It appeared last summer on eBay, offered by a New England antique picker as a miraculous garage find in a cardboard box–It was a rare carte-de-visite photograph produced by the Williamson Studios of Brooklyn depicting the 1865 Atlantic Base Ball Club, the champions of America. High-end nineteenth century baseball collectors took note of the alleged gem and within no time the listing had been removed from eBay, rumored to have been taken down by the seller who had likely received private offers for the card that could be worth more than $50,000, if genuine. The picker probably had a better chance of finding a T206 Honus Wagner in that box or a winning lottery ticket for that matter. This CDV of the champion Atlantics was an astounding find and a staggering rarity. The discovery even caught the attention of the local press in the Portland Press Herald.
According to an auctioneer in Maine the eBay seller discovered the card while, “Picking through a wood shed that held old furniture and coke bottles.” He said the card was found in a cardboard box that contained books, ephemera and a photo album. After offering his “find” online, the seller de-listed it from eBay and, according to the auctioneer, “Sold the card to a gentlemen who he picks with.” The sale price was not revealed and the new owner then sent it off to Lelands auction house on Long Island as a consignment that would reach most everyone interested in adding an Atlantic CDV to their collection. However, the owner was disappointed when Lelands, after holding onto and examining the card for a few weeks, sent it back to Maine indicating they could not accept it as a consignment. In Lelands’ opinion it was a fake and when sending the card back were fully aware that if the card were real they would probably have made at least a $10,000 commission upon its sale. Rumors circulated in the hobby that the CDV was a fake and it was quickly written off as a non-entity.
Interested observers were then blindsided when the same auctioneer, Troy Thibodeau, operator of Saco River Auctions, announced on collector forum Net 54 that the same card Lelands said was bogus had been examined by the baseball card grading company Sports Card Guarantee (SGC) and was encapsulated in a graded holder and marked “authentic.” The auction house then announced that the card would appear in its Febraury 6, 2013, auction. Several collectors, however, still questioned the cards authenticity and despite the fact that SGC had proclaimed it genuine, these same collectors called for an expert of 19th century albumen photography to examine the CDV and render the final verdict. Collector Jay Miller suggested the auction house enlist the services of expert Paul Messier of Boston and the auctioneer subsequently arranged for an examination.
On January 7th, Messier issued a report to the auction house confirming that the CDV exhibited characteristics of a 19th century albumen photograph and a period Williamson mount. The conclusion of Messier’s report revealed that additional examination (not authorized by the seller) could have rendered a more definitive opinion. The report states:
Collectors have also commented that scans of the CDV appear to suggest that the albumen photograph may not have been original to the Williamson Studios mount. Messier’s report did not address this issue and what appears to have been a possible removal of a prior image close to the gilded Williamson identification. Messier removed the card from its SGC-graded holder for his examination and would have been able to determine if the albumen photograph was original to the mount if asked to do so. Messier declined comment on that issue stating he was not authorized by his client to speak beyond what is contained in his written report.
Collectors and the auctioneer might now be somewhat relieved to hear that the components of the rare card have been found by Messier to be “consistent with a 19th century albumen print,” however, this determination does not rule out the possibility the card is a forgery which utilized the albumen process. To date, there has been quite a bit of talk as to whether the CDV is a forgery, however, in none of those discussions was it ever considered or mentioned that the card could actually be genuine and perhaps stolen from the New York Public Library’s famous A. G. Spalding Baseball Collection.
Ever since the library’s photo collection was looted of over one hundred rare 19th century baseball images in the 1970s , NYPL officials have been able to ascertain, in part, what images were lost based upon the original inventory taken in 1921 and a subsequent inventory taken in 1986. On a document known as the “Spalding Missing List” three photographs of the Brooklyn Atlantics were determined missing and one identified specifically as having been photographed by the Williamson Studio in Brooklyn with the players listed in the exact same formation as depicted on the Maine “find.” While some observers are still unsure that Saco River’s CDV is authentic, it also fits the description of a photograph still missing from the most celebrated collection of nineteenth century baseball photography. The missing Spalding photographs are currently the subject of an on-going FBI investigation that was commenced almost four years ago.
Original photographs of the Atlantics are rare, extremely rare. In fact, when SABR published its 19th century review of baseball photography in 1983 it was believed that only two original photographs of the team had survived and resided in the collections of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. In his 1983 book, Base Ball Cartes, author Mark Rucker reported that one of the photographs was previously unknown before its “discovery in a box of odds and ends at the Library of Congress.” That photo appeared in 1997 as one of 240 objects in what the New York Times described as the LOCs “largest permanent exhibition it has ever presented.” The LOCs Atlantic photograph was displayed with an impressive group of artifacts including Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence.
The Baseball Hall of Fame’s copy was a mammoth print also shot by Williamson and mounted to a board designating in ornate calligraphy that the Atlantic’s were “Champions of America: 1864, 1865, 1866, 1868, and 1870.” The LOC image was a smaller prototype for a Williamson carte-de-visite of the club produced in 1865. It wasn’t until 1993 that another mammoth image by Williamson surfaced and appeared for sale at Sotheby’s which stated incorrectly in its lot description; “Only one other photo exists of this team, it was found in the Library of Congress and now resides in the National Baseball Library.” The Sotheby’s photo was offered with an estimated value of $50,000 to $60,000.
The Sotheby’s photo was purchased by 19th century collector Corey Shanus and it is apparent that neither Shanus nor the NYPL conducted any serious due diligence to determine if the Sotheby’s offering was one of the missing items from the Spalding Collection. Sotheby’s had already highlighted the rarity of the photo and considering two photos of the Atlantics fitting the description of the auction offering were documented on the NYPL missing list, red flags should have been raised. The fact that Sotheby’s and its auction consultant, Bill Mastro, made no mention of the rare photo’s provenance should also have intensified the scrutiny.
After the NYPL conducted its 1986 inventory it successfully located one mammoth albumen photograph identified as missing on its list, an 1868 Atlantic team portrait that was also used on the famous Peck & Snyder trade cards in 1870 and 1871. The photograph was clearly marked on the reverse as the former property of Hall of Famer Henry Chadwick who had left a large portion of his personal archive to his employer A. G. Spalding in 1908.
The missing NYPL photo designated, “Atlantics of Brooklyn. “Champions of 1864, 65, 66, 68, 70,” appears to be another mammoth photo by Williamson and fits the description of both the Hall of Fame and Sotheby’s examples. The Sotheby’s example, now owned by Shanus, was likely matted in its frame because the board was damaged similar to the 1868 Atlantic photo still found at the library. At the time of the auction, Sotheby’s declared that the photo was housed in its “original frame with new matting” despite the unknown provenance. Recently Shanus has revealed that his photograph is a salt print, not an albumen print. The photograph was included in the 2005 book Smithsonian Baseball and also appears to have undergone a significant cleaning.
Adding to the probability that the Sotheby’s offering is NYPLs property is the fact that several other mammoth-sized prints have been documented as missing from the Spalding Collection including similar over-sized team portraits of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, Forest City, Knickerbocker and Excelsior Base Ball Clubs. Most of these photos feature a wash or paint silhouetting the figures against a uniform grey background. This process was used for publication purposes and also for inclusion in Spalding’s 1911 book, America’s National Game, as well as for a 1920s book series known as The Pageant of America, and its fifteenth volume, The Annals of American Sport, published in 1929.
Spalding’s 1911 book offers an image of one of the missing Atlantic photographs on page 154 and it appears to be a reverse-negative image of the Sotheby’s/Shanus example. It is the reverse of the exact same pose featured on the mammoth print of that example and not the Hall of Fame’s mammoth copy. The fading of the image on the legs of catcher Frank Norton appears to match the Sotheby’s/Shanus example.
In contrast, the same type of fading (or vignette) on the Hall of Fame example begins on the carpet and not on Norton’s leg. When both images are examined side by side, it appears that they are the same image, only in reverse due to the reverse printing of the negative used to create the image in Spalding’s book.
In 1952 the New York Public Library loaned one of its Atlantic photographs to the Museum of the City of New York for a baseball exhibition called “Play Ball.” A promotional wire photo produced in conjunction with this event is found at the National Baseball Library and reveals several interesting facts including a designation of the photograph that identifies it as “reversed.” The cropped image of the NYPL original itself appears to be the same photograph used in Spalding’s book and the same as the Sotheby’s/Shanus example with the same imperfections. It is interesting to note that the area that exhibits a tear or crease on player Pratt’s arm (far right on both Spalding’s image and the 1952 wire photo) is covered by modern matting and obscured on the Sotheby’s/Shanus example on the far left.
The other missing photo on the NYPL list is designated specifically as a Williamson photograph and the inventory entry lists all of the players in the exact positions as found on the newly discovered CDV found in Maine. From left to right it lists players, “F. Norton, Syd. Smith, Pearce, Start, C. Smith, Chapman, Selwin (Galvin), P. O’Brien, Crane, Tom Pratt. Brooklyn, Williamson.”
What are the odds that the Sotheby’s/Shanus Atlantic photograph is one of the NYPLs two missing Atlantic photographs?
Now that Paul Messier has issued his report is it more likely that the Saco River CDV is authentic and quite possibly the other missing NYPL example?
Adding to the mystery (and confusion) related to the Williamson Atlantic portraits is an alternate pose depicting the team which is also found at the National Baseball Library in Cooperstown as well as another example credited to Brown Brothers. This version of the team portrait shows player Pratt holding up a baseball in his hand.
Haulsofshame.com informed Saco River Auctions that the Atlantic CDV being offered for sale fits the description of a photograph believed to have been stolen from an institutional collection and also forwarded a copy of NYPLs “Missing List” for its Spalding Collection. Auctioneer Troy Thibodeau responded, “We fully intend to sell this card(barring law enforcement intervention) on February 6 2013. I do not and will not believe that this card is stolen. This card was legitimately found in far Eastern Maine in September 2012 in an old moldy photo album. I understand that you love to create controversy and make waves in the hobby, but we are not going to partake in this or give you a forum to play your games.”
When asked if the man who found the card was available for an interview Thibadeau indicated that both the seller and the individual who discovered the CDV wanted to “remain private and out of the spotlight.”
Sources indicate that the FBI is aware of the Saco River Auction Atlantic CDV offering. On January 1st the auction house sold a Gray Studios cabinet of Philadelphia player Charlie Ferguson that was previously sold on eBay and afterwards was in the possession of the FBI under suspicion of being a card stolen from NYPL. The FBI returned that card to the owner after it was determined the reverse of the card did not have traces of an NYPL stamp. In that same auction Thibodeau offered what he advertised as an “original” 19th century photograph of the Boston Beaneaters in an old frame. When Haulsofshame.com asked for a scan of the back of that alleged original, the auctioneer revealed that the photo was a modern reproduction. The auction house withdrew the photo before its New Years Day sale.
Stay tuned for part II of the “Long-Lost Atlantics of Brooklyn”………….