April 24, 2015
Last month it was revealed in court papers that former Mastro Auctions exec Doug Allen was accused by the Detroit Public Library of stealing two photos from its Ernie Harwell Collection. This month, Allen’s former partner and documented library thief, Rob Lifson, of Robert Edward Auctions in Watchung, New Jersey, is selling two photos that fit the description of items stolen from the New York Public Library and appear on its Spalding Collection “Missing List.” The list was created after library officials took an 1987 inventory of the donated Spalding photographic holdings and found that over one hundred rarities were missing including an 1879 cabinet card image of A. G. Spalding and his Chicago White Stockings and a cabinet card of the 1879 Boston team listed as “Unidentified group with Harry Wright.”
The 1879 Chicago photograph is being sold by REA as “newly discovered” and was identified in the published 1922 NYPL Spalding inventory as “White Stockings of Chicago. 1870. California Team” with the names of every player identified on the cabinet mount. The date of 1870, however, was a typographical error as the White Stockings only had a California tour in 1879 and all of the players listed appear in the photograph. REA’s Boston cabinet card features the same image that NYPL officials were unable to identify in 1922 and described as “Cincinnati, Boston or Philadelphia?” for (3) photographs. Two of those items went missing from the library but the one surviving NYPL copy features the same image as the REA auction lot depicting Wright and his 1879 club.
It’s been nearly 100 years since the original NYPL Spalding inventory identified the 1879 White Stockings photo as NYPL property and the example being offered by REA and its President, Rob Lifson, represents the first appearance of any photograph fitting the description of that missing Spalding treasure. In its current auction catalog Lifson and REA describe the lot as:
“Exceedingly rare team cabinet card capturing eleven members of the Chicago White Stockings’ “California Tour” team in 1879, including Cap Anson and A. G. Spalding. This is the first example of this extraordinary Chicago team cabinet we have ever seen or handled….”
According to REA, the newly discovered rarity came from outside of the hobby and not from an established or well known collector. In the lot description REA details the provenance of the photo without mentioning the consignor’s identity:
“This card was part of a small but very exciting new find of three nineteenth-century cabinet cards that came to us last fall. (Two of the cards, an 1878 Boston team cabinet and a 1879 White Stockings team cabinet, sold in our fall auction.) All three cards had, for decades, been in the possession of a noncollector’s family. The only time these cards have even had a “brush” with the modern collecting world was in 1989, when members of the family, curious as to what the cards were and if they had any value, decided to have them appraised. Because they lived in California, they brought them to Richard Wolfers Auctions in San Francisco and were told by a representative of the company that the cards were valuable and worth thousands of dollars. At that time, the owner decided not to sell them and instead gave them to her grandson, a young 8-year old collector who was passionate about baseball, with instructions to keep them in a safe deposit box at the bank. The grandson, our consignor, has now decided that the time has come to sell them.”
REA also claims that they had seen the same image on the 19th century baseball uniform website, Threads of the Game, but what REA fails to mention, however, is that they provided the image for that same website after they acquired a digital copy from their consignor. The written description of the same 1879 Chicago photograph has been accessible in the published inventory of the Spalding Collection since 1922.
Considering the fact that REA’s Rob Lifson has claimed in the past to have handled more rare cabinet cards and CDV’s than any other dealer or auctioneer, the fact that he says he’s never seen this cabinet photo should at least open up a dialogue as to how his consignor’s family acquired the rare photograph? In addition, considering the fact Lifson, himself, was apprehended stealing CDV’s and cabinet cards from the NYPL’s Spalding Collection in 1979, it should also be addressed why he never mentioned the documentation of the missing NYPL copy in his lot description? Could lot number five in REA’s “blockbuster” Spring auction be A. G. Spalding’s missing “California Team” treasure?
Although REA fails to identify or mention the existence of the missing NYPL example, this writer has been aware of the photographic image since 2009 when a copy of the 1879 photo was forwarded to the FBI and included in a 300-page report detailing the library heist in the 1970’s and the whereabouts of scores of stolen Spalding artifacts. At the time, memorabilia dealer Rhys Yeakley of Prewarsports.com had offered on his website what he described as a “1915 re-shoot” of one of the original 1879 albumen prints depicting Spalding’s “California Team.” Yeakley’s offering of the 1879 team photo provided the NYPL and the FBI a visual representation of the missing artifact and at the time was the only known resource to document what investigators needed to look for in the NYPL recovery process.
The image captured on the 2nd generation print appears to be an Imperial size cabinet much larger than the example being offered by REA. When we asked Yeakley if he could recall where his photo originated he told us, “I think it came from the Helms Museum when that collection was being sold on eBay maybe 5-6 years ago.”
The FBI investigation was commenced when a “rare cache” of 19th century letters sent to baseball pioneer Harry Wright appeared in a 2009 MLB All Star Game auction. The letters were once part of several scrapbook volumes of Wright’s correspondence that vanished from the NYPL in the 1970s and the New York Times published several articles quoting historian Dorothy Seymour Mills who confirmed that several letters in the sale were cited by her and her late husband in published works. Since 2009 the FBI has been investigating the NYPL thefts and has attempted to recover items with Spalding Collection provenance but they have been highly unsuccessful in their recovery efforts. To date the NYPL has only recovered a handful of thousands of stolen items that are now in private hands.
While Lifson is the only individual ever apprehended stealing artifacts from the NYPL’s Spalding Collection, his company, Robert Edward Auctions, has also sold more items documented as being stolen from the NYPL than any other auction house. The 1999 Halper Collection sale at Sotheby’s actually contained more stolen items but Lifson also oversaw that sale as Sotheby’s hand-picked consultant in-charge. Lifson wrote up the lot descriptions and handled scores of stolen item that were being sold by his long-time associate and top client, New York Yankees partner Barry Halper.
When Lifson first opened his auction house in 1991 he advertised his knack to “unearth rare baseball items” but is it a coincidence that so many items matching descriptions of missing Spalding items have made their way into his auctions? That being said, there is also another rarity being sold in Lifson’s current auction that fits the description of an additional NYPL missing artifact featuring Harry Wright.
Originating from what REA calls a different consignor is an 1879 cabinet card of Wright’s Boston Red Stockings that REA and Lifson describe as:
“One of the most extraordinary nineteenth-century team cabinets we have ever seen! This is the only example of this team cabinet we have ever seen, let alone handled (though from collectors we are aware of the existence of at least one other example in damaged condition)…”
It’s yet another example of REA receiving an ultra-rare consignment that fits the description of a photograph missing from the Spalding Collection. The 1922 library inventory identifies three photographs as “Unidentified group with Harry Wright” and baseball researcher Charles Mears marked his own inventory booklet and noted that the same 3 photos were stored in boxes 4, 5 and 11 and that one of them was “identified by C. W. Mears.”
Oddly enough, box 11 also housed some of the collection’s over-sized cabinet photographs and the example that is marked on the reverse with a handwritten “11″ by Mears features the exact same image that is found on REA’s “most extraordinary” example. The other two photos identified as “Unidentified groups with Harry Wright” (once stored in boxes 4 and 5) are missing from the collection. All of the evidence suggests that the “unidentified group” from the NYPL inventory was Wright’s 1879 club.
Hauls of Shame has also located another copy of the 1879 Boston cabinet photo that was sold by Bill Mastro and “The Best of Yesterday” in a 1995 SCD phone auction. That photo is mounted on a cabinet card that does not identify the photographer and Mastro described the card as having “blank reverse.” The REA cabinet photo, the larger NYPL copy and the cabinet card sold by Mastro are the only three 1879 cabinets we could confirm exist.
The FBI and the NYPL have both been notified of the 1879 photographs appearing in the REA sale and when asked about the status of the six-year investigation into the NYPL heist, the FBI’s Supervisory Special Agent in the Bureau’s New York Press office, Chris Sinos, declined comment on whether the Spalding Collection probe is still “on-going.” It is unlikely that the FBI or the NYPL will take any action or claim title to the items that may have been stolen from the Fifth Avenue Branch in New York City. Library President Tony Marx has done little to reclaim the millions of dollars in artifacts that the institution failed to protect, preserve and recover in the name of the baseball pioneer whose widow bequeathed them to the City of New York in 1921. Angela Montefinise, the NYPL’s Director of Media Relations, told us “The Library’s goal is to retrieve all items from its collection and make those items available to the public. It has procedures in place when a possible item comes to its attention, and it continues to follow those procedures, actively pursuing items when possible.” Montefinise and the NYPL declined comment as to whether the FBI investigation is still in effect and did not answer any questions we had regarding specific items that have been returned to the library. In addition, Jaqueline Bausch, the library’s VP and Deputy General Counsel denied a New York State Freedom of Information Law request made by Hauls of Shame stating that the New York Public Library is a “private and not for profit corporation.”
The NYPL and the FBI have returned stolen artifacts to consignors who could not establish clear title or provenance for their items and in other cases have claimed that the objects did not show NYPL ownership marks. The two photos in the current REA sale do not display any visible NYPL stamps or identifying marks, but it is documented that Rob Lifson has used at least one conservator named Louise Kuflik to remove NYPL marks from a stolen Spalding Collection cabinet photo. The 1879 Boston cabinet does, however, show evidence of the removal of writing on the back as REA identifies, “the presence of faint traces of erased pencil on the blank reverse (close inspection reveals that “Boston 1878″ was written at one time)
Hauls of Shame contacted Spalding descendant, Keith Spalding Robbins, and informed him of the sale of the suspect 1879 Chicago photo and the NYPL rejection of our FOIL request. Robbins told us, “The NYPL is a most perplexing place. The thefts of the items from the Spalding archives (highlight) two issues. One, of Library misappropriation of donated items and, two, (it’s supply) of foundational items that have spawned a billion-dollar sports memorabilia industry that both private vendors privately benefit (from).” Robbins also feels that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred should be involved in the recovery process and added, “What is just as displeasing is the new commissioner’s silence on the issue, and thus it begs the question is he the CEO of Baseball or the Commissioner of the best interests of the game?”
The surviving Spalding Collection photo of the 1879 Boston team was originally donated to the National League as the property of Harry Wright and it clearly features his handwriting on the reverse of the photo identifying each player. The two missing 1879 Boston team photos were also bequeathed to organized baseball. Back in 2009 when the stolen Wright letters appeared in the MLB All-Star Game auction, auctioneer David Hunt said the “rare cache” of letters was consigned by a man who inherited them from his grandparents. At the time Wright’s great great granddaughter, Pam Guzzi, told New York Times reporter Jack Curry, “It seems odd to me. Why would someone have them if they weren’t related to him? Why would they be in their grandmother’s attic?”
The same question can be asked about REA’s offerings of these two rare 1879 photographs featuring Spalding and Wright. Where did these grandmas and grandpas obtain their photos of MLB’s founding fathers?
(Editor’s Note: The co-chairman of SABR’s Pictorial History Research Committee, Mark Fimoff , has informed us that a cropped image of the 1879 White Stockings appeared in “The Baseball Anthology – 125 Years,” Joseph Wallace, Aberdale Press, 1994, p. 77 with a credit to Culver Pictures.)