s a good question. Sometimes I don’t understand it myself. This (will) was purchased from the grandson of Babe Ruth’s attorney. After the attorney passed away, the family was going through all of his possessions (and) lo and behold Babe Ruth’s last will and testament appeared.” The article published on the PSA website also revealed that Lewis claimed he had “verified the will by going to Chambers St. in New York City and compared it with the microfilm that was filed.” Said Lewis, “This is it. There are no others.”

Despite Lewis’ claims, Detective Steven Blair of the Boston Police Department confirmed last year  that the will of Babe Ruth was on a 1999 list of seventeen documents that the will-thief, Joe Schnabel, admitted to taking.  Original stolen wills and fragments cut from those original documents have surfaced in the hobby for the past fifteen years.

(Top) A 1999 SCD article about the missing Radbourn will. (Bottom) The signature of "Old Hoss" Radbourn from his last will and testament.

MastroNet offered the stolen will of Ned Hanlon in 2000 and dealer and PSA authenticator, Kevin Keating, offered for sale a Hanlon signature cut from legal documents associated with his will.  Keating also recently offered for $6,500 a document signed by George Wright that was removed from the probate file of his wife Abby Wright.  Joe Schnabel had already admitted to stealing the wills and accompanying probate documents of Abby and George Wright, which were discovered being sold by Lelands auction house.  Boston title examiner Michael Bowlby was the first person to determine the wills were stolen in October of 1998, and notified the Register of Deeds at the Suffolk County Probate Court, Richard Iannella.

An FBI probe ensued and sources indicate that investigators also questioned collector Barry Halper to see if he knew of any other wills in the marketplace.  Halper denied having knowledge of any stolen wills but it is clear that he lied to investigators.  In a 1982 interview with Sports Illustrated, Halper revealed that he owned the last will and testament of Hall of Famer Tommy McCarthy, which was stolen from the probate court in Boston and still in his possession at the time he was questioned.

One of the most valuable wills sold by Schnabel through his fence, New Jersey memorabilia dealer, Jack Heir, was an 1895 document signed by Boston pitcher “Old Hoss” Radbourn, which changed hands for close to $20,000.  That document has also been recovered and is currently safe and sound at the McClean County Probate Court in Illinois.

Another important document constituting the codicil of the  last will and testament of the “Father of Professional Baseball,” Harry Wright, was stolen from the Philadelphia probate court and in 1998 was sold by Hunt Auctions of Exton, PA.  Hunt placed a pre-auction estimate on the document at “$6,000-$8,000.”  The Wright will is still missing as are thousands of other Wright related documents stolen from the New York Public Library and the focus of another FBI investigation.

The recent court documents filed with the New York County clerk indicate that Mark Lewis did not appear in court to contest New York State’s claim that the Babe Ruth will was the property of the Surrogate’s Court.

When told of the New York Attorney General’s recovery of her father’s last will and testament, the Babe’s daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens said, “I am so glad that they got that back, I just can’t believe someone would steal Daddy’s will.”

The Babe’s granddaughter, Linda Ruth Tosetti, was also pleased with the news of the recovery and told us, “I am ecstatic that justice was done and my grandfather Babe Ruth’s will was returned to the Surrogate Court of New York. I thank Hon. Marilyn Sugarman for her wisdom and judgment in this matter. I also want to thank the Attorney General of New York State, and Governor Andrew Cuomo for their persistence and the FBI for their due diligence.  I have hope that this will set a president for future hearings on the theft of other treasures.”

One of the other stolen treasures that is still missing from the court house files is the Babe’s 1925 separation from his first wife.  That document was also owned by Barry Halper,  but it appears to have vanished sometime before the 1999 Sotheby’s sale of the deceased Yankee limited partner’s collection.

Although Mark Lewis has also admitted to once owning the stolen will of Jackie Robinson, there have been no formal attempts made to recover the will of the Brooklyn Dodger who broke baseball’s color barrier.

By Peter J. Nash

August 15, 2012

This NYPL stamp was revealed on the reverse of the Red Stocking trade card offered at auction.

-The Feds confiscated a circa 1869-70 Red Stockings Peck & Snyder trade card (estimated to be worth $20,000 to $40.000) from Legendary Auctions’ sale at the National in Baltimore. It was examined after it was reported that the reverse of the card exhibited a faint remnant of a New York Public Library stamp as well as evidence of a faint numeral handwritten in the corner denoting its storage box number at the Fifth Ave. branch of the library.

(Correction: Legendary Auctions has informed us that the card was not confiscated.  It was sent back to the consignor who will deal directly with the authorities regarding the return to the library.)

-Jimmy Spence actually assisted as the authorities took time off scrutinizing his work to use JSAs spectrograph contraption to confirm that the NYPL stamp was on the reverse, as it reportedly “lit up” under the lights (see image of stamp discovered on reverse).

So far, this is the second Red Stocking trade card that the FBI has recovered for the NYPL.  Another was recovered a few years ago that had no evidence of a stamp on the back of the card. That card was returned, as well as a CDV of sporting goods king Andrew Peck and a cabinet card of Harry Wright (both showing traces of vandalized NYPL stamps on the reverse, as well as the handwritten box number numerals.)

-Angela Montefinise, a spokesperson for the NYPL, told us this about the recovery:  ”Our ultimate goal is to recover all of our missing items – whether they are stamped or not – and make them available to our patrons. We have cooperated fully with the FBI and have done everything possible to help investigators identify those items that belong to The New York Public Library. We have complete faith in them, and know they are aggressively pursuing every lead.”

The NYPL stamp was faintly visible on the reverse of the Red Stocking trade card and was exposed under JSAs machinery (inset). The stamp was originally placed on the center area of the card.

-Dr. Harold Seymour and Dorothy Seymour Mills’ classic, Baseball: The Early Years in (Oxford, 1960) proves there is at least one more Reds trade card missing as that example was documented as an illustration in the ground-breaking book of baseball scholarship.  The card has imperfections which can help identify it as NYPL property beyond just the ownership stamp.  Anyone seen this one?

WANTED BY THE FBI: This 1869 Red Stocking trade card was stolen from the NYPL and is still missing. It appeared in Seymour's 1960 book with a credit to the Spalding Collection.

-Al Reach is in the news again. Collectors trying to hold onto their stolen treasures from The NYPL’s Spalding Collection appeared to be elated when the FBI returned a cabinet card of Al Reach to an eBay seller after it was turned over last year for analysis.

The Al Reach cabinet (inset) bears a number "3" written on its reverse just like all of the other cards still housed in the Spalding Collection's box 3. The Reach cabinet is also documented on NYPL records as being stored in box 3 and is the only such cabinet card of reach known to exist.

The rare cabinet card featuring a portrait of Reach is the only example known to exist and clearly has a handwritten numeral “3″ written in the upper left corner, designating that it was once stored in NYPL box number 3 of the famous Spalding Collection.  As illustrated in the above photo the Reach cabinet is marked exactly like all of the other cards currently housed in NYPL Spalding box number three.  Because the mount of the card was so dark, it appears that NYPL never stamped the card which is also documented on the original 1922 inventory of the collection. Although the Reach card was returned to the eBay seller and sold for over $1,300, the card will be recovered by the FBI on behalf of the library.  Stay tuned for more information on this additional recovery.

Heritage Tweeted an image of this photo featuring an oval mark that appeared to resemble a Boston Public Library ownership stamp (inset,top).

-Heritage Auctions Tweeted a photo of the 1887 Detroit team commenting on their mustaches and an oval blur in the center of the photo appeared to be an obscured and vandalized ownership mark from the Boston Public Library’s McGreevy Collection.

Another Detroit team photo stolen from Nuf-Ced’s treasure trove at BPL was recovered a few years ago after it was sold by both Barry Halper and Bill Mastro.

This BPL photo was sold by MastroNet in 2000 and features a vandalized mark that resembled the oval spot on the image Tweeted by Heritage. As it turned out, the Heritage spot was likely just water damage.

Other recovered photos including a large cabinet of the 1882 and 1891 Boston teams have similar defaced surfaces.  Chris Ivy responded to our inquiry about the photo and clarified the issue.  As it turns out the oval blur appears to be water damage and the oval shape and appearance just coincidental.  Ivy also said the oval area on the Heritage cabinet was a different size than the BPL marks that we provided him with.  Ivy added, “The issue of stolen material is of great concern to us, and Heritage has a well established track record of cooperating with authorities on the rare but inevitable occasions that such material has crossed our desks.”

This SABR contact sheet from a 1980s photo shoot documents a rare 1870 Philadelphia A's CDV that appears to have been stolen from the National Baseball Library.

-Baseball Hall of Fame officials still have not recovered a stolen 1870 Philadelphia A’s CDV that was documented in a SABR photo shoot from the 1980s.  We wrote about it recently at the Hall of Very Good.  The stolen card was sold by Robert Edward Auctions in 1994.  The image of the card (featuring a unique scratch on the albumen print) was captured on a SABR Kodak contact sheet marked “HOF-9″ on the reverse and HOF on the front above the image.

-Bill Mastro’s recent indictment and talk of a plea deal with the Feds has some speculating that as part of a deal he might offer information about the 1970s heist at the NYPL and the parties involved.  When his close friend and former business partner Rob Lifson was  apprehended stealing rare CDV cards from the library’s Spalding Collection in 1979, Mastro was a close confidant of the then teenage “card scholar.”  Mastro has been curiously mum on the subject for years.

This rare Warren cabinet was stolen from the NYPL's Spalding Collection and was sold in MastroNet's Nov. 2000 sale. The exact same card appeared in a book by Robert Smith with a credit to the NYPL.

-MastroNet’s November, 2000, sale conducted when Lifson and Mastro joined forces featured the largest assortment of stolen materials from the NYPL and BPL next to the 1999 Sotheby’s Halper sale.  Other stolen items sold were rare autographed CDVs of Cal McVey, Ross Barnes and George Wright.  The Ross Barnes and Cal McVey CDVs have been definitively traced back to the Halper Collection thanks to a 1980s SABR photo shoot at Halper’s residence in Livingston, NJ.

These CDV's stolen from the NYPL were documented in the Halper Collection in a 1980s SABR photo shoot. The Ross Barnes CDV is the same one that appeared in the 2000 MastroNet sale.

-Sources indicate that most all of the stolen materials were consigned by collector Jim Montgomery.  The Wright cabinet first appeared on our “Ten Most Wanted Missing National Baseball Treasures List” over two years ago, however, in all that time, neither the Wright cabinet nor any of the other nine items on the list (all confirmed stolen and missing from institutions) have been returned or recovered.

What a Hobby!

By Peter J. Nash

Aug. 2, 2012

Public company Collectors Universe is under fire for alleged fraud committed by subsidiary PSA, who authenticated and graded the Honus Wagner card the FBI says was trimmed.

The Federal indictments leveled against Bill Mastro and former Mastro employees last week revealed that Mastro has supposedly admitted to trimming the infamous Gretzky-McNall Wagner, which was graded by PSA as a “Near Mint 8,” the highest graded Wagner known.  The controversial card is currently the property of Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick, who paid $2.8 million for it in 2008.

The FBI’s mention of Mastro’s admission confirmed the suspicions hobbyists have had for years about the card, but also illustrate how the authentication giant PSA/DNA was founded on a fraud, knowingly grading a trimmed and altered card.  Most recently PSA has also been implicated in the authentication of laser-printed forgeries that they encapsulated in PSA holders just like the one the Wagner card is housed.

Mastro’s fraudulent Honus Wagner card is the same one pictured on the Collectors Universe 2010 annual shareholders report (CLCT:NASDAQ) as a shining example and symbol of the company’s excellence in authentication and its standing as the leader in the industry. Also appearing on the CU report cover is another controversial collectible that has also for years been suspected to be the product of fraud and trickery, the record-breaking $300,000 single-signed Babe Ruth baseball that is currently being offered by Heritage Auctions at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Baltimore, Md. It shares another thing in common with the fraudulent Wagner card, it, too, has ties to Mastro Auctions as it was sold by Bill Mastro in a 2002 auction for $61,000. The ball was authenticated by James Spence and Steve Grad of PSA/DNA and Mike Gutierrez of MastroNet.  The same ball first appeared at auction in 2000 and was sold by David Hunt of Hunt Auctions in Exton, PA for a then-record price of $72,600.  The record price surpassed the sale of another very similar Ruth ball sold by Bill Mastro at Mastro Fine Sports for $55,660.

At the time the record was broken Mastro told the Maine Antique Digest, “We set the table when we sold a Babe Ruth ball for over thirty thousand dollars back in June at our West Coast auction, and that was considered miraculous. Then a ball sold at Sotheby’s Barry Halper sale in September for nearly fifty thousand, and that set the table for us to get almost sixty thousand last November and more than sixty thousand for our Ruth and Gehrig ball. There is a frenzy for these big-ticket mint Babe Ruth balls. Does a better one exist? Probably. There is always a better one.”

The Hunt auction description said their Ruth single-signed ball “was acquired on the set of the Babe Ruth Story in California and given by Claire Ruth to a United Artist publicist. It is being consigned by his family and will be accompanied by a detailed letter of provenance from the family along with a letter of authenticity from Michael Gutierrez.”  The ball was sold with what was said to be its original Reach box as well.

PSA issued the LOA pictured above but expert Ron Keurajian is of the opinion that the alleged Ruth signature is not genuine.

That same ball is being offered at Heritage, with an alleged current bid of $280,000, and makes no mention of an original ball box accompanying the ball.  Heritage also states:
Accompanying the ball is a letter from Stephen Stoll dated August 17, 1999, which states “My father, William Stoll, was a Hollywood publicist who worked on the movie called “The Babe Ruth Story.” The movie starred William Bendix as Babe Ruth. Mr. Ruth’s widow gave this ball to my father and it’s been in my family ever since.

Despite the alleged letter of provenance, autograph expert and author of “A Guide to Hall of Fame Autographs (McFarland, 2012),” Ron Keurajian, told us, “In my opinion the signature on that ball is not genuine.”

Stephen Koschal first questioned the Ruth ball and its inclusion on the cover of the CU annual report in a report published on Autograph Alert in 2011.

Authenticator Richard Simon has also been suspicious of the ball, “”I always wanted to have it in hand, for a real examination, because I was never sure if it was good, I am not saying it is not good, I just would like to see it in person and study it.”

The record-breaking Ruth ball, along with several others, has long been the subject of controversy and has been part of our continuing Operation Bambino investigations.

To see just how treacherous the collecting of high-grade single-signed baseballs is, one only has to pick up a copy of Koschal’s new book “Collecting Signatures of the Presidents of the United States on Baseballs.”  In the book, Koschal illustrates a Harry Truman single-signed baseball that appeared for sale at Mastro Auctions in May of 2001 and at R&R Auctions in November of 2004 as a low grade example of the former President’s signature.  The ball originally came with a MastroNet LOA at the time Mike Gutierrez was working for the company and when it sold at R&R its authenticity was described as, “COA John Reznikoff/PSA/DNA & R&R COA.”

These photographs are of the same single-signed Harry Truman baseball. On the left is how it looked when it sold at MastroNet in 2001. On the right is how it appeared at EAC Galleries in 2005 as the "finest example extant.""

Then, miraculously (and reminiscent of the now infamous magically appearing Honus Wagner signature in another Mastro sale)  the exact same Truman ball appeared in EAC Galleries’ February, 2005, sale as the highest graded Truman ball in existence.  It was described as “bold and pristine”  and the “finest example extant.”  When it sold in 2005 EAC’s description stated, “Provenance John Reznikoff.”  Reznikoff is the primary authenticator of political and historic autographs and manuscripts for both PSA/DNA and James Spence Authentication (JSA).

In relation to the high-grade single-signed balls in the hobby,  Koschal states in his new book, “The recent discovery and example may certainly be the answer to all those beautiful white baseballs that have appeared in auctions during the last dozen years that contain a “10″ signature of Babe Ruth that have sold for $100,000+”

Koschal also states his belief that the Truman ball appears to have been “professionally cleaned” and the signature enhanced possibly by some form of chemical enhancement.  The Truman signature has confounded experts who find it hard to believe the signature could have been enhanced by hand like a signed forgery.  However, the same experts and also members of law enforcement have not been able to determine what process this forgery was created with.

PSA/DNA authenticator John Reznikoff authenticated the Truman ball when it was barely visible and was listed as “provenance” when it sold at EAC as the “finest extant.  Reznikoff’s website for his company University Archives states:  “He (Reznikoff) is the first and only expert to combine his primary work as an autograph authenticator with a great study of forensic document examination. His lab is one of the most advanced of its kind outside of the FBI.”

Sources indicate that Reznikoff also authenticated the alleged hair of Elvis Presley that was deemed non-genuine by the FBI in the Mastro indictments.  Collecting hair is even more dangerous than collecting autographs as evidenced by Robert Edward Auctions sale of a bogus lock of Babe Ruth’s hair from the Barry Halper collection.  For years Halper held the hair out as genuine and claimed that it was authenticated by Ruth himself in an accompanying letter and envelope.  The letter and envelope were determined to be forgeries.  James Spence stated that the letters were non-malicious secretarial signatures when REA sold the hair to an unsuspecting victim for $38,000.

PSA authenticators Steve Grad (far left) and John Reznikoff (center) pose with Bill Mastro on a photo from Grad's PSA biography.

We made an inquiry to PSA/DNA head-honcho, Joe Orlando, for a  comment on the authenticity of the highest graded PSA Babe Ruth  ball appearing in Heritage.  We also asked for his explanation as to how his employee, John Reznikoff, could have authenticated the Truman ball for PSA when the signature was barely visible, and then be listed as the ball’s “provenance” when it was later sold as  the “finest extant.”  Orlando did not respond to our request.  Orlando has also failed to respond to other media inquiries about his company’s grading of the controversial PSA-8 Wagner that is tied to the Federal indictment of Bill Mastro. Orlando’s top autograph authenticator, Steve Grad, is a former MastroNet employee and authenticator. Orlando and PSA appear to have scrubbed profiles they had written about Bill Mastro and Doug Allen on the PSA website.

Chris Ivy, of Heritage Auctions did respond to our inquiry about the Ruth ball.  We asked Ivy to provide the original letter from 1999 written by the son of the man who worked on the set of the Babe Ruth movie in 1948, and we also asked if he had verified the story detailed in that letter.  Ivy was also asked if the original box accompanied the ball.  Ivy did not forward a copy of the letter and said, “Between meetings with industry people and the demands of press coverage of the auction, I’m afraid it will be a few days before I can address your provenance questions in the detail I’m sure you’re hoping to receive. I should note, of course, that both PSA/DNA and James Spence are fully confident in the authenticity of the signature.”