Breaking News

By Peter J. Nash

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 CollectionMissing 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….”

REA's current lot description calls the 1879 Chicago White Stocking cabinet photo a "newly discovered example" that neither REA or auction President Rob Lifson had ever handled or seen before.

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.

The REA auction lot of the 1879 Chicago cabinet fits the description of an item listed in the 1922 NYPL Spalding inventory and the 1987 "Missing List" created after losses were discovered by NYPL officials.

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?

Dealer Rhys Yeakley sold this "1915 re-shoot of the original" 1879 White Stockings photo. Unlike the REA auction lot, this image appears to be from a larger 'Imperial' size photo. (Photo courtesy of Rhys Yeakley)

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.”

In 2009 an image of the 1879 Chicago cabinet was submitted to the FBI and NYPL in a report (left) documenting the thefts. The report was submitted after the NY Times (right) reported that Spalding items were offered in an MLB auction.

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.

Lifson & REA have sold items stolen from NYPL's Spalding Collection: (Top Row l to r) 1872 signed Warren CDVs of Geo. Wright, Ross Barnes and Cal McVey; 1875 Hartford BBC CDV; Andrew Peck signed cabinet card (Second Row l to r) Harry Wright cabinet cards by MacIntire, Randall & Warren; Alexander Cartwright Tabor cabinet photo; 1874 AG Spalding letter to Harry Wright (Third Row l to r) 1889 Geo Stallings letter to Wright; 1873 Boston BBC CDV, Rob Lifson, Barry Halper (Bottom Row) Knick Challenge letters from Excelsior, Star and Hamilton teams.

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.

REA describes another 1879 cabinet card in its auction 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.".

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.”

An example of REA's 1879 Boston cabinet card in a larger (Imperial) format appears as part of the Spalding Collection at the NYPL but it appears that perhaps two other cabinets like it are currently missing.

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.

A second example of the 1879 Boston cabinet card (left) was sold by Bill Mastro in a 1995 SCD phone auction (right).

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.)


By Peter J. Nash

April 23, 2015

(Scroll to bottom for Update):

Internet auction bidding has exceeded $1 million for what Robert Edward Auctions calls the “Oceanside Wagner,” a high-grade PSA-3 example of the famous T206 Honus Wagner tobacco card slated to be sold on Saturday. According to the auction house lot description, the card was “entirely unknown to the modern collecting world for nearly a century until it was discovered in the basement of an Oceanside, New York, home in 2008 alongside hundreds of other 1910-era tobacco cards.”

The rather scarce Wagner card, however, was actually discovered 16 years earlier in Rockville Centre, New York, in a Civil War-era children’s desk that once belonged to Frederick Tietz Jr., the only son of a silk importer who lived in a mansion in the Richmond Hill section of Queens.  The card’s only link to Oceanside is that Tietz’ grandson resides in that town and discovered the card in 1992 when moving the antique desk. In an interview last week Keith Pearsall told Hauls of Shame, “My grandfather was born in 1899 and as a kid collected all kinds of cards and the male relatives in the family doted on him and gave him cards from their cigarette packs. When I moved the desk, which had T-206 cards glued to its underside, a cigar box fell out and it was packed with almost an entire set of the T-206’s, including the Wagner.” Since the time the discovery was made public in 1993, Sports Collectors Digest dubbed the card “The Pearsall Wagner,” but the card could just as easily have been named “The Kid From Queens Wagner” or even “The Show ‘n Tell Wagner.” Says Pearsall, “I once let my daughter Deb take the Wagner into school for show and tell. What a commotion that caused.”

The 1918 draft card of Frederick Tietz Jr., the original owner of REAs "Oceanside Wagner." The $1 million card appears on FOX Business News 106 years after Tietz obtained the card in Richmond Hill, Queens.

Having re-named the same card the “Oceanside Wagner,” REA devotes space in its lot description explaining the phenomenon of identifying the 60 to 70 surviving copies of the hobby’s “holy grail” with names like the “The Jumbo Wagner” and “The Die-Cut Wagner.”  Of the phenomenon the auction house says:

“Every T206 Wagner naturally has a great story, sharing the Wagner legend that is now part of classic American folklore, and every Wagner also has an additional story relating to its provenance. Collectors have always been fascinated with all aspects of the history of Wagners: how they were discovered, where they have been purchased, when, for how much, where they have been, how they have happened to survive. Sometimes there are more questions than answers, and sometimes a Wagner is special in ways that no other examples share.”

But the naming of Wagner cards has also created some confusion as auction houses like REA have taken liberties to re-name Wagners previously identified or sold under different monikers. Another case in point is SCP Auctions’ recent offering of what they called the “Chesapeake Wagner,” a card that had already been named “The Cooperstown Wagner” by REA for a 1995 auction. That same card was also sold in 1993 at Nutmeg Auctions in Connecticut after the owners of a Cooperstown memorabilia shop named Mickey’s Place outbid ESPN broadcaster Keith Olbermann to take home the Wagner. That card was publicly displayed for two years in the store located less than one block from the Baseball Hall of Fame, thus giving it the name– “The Cooperstown Wagner.”

REA sold the "Cooperstown Wagner" in 1995 (left) but the same card was re-named and re-sold as the "Chesapeake Wagner" by SCP in 2014.

But despite the well-documented provenance of that card, SCP’s David Kohler, who actually purchased the “Cooperstown Wagner” from REA in 1995, never mentioned the previous sales and decided to re-name the Wagner to reflect the background of the card’s most recent owner (and SCP consignor) from Chesapeake, Virginia.  In doing so, SCP and Kohler buried a chapter of the Wagner card’s actual provenance in an attempt to make the card appear fresher to the market. Unlike paintings and fine art bolstered by detailed provenance records, the auctioneers selling the “Mona Lisa of Cards” rarely document the Wagner’s true chain of ownership.  It appears that REA is continuing this tradition by leading collectors to believe that the “Oceanside Wagner” was discovered in a basement in 2008.

The existence of REA’s current “Oceanside Wagner” was first made public in a 1993 issue of Sports Collectors Digest. The report published in SCD stated, “Another T-206 Honus Wagner card has surfaced in the hobby, this one in the New York area.”  The news came from Keith Pearsall who was representing his family after inheriting the collection of tobacco cards his grandfather had shown him in the 1960s. At the time of the 1993 report, SCD said the “Pearsall Wagner” was not for sale and that the family wanted to exhibit the treasure that could actually be traced back to its original owner.

The discovery of the "Pearsall Wagner" was reported in SCD in 1993 (left). In 2008, the card sold for $791,000 and was graded "VG 40" by SGC (center). The same card was re-graded "PSA-3" and is for sale at REA (right).

A decade later in 2004, an article was published in the Long Island Herald revealing how the Wagner card was originally discovered when “Pearsall and his sister, Susan Farrell, moved their grandfather’s belongings from their parents’ Rockville Centre home in 1992.” The tobacco cards were revealed when “an old box fell apart in Pearsall’s hands” and he recognized the famous Wagner card. Pearsall then took the Wagner to a local card shop owned by Norman Siegal who verified it was the real deal.

Realizing his grandfather’s card was extremely valuable, Pearsall sought out appraisals for his treasure from the Smithsonian, Christie’s, the Baseball Hall of Fame and even collector Barry Halper who inquired if the card was for sale. Pearsall even recalls speaking with dealer Alan “Mr. Mint” Rosen and being offered $15,000 for the card despite the fact that Rosen told him it was a fake. In addition to being interviewed by SCD, mainstream media outlets like Bloomberg News and Charles Kuralt’s CBS radio show invited Pearsall on to talk about his discovery. According to the Herald report, Kuralt’s interview with Pearsall “was heard by a sick boy who, through the Baltimore-based Grant-A-Wish Foundation, asked to meet Pearsall and see his Wagner card.” Pearsall granted the sick boy his wish and told the Herald reporter, “The boy could have asked to have seen John Glenn or Ronald Reagan, and I work for the Town of Hempstead. I’m a civil servant, a regular guy, and I just happen to have hit the lottery in a unique form.”

Those first interviews and requests spurred Pearsall on to exhibit his card at fundraisers and charity events “to raise money for causes he supported.” According to Pearsall, his most memorable experience drew a large crowd for the Grant-A-Wish Foundation.   Pearsall said  ”1,000 people an hour came to view (the) Wagner card, including baseball greats Willie Mays and Jim Palmer.” Said Pearsall, “Willie Mays danced with my mother that night, and told me, ‘You know, I knew Honus Wagner.”

The “Pearsall Wagner” spent most of its time in Pearsall’s safe deposit box and according to the LI Herald article by Joseph Kellard,  his insurance carrier “require(d) that he routinely switch the card from one bank to another and that armed security accompany him to certain events — to display them for a cause in his hometown.” Pearsall’s interview with Kellard was even conducted inside a bank vault. Living in Oceanside, Pearsall and his Wagner participated in other local fundraisers and an article published in the LI Herald in 2004 estimated that the “Pearsall Wagner” was “worth possibly $1 million.”

Writer Joseph Kellard recalled his 2004 bank-vault interview with Keith Pearsall on Facebook (left). Antiques Roadshow appraiser Philip Weiss (center) sold collector Eric Brehm (right) the "Pearsall Wagner" for $791,000.

Four years after those fundraisers, the Pearsall family finally decided to consign the T-206 Wagner to Philip Weiss Auctions in their own backyard of Oceanside.  Auction house owner Philip Weiss, who also works as an appraiser on PBSAntiques Roadshow, knew the Pearsall family for decades and had even coached their son in Little League and Junior hockey. Weiss assured Pearsall he could sell the Wagner for a substantial price even though the auction was scheduled after Black Monday and the stock market crash of 2008. Despite those circumstances, Weiss came through for the family with some spirited bidding as evidenced on a video of the sale posted on YouTube. The video shows Pearsall and his wife rejoicing after Colorado collector Eric Brehm placed the last bid via phone for $700,000 (plus a $91,000 buyers premium). In it’s current lot description, REA does not identify the Pearsall family or Philip Weiss Auctions by name but does say that the Wagner was “carefully saved for generations in the family of the original owner (and) was presented as part of a New York-based estate auction.”

Auctioneer Philip Weiss (left) conducts the live sale for the "Pearsall Wagner" in 2008. Owner Keith Pearsall (right) sits in the audience as a bidder in the back of the room raises his paddle for a $600,000 bid.

Many owners selling their Wagner cards choose to remain anonymous in auction listings and REA makes no mention of Eric Brehm’s purchase of the card from Weiss in 2008. Brehm re-entered the hobby  in 2006, after a 20-year collecting hiatus, and focused on the T-206 set also known as “The Monster.”  Of the classic tobacco issue, Brehm told fellow collectors on Net54, ” It is to baseball card collecting what Mount Everest is to mountain climbing: it is there, it is big, it is beautiful, it is mysterious, it is the king of its domain, and it is very, very challenging. I can’t imagine I would ever be able to collect the whole set but it is fun to work on it anyhow — the journey in this case being perhaps more important than arriving at the summit.” Having acquired his Wagner in 2008, Brehm reached his personal Everest quickly and after owning the card for the past seven years stands to make a substantial profit on his original investment.

Several news outlets including the NY Daily NewsCBS and New Jersey’s Star Ledger have already repeated REA’s innacurate account of the Wagner card’s provenance but high-end collectors in the market for a Wagner card might want to pay particular attention to REA’s claims regarding the condition of the “Oceanside Wagner” against the existing population of Wagner cards.  REA says:

“The offered card is one of only four examples graded at this level by PSA with three additional VG examples graded by SGC. Only four examples grade higher (all by PSA): one NM-MT 8, one EX 5, one EX 5 (MC), and one VG-EX 4. By any measure, this is one of the highest-grade examples of the T206 Wagner in existence!”

REAs Brian Dwyer, appeared with the Wagner on ESPN’s Mint Condition calling the Wagner “one of the finest examples in existence” and claimed that “only four cards are rated higher.” REA and Dwyer may be accurate in respect to the Wagner cards graded by SGC and PSA, but they fail to reference the overall population of cards in relation to the “Oceanside Wagner” and go too far in stating the card is “one of the highest grade examples.” Hauls of Shame has documented images of at least 60 copies of genuine Wagner cards and of those examples there are at least (14) examples in better condition and (2) in at least the same condition as the card being sold by REA. ( T206Resource.com has an online gallery showing 43 examples of the Wagner card).

Wagners in better condition than "Oceanside Wagner" (bottom row in red): (Top Row l to r): 1.)The Met's Burdick Wagner; 2.) Baseball Hall of Fame ; 3.) Larry Fritsch; 4.) Jacobs-Mastro-Goode Wagner 5.) "Gelman-Shanus Wagner"; 6.) Unverified copy-1999 Mastro ad. (Second Row l to r) 7.) "The Jumbo Wagner" PSA-5 (MC); 8.) Scott Ireland's PSA-5; 9.)The trimmed "Gretzky-McNall Wagner" 10.) Frank Nagy SGC 40 VG; (Third Row l to r) 11.);"Miceli-Forman-Cohen Wagner" SGC VG-40; 12.) "MastroNet Wagner" PSA-3; 13.)The "McKie-Halper-Finkelstein-Goodwin Wagner" SGC VG-40; 14.) "Drier-Tull Wagner" PSA-4/SGC 50; (Bottom Row l to r) 15.) Sotheby's sale 1992; 16.) "1977 Trader Speaks Wagner" (w/Piedmont back); 17.) "1983 Beckett Guide Wagner"

The high-grade Wagners that outshine the REA example include museum pieces like Jefferson Burdick’s card at the Met and the Hall of Fame copy purchased from Barry Halper in 1998. Others are buried in prominent collections owned by Larry Fritsch’s family, New York collector Corey Shanus, a west coast collector who owns the Mastro-Goode Wagner, Vermont collector Scott Ireland (who owns a PSA-5) and a PSA 4/SGC 50 example owned by movie mogul Thomas Tull.

Three other SGC VG-40 examples of the Frank Nagy, Tom Miceli and Fred McKie Wagners join a PSA VG-3 card sold by MastroNet in 2000 to comprise a group of cards in comparable condition. In addition, an ungraded Wagner sold by Barry Halper at Sotheby’s in 1992; the “1977 Trader Speaks Wagner” (w/Piedmont back); and the “1983 Beckett Price Guide Wagner” all appear to be in better condition than REA’s Wagner which has a small crease. An argument could also be made that all of these cards mentioned are in better condition than the trimmed PSA-8 “Gretzky-McNall Wagner” which should be designated with the lowest “Altered/Authentic” grade.

In relation to the condition of other known “authentic” and lower grade Wagners, REA also states:

“Of the forty-six T206 Wagners listed on the combined PSA and SGC population reports (which may be a bit high as several examples have been crossed between the two companies over the years), twenty-three grade Poor or “Authentic,” one grades Fair, and eleven grade Good.”

This overview illustrates that the the “Oceanside/Pearsall Wagner” falls near the 25th percentile of known Wagners. That’s a far cry from being one of the finest condition Wagner cards in existence.  In terms of value, the current bid of approximately $1 million, appears to be where it should in relation to the most recent sales of cards graded higher. On ESPN’s Mint Condition REAs Brian Dwyer (who used to work as a card grader for SGC) said the auction house expects the card to bring $1.5 million or more. Dwyer also told the NY Daily News that the card would “appeal to guys not necessar(il)y in the hobby” and would be “attractive to guys who look at it as an investment.”  To date, only the trimmed-Mastro Wagner and the superior PSA-5 (MC) “Jumbo Wagner” have surpassed the $2 million mark.  The only other million dollar sales include the PSA-4 “Drier Wagner” which was sold to movie mogul Thomas Tull for about $1.5 million and the SGC VG-40 example which was sold by Goodwin & Co. in 2012 for $1,232,466.  Based upon those sales, it appears that anyone bidding over a million dollars for REA’s “Oceanside Wagner” could be overpaying to join the exclusive “Wagner Club.”

REAs Rob Lifson (left) and his partner Bill Mastro (center) defrauded Brian Seigel when they sold him the trimmed-PSA-8 "Gretzky-McNall Wagner" (right) in 2000. Back in 1996 at Christie's Lifson bid against Mastro and took home the fraudulent Wagner card for $651,500. Lifson said he was only bidding for his friend, Mike Gidwitz (right).

The last time REA sold a million-dollar Wagner was back in 2000 when the company was a subsidiary of MastroNet. REAs President, Rob Lifson, and his former partner Bill Mastro, made headlines selling the PSA-8 card for $1.26 million just fifteen years after they bought it from Allan Ray for $25,000. Both men have handled more Wagner cards than any other dealers or auctioneers in the industry and when Lifson opened REA in 1991, he said he’d already handled “eleven T206 Wagners” including the PSA-8 example. Lifson and REA identify that card in the current catalog as the “most valuable and famous” Wagner due to the fact it was later sold to Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick in 2007 for $2.8 million. Lifson and REA, however, do not identify that card as the highest graded Wagner with its PSA-8 designation because Mastro recently admitted in a plea agreement that he fraudulently trimmed the card to enhance its condition and value. The Federal Government indicted Mastro in 2012 for mail fraud and also for fraudulently promoting and advertising the trimmed Wagner card as the finest example known.

REA’s Rob Lifson also fraudulently promoted the trimmed Wagner when he and Mastro were partners at MastroNet in 2000. Lifson and Mastro together defrauded bidders and collector Brian Seigel who purchased the trimmed Wagner in the REA auction for $1.26 million. After the sale Seigel said he would not have purchased the card “without PSA’s seal of approval.” At the time of the sale, Lifson not only had full knowledge that Mastro had trimmed the Wagner, but sources claim that Lifson was also the majority owner of the card at the time of the sale having purchased the card at Christie’s in 1996 with his friend Michael Gidwitz for $641,000. Gidwitz has declined Hauls of Shame’s requests for comment about the claims regarding his ownership of the card with Lifson. Lifson and Mastro split three years after selling the fraudulent Wagner and in the years that followed Lifson was an informant against his ex-partner and was scheduled to appear as a Government witness in a trial that was scheduled for 2014. That trial, however, never occurred since all of the Mastro defendants accepted plea agreements and are currently awaiting sentencing in June.

PSA issued a press release rejoicing in REA's million dollar sale of the trimmed Wagner in 2000 (left). REA's Brian Dwyer (right) says the owner of the fraudulent Wagner, Ken Kendrick (center), could still turn a profit on his card.

Despite the well-known Wagner fraud linked to his boss, REA’s Brian Dwyer told NY Daily News reporter Michael O’Keeffe, “If Kendrick were to sell that (Wagner) card now, he would not lose money.” O’Keeffe, a Lifson associate who utilized the auctioneer as his primary source for his book, The Card, published an article about the REA offering last week and while he detailed Mastro’s trimming of the Wagner, he again made no mention of the part Lifson played in the fraud and added, “Dwyer doesn’t think Mastro’s admission matters.”

Other well-known hobbysists like ESPN’s Keith Olbermann think the admission does matter and have called the card a fraud while questioning the credibility of PSA for giving the “deceptively altered” card a high-grade. When Mastro accepted his plea deal Olbermann wrote that PSA had received “enormous publicity–and undeserved credibility for encasing the card in the first of its plastic slabs.”

Many collectors agree that if Kendrick’s Wagner was properly re-holdered as “Altered” and “Authentic” he would have little chance to ever recoup his original investment. Attorney and outspoken card collector Jeffrey Lichtman told us, “That card in an “A” holder would not sell for $2.8 million — the 8/Gretzky-McNall flip and holder is part of the iconic nature of the card.” But Lichtman doesn’t think that will ever happen adding, “I don’t think Kendrick has any such responsibility to turn the card in for an accurate flip — solely because it’s not required pursuant to the submission documents. And who would want their card put into an “A” holder from an 8? The card is obviously well enough known to be altered anyway, so it doesn’t make a difference.” Kendrick is on the record saying he doesn’t plan to sell any of his cards and intends to pass them on as “a legacy to (his) children.”

Collectors Universe removed any mention of the fraudulent PSA-8 Wagner from all annual reports and SEC filings after the Mastro indictments in 2012, but PSA currently features the trimmed card on its website’s “record breakers” page noting SCP’s private sale to Kendrick. Highlighting the incestuous relationship between PSA and auction houses, that page also features an advertisement and link for REA’s current auction.

The current PSA website features the $2.8 million Wagner trimmed by Bill Mastro on the "PSA Record Breakers" page along with an advertisement for Robert Edward Auction's current sale.

Several industry executives we spoke with believe that REA’s re-naming of the “Pearsall Wagner” and its presentation of an inaccurate provenance history is simply a matter of Rob Lifson not wanting to give recognition to a competitor and to create the impression that the card is “fresher to the market” than it really is. (Lifson also fails to mention he previously sold a $100,000 Ty Cobb T-206 card and a $30,000 Eddie Plank T-206 card which also appear in his current sale)  But the re-naming could also be the result of REAs desire to distance itself from the link that exists between the “Pearsall Wagner” and the Mastro-trimmed Wagner sold by REA in 2001.  In 2004, the Long Island Herald reported how the fame of that card contributed to Keith Pearsall realizing he had actually made the important discovery of his own “lottery ticket” back in 1992. The Herald reported that upon seeing the Wagner card, “Pearsall’s eyes grew larger as he recalled reading that hockey great Wayne Gretzky had purchased the same card a year before for $451,000.”

Twenty three years after he discovered his unaltered Wagner tucked away in his grandfather’s desk, Keith Pearsall is aware of Bill Mastro’s trimming of the other infamous Wagner card and his pending prison sentence for auction fraud. He says his grandfather wouldn’t have approved of trimming and altering cards for profit adding, “My granddad was the straightest shooter ever, he wouldn’t stand for any type of dishonesty.”  Pearsall also reflected on his Wagner journey and the hobby itself telling us, “Gretzky buying that card at Sotheby’s made it famous but I’m glad we had a friend like Phil Weiss sell our card for us. To tell you the truth, with all the fraud in that industry, I’m kinda glad we got rid of the Honus Wagner when we did.”

UPDATE (May 1, 2015): Wagner Doctor Bill Mastro Scheduled For Sentencing In Chicago On August 20th; REA Wagner Falls Short Of Company Expectations And Fetches $1.32 Million

Despite speculating that the “Pearsall-Oceanside Wagner” would sell for $1.5 million and even $2 million on FOX Business News, REA’s Brian Dwyer and Rob Lifson couldn’t coax any buyers to bid on the card during the last day of the auction on April 25th and it sold for a hammer price of $1.1 million.  With the buyers premium of 20% added on, an anonymous buyer snagged the card once owned by Frederick Tietz Jr. of Richmond Hill, Queens, for a total of $1.32 million.

The price realized was very close to the sum that the trimmed and fraudulent “Gretzky-McNall Wagner” sold for at Robert Edward Auctions in 2000 when Lifson and his ex-partner Bill Mastro sold the altered card to unsuspecting collector Brian Seigel for $1.26 million.  Just after REA closed out its 2015 Spring sale, a Federal Court Judge in Chicago announced this week that Bill Mastro is scheduled to be sentenced on August 20th.  Court papers reveal that the sentencing is being scheduled now because Mastro waived his rights to contest the Government’s calculations of losses suffered by his victims of auction fraud and shill-bidding. No date was given by Judge Ronald Guzman for the sentencing of Mastro’s co-defendants.