By Peter J. Nash
May 18, 2015
Rob Lifson, the New Jersey auctioneer who was caught decades ago stealing rare 19th century photographs from the New York Public Library, said his apprehension was an isolated incident and that he never swiped any other artifacts from the library’s famous Spalding Collection. But new evidence revealed in a front page story published by a University of Pennsylvania newspaper in 1978 shows that even before he was caught stealing at the NYPL, Lifson already had in his possession a rare card of the 1873 Boston Red Stockings team which fit the exact description of two cards that had vanished from the institution. At the time Lifson was caught stealing, the library’s copies of the cards were considered the only examples known to exist.
In addition, two veteran hobby sources have confirmed for Hauls of Shame that Lifson sold at least two rare 1873 Boston cards prior to 1980 and that two decades later, in 2000 and 2001, he sold an example of the same card two times at Robert Edward Auctions. Lifson also sold that same card privately to collector Jim Copeland prior to 1990 and ended up bidding on the card with his paddle (#58) when it was again offered at Sotheby’s in 1991 and failed to reach its $8,000 reserve price. Additionally, Lifson sold a different example of the 1873 card in his 1994 and 2005 auctions and yet another card that appeared in his 2006 auction. The card Lifson offered in the 2006 auction sold for over $16,000. As of 2015, there have been only ten 1873 Boston cards confirmed to exist and five of those examples surfaced after 2000 with no provenance issues or visible evidence of NYPL ownership marks having been removed.
For years Lifson denied any involvement in the NYPL thefts and in 2009 he lied to NY Daily News reporter Michael O’Keeffe denying he ever stole from the library. Lifson, however, has also made several conflicting confessions; one in which he stated he only stole a single CDV photograph and another with Sports Illustrated in which he said he had “secreted” a few rare images at the time he was caught. Both of those accounts, however, are at odds with a 1979 TIME Magazine article and reporters notes regarding the thefts written by David Aikman which stated that a 19 year-old college student was caught stealing a “cache of smiling infielders.” Aikman’s report claimed that the culprit had $5,000 cash on his person when apprehended and that the thief told the NYPL peace officer who arrested him that he’d made the cash selling baseball cards in “just one day.”
The year before Lifson was caught at the NYPL he was a Wharton School freshman and the subject of a November 1978 feature story about his impressive baseball card collection. The UPenn paper noted that “students of Lifson’s age were more likely to deal illegal substances than the pictures of Mickey Mantle” and Lifson told reporter, Joel Siegel, that the oldest card in his collection was one that featured the 1873 Boston Red Stockings. According to 19th century photo historian, Jimmy Leiderman, the card, which was larger than a carte-de-visite (CDV) and smaller than a traditional cabinet card, was actually known as a “Victoria Card” and included portraits of A. G. Spalding and Harry Wright, the two men who were part of the 1873 team and had preserved both of the cards donated to the NYPL in 1921. While there were at least two specimens identified on the Spalding Collection inventory, both of those 3 1/4″ x 5″ cards had vanished from the library and it is suspected that one or two other 1873 cards could also have been included in personal scrapbooks of Harry Wright and A. G. Spalding which were also stolen from the library. These cards have always been considered exceedingly scarce and there were less than (5) copies known to exist by the time the library created its internal “Missing List” of stolen items in 1987.
The report from November 21, 1978, called Lifson “card crazy” and described how the 18-year old had gone “as far as Chicago and Detroit in search of items for his collection.” The article also said that the Wharton freshman’s “real collecting interests lie in the cards printed in the 1880’s.” Lifson told Siegel that the 19th century cards he collected were “rare but not expensive” and that “not many people collected them.” Lifson also told the writer he had no idea how much his collection of over 100,000 cards was worth including the card the paper highlighted stating: “His oldest card is an 1873 team picture of the Boston Red Sox.”
By 1978, the only published references documenting the existence of the 1873 Boston cards (produced by Wilson & Co. and photographed by the Richardson Studio) appeared in the NYPLs 1921 Spalding Collection inventory catalog and the UPenn newspaper article describing Lifson’s collection. Both of the NYPL’s Boston cards were specifically identified in the Spalding inventory and baseball researcher Charles Mears later placed them in “Box 4″ and labeled the back of each card with a handwritten “4″ in the top corner.
By 1978, Rob Lifson was considered one of the country’s premier baseball card dealers specializing in 19th and early 20th century rarities and by the time he entered Wharton he had already appeared on the CBS Evening News and was featured as a whiz-kid collector by National Geographic. By his own admission he was considered a “card scholar” by many in the hobby and had developed close ties some of the most prolific collectors including deceased New York Yankee limited partner Barry Halper, deceased stock broker George Lyons (the brother of film critic Jeffrey Lyons) and another prominent collector of Boston-related items. While it was well known that Lifson was Halper’s primary dealer by 1978, another collector who focused on 19th century rarities, the late New York advertising executive Bruce Dorskind, had made public statements that Lifson was also George Lyons’ main supplier. That being said, by 1983 Halper, Lyons and the other collector all owned examples of the 1873 Boston card and sources indicate that all of them originated with Lifson. The only card owned by the trio that was photographically documented by 1983 was Halper’s card which appeared as an illustration in the SABR pictorial publication called The National Pastime edited by John Thorn and Mark Rucker (The card was misidentified as being from Lew Lipset).
George Lyons’ 1873 card was not illustrated but he wrote about his acquisition for his column in The Trader Speaks. In the February, 1979, issue Lyons wrote, “Last month I purchased two of the oldest baseball cards I’ve ever seen. One is a team photo of the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings picturing the Wright Brothers…on an early advertising circular…..The other is of the 1873 Bostons. In this case, the twelve players are pictured individually in ovals with their names beneath.” Noting the rarity of the cards he compared them both to a then-$500 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card and commented, “Can you imagine what these are worth!” Lyons, now deceased, wrote his column and acquired his 1873 card before Lifson was caught stealing at the NYPLs Fifth Avenue branch. In addition, several copies of the 1869 Red Stockings trade card had also vanished from the library.
In this same time period the other prominent collector also purchased his 1873 card. That collector, who is still living, has his Boston card in his possession and recently told Hauls of Shame, “I know I got mine in the late 1970s and it was from either Rob Lifson or (Bill) Mastro.”
So, how many of these rare cards were actually circulating as of 1983 and where did they all come from?
Our research indicates that: Two copies had resided in the NYPLs Spalding Collection since 1921 and vanished sometime before 1987; Rob Lifson owned a copy of the card he told the UPenn reporter about in November of 1978; A source says George Lyons acquired his copy in a deal with Lifson in January of 1979 and that same source says Barry Halper also acquired his card from Lifson which was illustrated in the 1983 SABR publication. Meanwhile, the prominent collector recalls buying his card from either Lifson or his then-associate Bill Mastro. So, the question arises: Did the two stolen cards from the NYPL end up with either Lifson, Lyons, Halper or the other collector? Or were there actually six different copies known at that time (as opposed to four)? To answer those questions accurately we have to examine all of the 1873 cards that have surfaced through 2015 including the example graded by SGC (30 Good 2) which was offered for sale by Heritage Auctions last week and went for $17,925. That same card sold previously (ungraded) at Lelands in 2002 for $5,955 and had a very small area of paper loss in the upper left hand corner which was lower than the placement of where the NYPL box number would be and the abrasion smaller than the size of the library’s rectangular stamp.
While there were only a handful of examples known in the early 1980s, today we are certain that at least ten examples of the 1873 card exist and we have secured photographic evidence of nine examples with the tenth copy belonging to the veteran collector who bought his card in the 1970s.
All of the evidence available to us today suggests that the four Victoria cards appearing in the bottom row of our illustration above can be ruled out as being missing from the NYPL. One card surfaced at Hunt Auctions as part of the estate of Hall of Famer Deacon White and two others surfaced in sales at Lelands in 2002 and Legendary in 2010 (also sold at Sotheby’s in 1992). The first card in the bottom row can also be ruled out and was sold in 2003 by hobby veteran Lew Lipset who made some telling observations about the 1873 cards in his lot description. Lipset wrote of his card, “The back shows no bleach marks, as found on several copies of this card, or abrasions…” Lipset was familiar with the evidence of bleaching on the backs of cards stolen from the NYPL and had experienced them first-hand in his hobby career. The same went for tell-tale abrasions which also eliminated or obscured the NYPL ownership stamps or the handwritten numbers placed in the upper left corner of most every card. Lipset’s card showed no visible evidence of NYPL ownership and he also mentioned in his description that another 1873 Boston CDV had recently been sold for close to $18,000 because it was a “graded very good copy” of the rarity.
The card identified by Lipset was sold by Mastro Auctions for $17,900 and was graded and encapsulated in a PSA plastic holder marked “VG 3″ with a serial number of “11542078.” Mastro described the example as one of only two such cards ever graded by PSA. In fact, both of those graded 1873 cards appear to be two of the first CDV-style cards ever encapsulated by the company at a time when advanced collectors had not yet embraced the grading and slabbing of CDVs or cabinet cards. What was most interesting about the slabbed Boston card sold by Mastro was, however, the fact that the reverse of the card did show the tell-tale signs of NYPL ownership marks that had been bleached out just as Lipset had described. Upon examination through the barrier of its plastic tomb it is clearly visible to the naked eye where the numeral was placed in the corner and where the rectangular NYPL blue stamp was once placed as well. Mastro even noted as much in the description stating, “A portion of the reverse has a few abrasions (including a 1/4″ vestige of the penciled numeral, “4“).”
Mastro’s observation in the catalog described the bleached fountain pen notation “4″ and confirms that the card was NYPL property having been stored in “Box 4″ of the Spalding Collection as identified by Charles Mears. While the numeric notations were executed in a distinct handwriting style it was unknown that Mears was the author until historian John Thorn uncovered a 1922 Spalding Collection inventory booklet that Mears had marked up and identified himself (“Names by C. W. Mears”) as the person who catalogued the Spalding items and documented the specific storage boxes where each photo could be found. Thorn examined the booklet in the early 1980s and made a photocopy of its entire contents before it also vanished from the library. According to NYPL sources, Thorn’s photocopy is the only surviving proof of Mears’ work but the library and the FBI have been unable to locate the original.
A source who was active collecting in the late 1970s and early 1980s told Hauls of Shame he believes that this example sold by Mastro is the card that was owned by George Lyons and described in his 1979 Trader Speaks column. Around the same time period, Lyons also owned a Cap Anson Stevens cabinet card that was stolen from the library with similar bleaching to obscure the NYPL marks and our source believes the Anson cabinet and the 1873 card were sold to him by Lifson in the late 1970s. In 2003, collector Hal Lewis bought the same 1873 card in the Mastro sale for $17,900 and in 2007 another owner sold it through Mastro again where it realized a sales price of $17,956.
The next highly suspect 1873 Boston card is very likely the second missing NYPL example. Again, Rob Lifson figures prominently in this card’s provenance and it has passed through his hands (and his auction house) on three different occasions and once privately when he sold it to collector Jim Copeland around 1989. In a 1991 issue of The Old Judge, Lew Lipset, stated that Lifson had sold Copeland “a million dollars” worth of items from his personal collection and Copeland’s 19th century holdings included several rarities fitting the description on missing NYPL items including the 1873 card. Copeland’s card, however, differed from the 1873 cards Lipset later described as being bleached but did have “abrasions” on the reverse. When Rob Lifson offered this example at REA in 1993 he described his former “Copeland Card” as exhibiting “Minor paper loss on reverse from at one time being removed from an album…” When it appeared at auction in 1991 Sotheby’s said it was “removed from an album so it has a bit of paper removed from its blank back.” Neither Lifson or Sotheby’s consultant Bill Mastro had any direct knowledge that the card had actually been removed from a scrapbook.
Since the time of the Copeland auction this particular card has bounced around the hobby like a hot potato and has always been under suspicion of being stolen. If it was actually taken from the library in the 1970s it then went from Lifson to Copeland sometime between 1989 to 1991. It then resurfaced in two other public auctions conducted by Lifson and REA in 2000 and 2001 where it sold for a fraction of its 1991 Sotheby’s estimate at less than $2,000. The same card has also appeared for sale on eBay and via the late dealer “Broadway Rick” Kohl. For the past decade the card’s whereabouts have been unknown. It should be noted that the reverse of this example of the 1873 card was never illustrated in any of the REA or Sotheby’s sales and Hauls of Shame has not been able to locate an image of the back. One collector who previously owned the card told us, “As I recall, the back paper loss was one section in the middle that wasn’t too big.” Another former owner of the same card told us, “I do remember the photo clarity was poor and there was a paper loss on the back, maybe half-dollar size.”
The third likeliest suspect as one of the two missing NYPL Boston cards is the example that spent several decades in the Barry Halper Collection. The card was first documented on the original SABR contact sheets from a photo shoot John Thorn and Mark Rucker conducted in 1982 at Halper’s residence in Livingston, NJ. Thorn and Rucker were in the process of compiling images for inclusion in the SABR National Pastime publication which was a review of 19th century baseball photography. Halper’s example is highly suspect because it appears among other rare photographs that fit the description of other missing items from the NYPLs Spalding Collection including ultra-rare cdv’s of Deacon White, Ross Barnes and John Ryan. Halper’s 1873 Boston card that was photographed by Thorn and Rucker was later offered for sale in 1999 at Sotheby’s along with a rare and trimmed 1872 Boston BBC trade card. The two cards sold together for only $5,175 and in 2000 dealer Steve Verkman offered the 1873 card for sale in an SCD advertisement. The last known owner of the Halper copy had the card graded and encapsulated by PSA as a “PR-FR 1″ and the former owner confirmed for Hauls of Shame that the back of the card exhibited visible paper loss.
The fourth suspect 1873 Boston card appeared in 1994 and 2005 sales conducted by Lifson and REA and is in question primarily for its lot description which, like the Copeland-Lifson example, describes damage on the back of the card as, “a small amount of paper loss (approximately 10%, not affecting the several lines of copyright text) to the reverse from having once been affixed, and then removed from a scrapbook.” The card was encapsulated and graded “Authentic” by PSA and sold for $9,280 but Lifson and REA did not include an image of the damage on the reverse of the card.
The fifth through tenth examples known to exist all appear to be legitimate non-NYPL examples of the 1873 card and show minimal or no back damage with no evidence of bleaching whatsoever. The veteran collector who purchased his card in the 1970s told us his card has a clean back with no paper loss. These cards also have no blatant provenance issues with one of the cards originating from the estate of Hall of Famer Deacon White. In addition, only one of these six cards has been linked to the known library thieves in the hobby, in particular, Lifson. These facts significantly increase the probability that the cards Lifson handled directly could very well have included the two examples stolen from the library.
We contacted the former UPenn writer, Joel Siegel, to see if he had any further recollections about the story he wrote about the “card-crazy” freshman nearly thirty-seven years ago. Siegel, who is currently the managing editor for NY 1 and the former political editor for the New York Daily News said he couldn’t recall the story but said, “The name rings a bell.” Siegel added, “I gravitated to off-beat stories about strange and interesting subjects. I once wrote about a student who was called the ‘domino wizard’ and I suppose the baseball card collecting freshman was just as interesting.” Siegel, who had left the college paper by the spring of 1979, also had no recollection of Lifson’s apprehension at the NYPL or hearing of the incident making the news at UPenn.
Hauls of Shame sent a copy of the 1978 UPenn article to the NYPL and askedthe library’s Director of Media Relations, Angela Montefinise, whether the institution would investigate which of the ten existing copies of the 1873 card were stolen from the library? Montefinise responded stating, “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 could not comment on the status of the FBI investigation into the Spalding Collection thefts which commenced in 2009 and the New York office of the FBI says the Bureau will not divulge whether the NYPL probe is still active. The NYPL, FBI and US Attorney are currently embroiled in a legal battle with a Long Island woman to recover a million-dollar Benjamin Franklin manuscript that was also stolen from the library.