Nov. 18, 2010
It all started a little over a year ago when this writer alerted the New York Public Library, the FBI and The New York Times that the Major League Baseball 2009 All-Star FanFest Auction included a “cache of rare 19th century letters” that had been stolen from the New York Public Library’s A. G. Spalding Baseball Collection. After New York Times reporter Jack Curry published three articles chronicling the prevailing suspicions and presenting proof that at least one of the letters was, indeed, stolen from the library’s Harry Wright Correspondence Collection, Hunt Auctions decided to remove the approximately fifty rare letters from the All-Star Game auction in St. Louis.
The New York office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation instituted a probe into the thefts and shortly thereafter took the purloined letters into their possession. Since the probe commenced in July of 2009, all the FBI and the New York Public Library have said publicly is that the investigation is “on-going.”
The focus of the investigation is how three large scrapbook volumes, including close to two thousand 19th century documents and letters, disappeared from the NYPL in the years before 1983. The NYPL discovered that the three volumes were missing in 1983 when the Spalding Collection manuscript holdings were slated to be microfilmed. Only one scrapbook of the four-volume set, spanning the years 1878 to 1884, was found and microfilmed. Since 1983, Volume 1 (1865-77), Volume 3 (1884-89) and Volume 4 (1889-94), have all been designated by the library as “missing.” Industry experts estimate that the value of the missing scrapbooks, containing letters written by baseball immortals, is well in excess of one million dollars.
In July of 2009, historian Dorothy Seymour Mills provided the FBI with key information in regard to specific letters in the MLB All-Star FanFest Auction. When she read Jack Curry’s on-line version of his New York Times article, she recognized one of the letters illustrated on her computer screen. It was a letter written to Harry Wright by banished ballplayer Jim Devlin, who was involved in one of the game’s first gambling scandals. Seymour-Mills and her husband Harold Seymour had utilized the NYPL collection for research in the 1950s. She identified the letter as the exact same one she had cited in her husband’s 1956 Cornell dissertation on early baseball history. It was a smoking gun, so to speak.
This past September, Seymour-Mills recounted her sleuthing in a radio interview on NPR. Said Seymour-Mills, “At the FBI’s request I helped identify those items as the New York Public Library’s documents. I was able to show that they were part of the library collection in the 1950s. It felt nice to be able to help the FBI.”
At the time of the 2009 MLB auction, Seymour-Mills also informed Haulsofshame.com that the research notes she and her husband took at the NYPL were housed at Cornell University’s Rare and Manuscript Division as the “Seymour Papers Collection.” In August of 2009, Haulsofshame.com examined the Seymour Papers and found several vintage 1950s notes written by the Seymour’s that quoted verbatim passages from Wright letters featured in the 2009 MLB auction. The detailed notes even indicated which pages of the scrapbooks the letters were located. Lot 553,the Nov. 2, 1877 Jim Devlin letter, was once located in “Wright Corrres. 1 p.p. 44 and 45; Lot 262, the Dec. 25, 1877 letter from Pop Snyder, was once located in “Wright Corres. 1, p.57; and Lot 263, the Dec. 24, 1877 letter by Nick Young was found in volume 1 “Wright p.56,” etc. etc.
Notes, however, were also discovered that quoted other passages found on documents sold as part of the Barry Halper Collection at Sotheby’s in 1999. Sotheby’s Lot 206, an 1875 Morgan Bulkeley letter to Wright, was once found in “Wright Corres. 1 p.21”; and Lot 226 Ezra Sutton’s 1879/80 contract was once part of , “Wright Corres. 2, no pg.no.” (The Sutton contract appears to have been removed from the volume that the NYPL still retains.) In September of 2009, Haulsofshame.com submitted a detailed report including it’s findings to the New York office of the FBI. A source familiar with the FBI investigation has confirmed that in the course of the year-long probe into the Wright letters, “most everything seems to lead back to Barry Halper.”
In 1999, Barry Halper sold another 1877 letter addressed to Harry Wright from disgraced player Jim Devlin. It was one of 2,481 lots that generated over $21million in sales for the New York Yankee minority partner and super-collector. In addition to the Devlin letters there were others addressed to Harry Wright by baseball luminaries like A. G. Mills, A. J. Reach, Jim Mutrie and others. All of the documents bore evidence of having been removed from scrapbooks.
When the New York Times reported that the letters offered in the 2009 MLB Auction were alleged to have been removed from the NYPL scrapbooks, they noted that all of the letters and documents offered for sale were attached to scrapbook pages and fragments of scrapbook pages. All of the evidence suggested they had originated from the missing NYPL scrapbooks. The last time these scrapbooks were documented as being at the library was in 1972 when author Irving Leitner reproduced letters from the Wright Correspondence, volumes 1 and 2, in his book, Diamonds in The Rough. He sourced the Wright materials and noted nowhere in his footnotes that they were incomplete and he even reproduced a portion of one of Jim Devlin’s letters to Wright.
The infamous letters penned by Jim Devlin pleading to Harry Wright, for financial aid and reinstatement were documented and quoted in the 1960 book, Baseball: The Early Years (Oxford Univ. Press, 1960) by the Seymours, and in Diamonds in the Rough, by Irving Leitner in 1972. (In more recent times a Devlin letter to Wright was quoted in the PBS documentary film, Ken Burns: BASEBALL.) But, perhaps, the most important Devlin letter reference in relation to the FBI investigation of the NYPL thefts came in July, 1977, when a Devlin letter was mentioned in a profile of Barry Halper on the pages of The Sporting News.
On July 16, 1977, columnist Bill Madden wrote of his visit to the New Jersey home of Barry Halper. Madden dubbed it “Cooperstown South” recounting how his host, Halper, was “shipping out scrapbooks, stacks of cards, photographs and sundry other baseball relics.” Madden noted, “He (Halper) should have been a curator instead of a businessman.”
One group of items highlighted in the report was a grouping that Madden stated, “Would surely bring envy from the Hall of Fame historians.” It was Halper’s “collection of written correspondence by Harry Wright.” Madden mistakenly referred to the collection as letters written “by Wright,” but they were actually letters addressed to Wright as evidenced by his description of the items he held in his own hands. One of those items he described as “an authentic letter from (Jim) Devlin, pleading to be reinstated.” No further detail was given, but it is clear that the document Madden witnessed was either the Devlin letter Halper sold at Sotheby’s in 1999, or one of the two Devlin letters included in the 2009 MLB Auction.
Halper then told Madden as he was “flipping the plastic-covered pages of yet another scrapbook,” “I have another letter which is unique…It’s from Ed Delahanty’s father to Harry Wright.” Madden recounted the text of the letter in the article:
“Dear Mr. Wright,
Would you please write me as soon as possible as to the condition of my son Edward. His mother is very anxious for him.
Madden stated that the letter from the father of Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty was from 1875, but he was mistaken, it was actually written in 1889. We know this because the Internet portion of the Halper Collection Auction at Sotheby’s in 2000 featured a lot with one letter written to Harry Wright in 1887 by player “Deacon” McGuire and the letter Madden quoted, written to Harry Wright by Delahanty’s father dating from 1889. Consistent with evidence showing the letter was removed from one of the NYPL scrapbooks, Sotheby’s described the Delahanty and McGuire letters as being “glued onto a paper backing,” with, “a Western Union telegram remnant adhered to the back.” Madden had only quoted one sentence from the letter in his 1977 article. The actual letter, dated April 9, 1889 reads:
“Will you kindly send me word, as soon as possible, by telegraph or mail, the condition of my son Edward, as his mother is anxious to hear of his condition as the papers in Cleve. say he is in danger of blood poisoning. Please advise as soon as possible and oblige his anxious father, James Delahanty.”
Dr. Jerrold Casway, Delahanty biographer and author of Ed Delahanty in the Emerald Age of Baseball, was stunned when he learned of the existence of the James Delahanty letter earlier this year. Said Casway, “In the course of my research I’d looked everywhere for any document related to Delahanty’s father with no luck whatsoever. It would have been a great addition to my biography. Who knows what other relevant Delahanty correspondence could have been in those missing scrapbooks.”
Halper apparently kept the Delahanty and McGuire letters in his sole possession from 1977 to 2000, when he sold them at Sotheby’s along with many other letters addressed to Harry Wright that appeared to have been removed from scrapbooks. Several of those Halper documents were also directly quoted in the 1950s research notes of Harold and Dorothy Seymour. What is most important about The Sporting News profile of Halper is that it establishes that the missing Harry Wright Correspondence collection (or a portion of it) was in his possession as early as July, 1977.
So, sometime between 1972, when Irving Leitner published letters from Volumes 1 and 2 of the Wright Scrapbooks, and July 1977, when Halper showed off his binders to Madden, some one walked out of the New York Public Library’s 42nd St. branch with three volumes of unparalleled baseball history.
Over the years, Halper sold off other letters written to Wright, one of which was written by Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty, himself, and offered for auction at Christies in 1992. Delahanty’s is one of the rarest Hall of Famer signatures sought by autograph collectors and a handwritten letter would be of the utmost rarity and value. In the past decade a controversial letter alleged to have been written by Delahanty was sold for over $30,000 by Hunt Auctions of Exton, PA. The letter had been authenticated by PSA/DNA and James Spence Authentication, but in one of the most embarrassing episodes of authentication incompetence the letter was exposed as a secretarial letter written by Delahanty’s manager Billy Shettsline. The name “Delahanty” was even misspelled as “D-e-l-e-h-a-n-t-y” on the $30,000 letter. The authenticators didn’t even note the misspelling in their letters of authenticity.
Halper’s Ed Delahanty letter, however, should be 100% authentic, because it originated from the NYPL’s Harry Wright Correspondence Collection Volume 4. (It is possible that someone wrote this letter for him, too. There are very few known examples for comparison). In the letter dated Feb. 20, 1889, Delahanty notifies his manager, Harry Wright, that he was available to report to spring training at, “any time or place.” Christies estimated the 1992 value of the letter between $12,000 and $13,000 and stated it was “an extremely rare letter in ink.”
Industry experts estimate that a legitimate Delahanty letter would fetch upwards of $50,000 if offered for sale at auction today. In addition to Ed Delahanty, Harry Wright managed other Hall of Famers including John Clarkson, Old Hoss Radbourn, Sam Thompson and Roger Connor. Evidence found in the NYPL’s volumes of file copies of Wright’s outgoing correspondence suggests that letters from these legends may also have been included in the missing NYPL scrapbooks. Industry experts estimate the value of each of these letters in excess of $50,000 as well.
The puzzle the FBI is currently trying to solve requires answers to a few key questions:
-How did three large scrapbook volumes packed with thousands of documents find their way out of the NYPL’s doors sometime between 1972 and July, 1977?
-How did Barry Halper acquire his large cache of mangled letters and trimmed scrapbook pages placed in plastic sheets and binders, which were stored on the shelves of his suburban Livingston, New Jersey home?
-Were the three missing NYPL Wright Correspondence scrapbooks totally, or just partially, dismantled?
-What dealers specialized in supplying rare 19th century artifacts for Halper’s collection from 1973 to 1977?
-Where are the hundreds of other Wright documents that were originally pasted into the three missing NYPL scrapbook volumes?
-How did the 2009 MLB auction “cache” of fifty or so Wright letters get into the hands of the person who consigned them to the auction?
The FBI knows who the MLB/Hunt Auctions consignor is, but they will not reveal his identity. One thing they know for sure is that the consignor’s story to Hunt Auctions head David Hunt is highly suspicious. Hunt told the New York Times that his consignor, “consigned the items, saying that the letters had come from a grandparent’s estate.” That would mean that the consignor’s grandparents could have stolen the letters from NYPL themselves or, perhaps, may have purchased them from Barry Halper or some other person. So who was the Hunt consignor, and what is his story now?
When contacted, David Hunt, president of Hunt Auctions, said he was, “not at liberty to discuss the identity of his consignor.” Hunt also stated he has been cooperating with the FBI in the course of their year-long investigation.
In September of 2009, Haulsofshame.com presented the FBI with a report detailing the findings of our independent investigation into the missing Harry Wright Letters. The report included unimpeachable evidence unearthed in Cornell University’s “Seymour Papers,” which proved that many other letters in the 2009 MLB/Hunt Auction were, in fact, stolen from the NYPL’s Spalding Collection, as well as other letters sold by Barry Halper and Sotheby‘s in 1999. (See original report pages below.)
In addition, the report also offered evidence that would aid the CSI-like angles of the Federal probe into the mystery of the stolen Harry Wright Letters. Haulsofshame.com was able to determine that all of Harry Wright’s Correspondence arrived as a donation to the NYPL in 1921, housed in envelopes as loose, unattached documents. Examination of the one remaining Harry Wright Correspondence Scrapbook, Volume 2, revealed dated NYPL stamps showing that the scrapbooks containing the Wright letters were constructed by the library in August of 1921.
Thus, forensic and chemical analysis of the MLB/Hunt Auction letters, the Halper/Sotheby’s Auction letters and all others that have surfaced in the marketplace should help prove that all of the Harry Wright letters originated from the same NYPL-constructed scrapbooks; with the same scrapbook paper backing and using the same adhesive materials. Shortly after the FBI commenced their investigation they came into possession of other Wright letters that had appeared in recent auctions. Letters from Al Reach and George Stallings, attached to similar scrapbook paper backings, have been available for forensic testing since last summer. As evidenced by the 1977 Sporting News profile of Halper, it is believed that the three missing scrapbooks may have been totally dismantled. It was well-known by collectors and dealers that Halper housed his correspondence and document collections in binders filled with plastic sheets. Evidence suggests that Halper’s Wright Correspondence scrapbook pages were trimmed down to fit in his plastic sheets.
Another common link between the documents still housed at NYPL and the lettters sold by Hunt in 2009 and by Sotheby’s in 1999, is evidence showing that each document has notations added in Harry Wright’s own handwriting (or his secretary’s) indicating an identification of each letter for filing purposes. These notations designated the sender, date and other information distinguishing what type of document it was. These filing notes were common in the 19th century and further suggest that all of the suspect Wright documents sold publicly were once part of the entire archive that Wright bequeathed to the National League in 1896, and ended up at the NYPL in 1921.
When reached at Sotheby’s NYC headquarters, Marsha Malinowski, Sotheby’s Senior VP of Collectibles and Manuscripts, said she was totally unaware of the Halper Collection Auction including stolen and suspected stolen items from the New York Public Library. When asked if she was aware of Sotheby’s selling stolen items, and if the FBI had contacted Sotheby’s in regard to the sale of Halper lots alleged to belong to the NYPL, she responded, “No, and our legal department would have contacted me if they had received any information.” Malinowski handled all of the manuscript materials in the Halper sale and added that in regard to authenticating Halper’s documents, “I did most of it myself, I’m a manuscript specialist.” When asked if there were any problems with Halper’s manuscript materials Malinowski added, “We removed an enormous amount of it before the sale because it wasn’t right.”
Access to information about winning bidders of the problematic lots would no doubt help the recovery efforts of the New York Public Library and the FBI investigation. When asked why the FBI had not contacted Sotheby’s in the course of their investigation, Special Agent Jim Margolin of the New York City office of the FBI declined comment. He did, however, stress that the investigation was “on-going.”
A year into the FBI investigation, the mystery of the missing Harry Wright Correspondence Scrapbooks endures. America’s premier research library is still devoid of the untapped baseball lore that flowed through the pens of Baseball Hall of Famers like William Hulbert, Albert Spalding, Henry Chadwick and Ed Delahanty. Delahanty’s biographer Dr. Jerrold Casway knows first hand what’s been lost. “I can only hope the documentary resources that I was denied will be recovered for the benefit of future researchers.”
Click on this link for the original New York Times article from July 2, 2009: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/03/sports/baseball/03auction.html