By Peter J. Nash
July 28, 2013
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Back in the 1950s, Dorothy Seymour Mills held Harry Wright’s letters in her own hands at the New York Public Library’s famous Spalding Baseball Collection. She was conducting research with her late husband, Dr. Harold Seymour, for his Cornell University dissertation and their groundbreaking book Baseball: The Early Years which are both considered the first scholarly works dealing with our National Pastime. The NYPL’s Harry Wright correspondence archive was a key component in the Seymour research because it was a comprehensive day by day record of the man considered the “Father of Professional Baseball” spanning from 1865 to 1894.
Mills and her husband took copious notes documenting each letter they cited in their work as originating from the pages of four giant scrapbooks of Wright’s letters which were housed in the library’s manuscripts division. A few of the most important documents the Seymour’s discovered in the treasure trove of missives were poignant letters to Wright from pitcher Jim Devlin who had been banished for “throwing games” in one of baseball’s first gambling scandals. The down-and-out Devlin was begging the magnate Wright for any type of work possible to help feed his struggling family.
In July of 2009, those very same letters from Devlin that Mills utilized at the library over sixty years ago appeared for sale in Major League Baseball’s All Star Fanfest Auction conducted by auctioneer David Hunt. The letters were offered by Hunt as a “Cache of Rare 19th Century Letters With Relation to Harry Wright.” Hunt told the New York Times that his consignor found the stash of letters in a “grandparents estate” while Harry Wright’s granddaughter, Pam Guzzi, asked Times reporter Jack Curry, “Why would someone have them if they weren’t related to him? Why would they be in their grandmother’s attic?” The NYPL President and CEO at the time, David Ferrerio, told the Times the situation was very “disconcerting” and added, “We try our hardest to make sure we’re protecting the collection.”
Guzzi knew that her great-grandfather had bequeathed his entire baseball archive to the National League in 1895 and afterwards it became part of the collection of baseball pioneer Albert G. Spalding whose widow donated his entire archive to the NYPL in 1921. Dorothy Seymour Mills knew the letters in the auction were property of the New York Public Library and her citations and research notes housed at Cornell University’s rare and manuscript division proved it unequivocally. At the time Mills identified lot 254 in the Hunt sale as the same Devlin letter she saw at the library and said, “This is proved on page 219 of the doctoral dissertation that I helped my late husband prepare for Cornell University.” Seymour’s footnote identified the exact same letter being offered for sale and based upon her proofs, the Times headline read: Another Clue That Baseball Auction Has Stolen Items.
The Devlin letters for sure had been stolen from the library and all of the others were suspected to have originated from three of Wright’s correspondence scrapbooks which were documented as missing when the library took an inventory in 1983. Based upon Mills’ testimony, the New York Times reported that the evidence unearthed caused the auction house to pull the letters from the MLB auction and the NYPL enlisted the aid of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who officially commenced a probe into the alleged Spalding Collection thefts. Mills recounted her experience aiding the FBI on NPR and later wrote an essay about her experience entitled, When Baseball Obsession Goes Too Far, The FBI Steps In.
Now, four years after the FBI opened its investigation into the missing Wright letters, Haulsofshame.com has learned that the Feds have returned the letters they collected in 2009 to the original consignor from the Hunt/MLB auction. In addition, several of those questioned documents have just appeared for sale on eBay while another Wright letter, also believed to have been stolen from the NYPL scrapbooks, is appearing for sale at Huggins & Scott Auctions. A collector and eBay seller we interviewed revealed that he had purchased twenty-five of the Wright letters from the original 2009 auction consignor and confirmed that the consignor informed him that the entire “cache of Wright letters” was returned to him by the FBI in late 2012. The consignor, who asked for anonymity, told Haulsofshame.com that the FBI agent he dealt with said he would not interfere if he tried to sell them. He was told, “There will be collectors who will want to buy them.”
The FBI was right, as the consignor posted a message on the collector forum Net54 which is owned, operated and moderated by a criminally convicted felon named Leon Rantz Luckey of Allen, Texas. Luckey’s membership includes several collectors who are notorious for buying, selling and showing-off contraband artifacts from institutions and his biggest advertiser, Rob Lifson of Robert Edward Auctions, was actually apprehended stealing items from the Spalding Collection in 1979. In reporting the incident TIME Magazine said the culprit was caught stealing a “cache of smiling infielders.” In recent years Lifson has made several conflicting confessions.
The owner of the stolen Wright letters reached out to collectors on Luckey’s forum in late January asking what the value of a Jim Devlin letter to Harry Wright might be. The consignor also posted a link to Haulsofshame.com’s “10 Most Wanted National Baseball Treasures” list and pointed to another Devlin letter written to Wright which was also part of the NYPL collection but not part of the Hunt cache he inherited from a grandparent. A collector responded to the consignor’s message in February and says that he purchased the documents for his personal collection. ”He told me they were returned and his to do whatever he wanted to. The FBI gave him their blessing so I bought them,” he said. The buyer also confirmed that the two Devlin letters were in the consignor’s possession and that he had been “saving up to purchase one of the Devlin letters, too.” The collector told Haulsofshame.com that he knew of the background of the letters and also says that he purchased them to preserve and keep them together should the NYPL ever pursue them on their own.
The Devlin letter featured on the Haulsofshame.com website’s “10 Most Wanted” list was sold at Sotheby’s in 1999 as part of the Barry Halper collection. In the course of the four-year FBI investigation many of the Harry Wright letters were traced back to Halper, the New York Yankee partner who died in 2005. One FBI agent said, “Most everything seems to lead back to Halper,” and for good reason, since it was Halper who once showed The Sporting News what was described as “his collection of written correspondence by Harry Wright.” Viewing Halper’s collection at his residence in July of 1977, Bill Madden wrote a feature for his “The Sports Collector” column and highlighted a Devlin letter to Wright and another from slugger Ed Delahanty’s father sent to Wright in 1889. Madden reported that Halper showed him the correspondence by “flipping the plastic-covered pages of yet another scrapbook.”
A few months later in 1977, Halper gave writer Peter Golenbock a call and said, “I just picked up something the other day you’d really get a kick out of. It’s a letter written by James Devlin to Harry Wright.” Golenbock described the letter as a “priceless treasure (historically), a link to one of the most sordid chapters in baseball history” and he published the entire letter dated November 25, 1877, in his “World of Baseball Autographs” column in The Trader Speaks. It should be noted that the surviving Wright Scrapbook No. 2 (which is still at the NYPL) includes two additional letters from Devlin to Wright dated February 24, 1878 and November 14, 1879. In addition to Golenbock, several sources have confirmed that Halper had a sizable archive of Wright letters in the late 1970s and he sold scores of them when he liquidated his collection at Sotheby’s in 1999. Halper’s Devlin letter sold for $8,050.
In February of 2012, Haulsofshame.com published excerpts from an interview with a source who alleged Halper had admitted he was responsible for the NYPL heist. The source disclosed that in the early 1980s Halper was questioned by a family member of the source as to what the origins were of some rare items Halper was offering. The source said, “Barry bragged to (my relative) that a lot of his collection came from that (the New York Public Library).” The source added, “Barry said it was there for the taking and Barry was quite proud of it. (My relative) absolutely could not tolerate it.” We asked the source to confirm that the thefts were from the NYPL and the source stated, “Yes, the New York Public Library, he used to talk about how he did it.” When asked to delve further into details the source stated, “These were conversations he and (my relative) had, and obviously, (my relative) and I talked about it, but I can’t remember that Barry himself, but he also hired other people to do it and told them and how to go do this, so it was just something that once we knew, that was the end of the relationship (with Halper). It always amazes me because he was trading on he was always bigger than life, and people just let him get away with it and I just couldn’t believe it.”
Many of Halper’s offerings at Sotheby’s have also been confirmed as stolen from the NYPL having been documented verbatim in the Seymour research notes at Cornell. Most notable was a letter to Wright from Morgan Bulkeley awarding Boston the 1875 Pennant and another was an 1879 contract signed by Wright and player Ezra Sutton. Both items were described in detail by the Seymour and Mills and the contract was even documented as being displayed in the NYPL’s main exhibition room in 1922. In addition to documents, Halper also had many rare photographs that exhibited evidence of an NYPL ownership stamp, including several portraits of Harry Wright.
Based upon our source’s testimony, Halper likely coordinated the thefts before he purchased a 2% interest in the New York Yankees in 1979 and became one of George Steinbrenner’s limited partners. With evidence suggesting that an MLB owner was involved in the theft and possession of letters donated to organized Baseball and the National League, one would think Bud Selig and MLB Security would conduct their own investigation to aid the NYPL and FBI. Sources indicate, however, that Selig and MLB are reluctant to look into “one of their own” even though Halper also swindled and defrauded MLB and the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998 when he sold them several million dollars of counterfeit artifacts including what he alleged was “Shoeless” Joe Jackson’s 1919 Black Sox jersey.
When the Hunt letters appeared in the 2009 MLB auction MLB spokesman Matt Bourne said Selig was, “eagerly awaiting further information on this matter,” and MLB President Bob DuPuy told the Times he commended Hunt Auctions for “deciding to withdraw merchandise that is not properly documented.” Haulsofshame.com followed up and called MLB’s Matt Bourne to ask if Selig & Co. had conducted their own investigation into Halper, but Bourne was unavailable for comment. Halper’s ownership interest in the Yankee franchise passed to his widow, Sharon Halper, who is currently listed as a Yankee limited partner.
Sources indicate that the FBI returned the letters to David Hunt and that the auctioneer passed the documents, many of which are still affixed to c. 1920’s scrapbook paper, to his consignor. Of the forty-five documents returned, over 33% of the auction lots, including the Devlin letters, were proven to be NYPL property based upon the Seymour’s published works and the corresponding research notes at Cornell which quoted verbatim the content of many of the Hunt Auction letters. Lot 253 in the Hunt auction has Devlin describing an auction of his home as he writes, “The sherriff is on the ground and it will be sold Tuesday.” At Cornell, Dr. Harold Seymour’s original NYPL research note also states, “The sherriff is on the ground and it will be sold Tuesday” and identifies his source as a Nov. 2, 1877 letter located on pages “44 and 45″ of “Wright Corres. 1″ at the NYPL. The FBI received a full report documenting these proofs in September of 2009 provided by this writer. Sources indicate neither the FBI nor the NYPL have ever visited Cornell to examine the Seymour Papers on their own.
The woman who provided the original “smoking gun” evidence to the FBI and Jack Curry of the New York Times when the letters were originally pulled from the auction is disturbed by the FBI and NYPL actions. Dorothy Seymour Mills, who has also been honored with her likeness on SABR’s “Harold and Dorothy Seymour Medal” for her “lifetime contributions to baseball’s historical scholarship” was in disbelief wondering, “How can the FBI give Hunt it’s blessing?”
There’s no question that many of the letters Mills singled out four years ago belonged to the library when David Ferrerio made his comments to The New York Times. Mills added, “David Ferrerio could not have been trying “his hardest” to protect this valuable collection if he didn’t even know it had been sold.”
Mills also had strong words for Ferrerio’s successor, NYPL President and CEO, Tony Marx, ”I believe the leadership of our famous New York Public Library needs to be fired. Scholars are going to be shortchanged even more when this administration starts moving important scholarly books off-site. I have long considered the great NYPL my second home and have a painting of the entrance, with the famous lions, on my office wall. I feel like turning it over so that I won’t have look at it and remember what’s happening to our valuable cultural asset.”
Mills also made a point to stress how important the NYPL collection was in shaping her career as a historian and author and noted recent comments in the MLB Insiders Club Magazine made by Jim Gates, Librarian of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York. Mills says Gates noted her “efforts as a researcher and writer for making baseball history an accepted field of study” and how due to her efforts there are now “dozens of graduate students of both genders laboring away at baseball-related dissertations.”
Mills told us it would not have been possible without cultural assets like the Spalding Collection. ”I couldn’t have done it without the NYPL. But I wonder if today I would even be able to start such a huge project depending largely upon original manuscript material. I doubt it,” she said.
Marx and the NYPL have also come under fire from other historians and scholars in the wake of his $350 million renovation plans for the famous Fifth Avenue Branch which calls for relocating almost one million books from the NYPL stacks to a storage facility in New Jersey. Two separate lawsuits were filed this month against the library, one of which alleges that the “destruction of the stacks” would “surely doom the NYPL’s mission to serve the public’s research and reference needs.” Historian Mills agrees with the charges and adds, “They’re acting in the same way about changing the NYPL from a great research library, famous world-wide, to a neighborhood lending library and gathering spot for coffee drinkers, because they got a big bunch of money to do it.”
Historians like Mills view the recent give-away of the valuable Harry Wright letters as a similar travesty of scholarship and a violation of the wishes of Harry Wright who bequeathed his baseball archive to the National League and Spalding in 1894 so it could serve as “a nucleus or beginning of a historical collection of memoranda and facts bearing upon our grand national game of baseball.” Spalding’s widow, in fact, entertained several offers for the collection but chose the NYPL because it would be “most accessible to the greatest number of lovers of our national game.”
The library just capitalized on its baseball holdings last week by displaying a rare T206 Honus Wagner card from the Goulston Collection and, ironically, the entrance was adorned with MLB All Star Game-themed apple sculptures just four years after the Wright letters were offered for sale in MLB’s 2009 All-Star Game auction. The give away of the documents that represented Harry Wright’s life’s work has come as a great surprise to his great-great granddaughter, Pam Guzzi, who was shaken by the news. Guzzi said, “I find this whole thing so backwards and ridiculously wrong. I feel like I must be missing some valuable piece of information because otherwise, none of this makes any sense to me and really makes me heart sick. It was my understanding that it was obvious these items were among the missing stolen items from the NYPL Harry Wright collection. If that is the case, how does it make sense that they be returned to the seller/consignor to do with as they please?”
Guzzi has viewed the evidence supplied by Dorothy Seymour Mills and Haulsofshame.com and like many baseball researchers feels, “Until it is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that these items are not stolen property, why would the FBI not hold onto them indefinitely? I wish I or my family had the money to purchase all of these items so that this nonsense would come to an end.”
The nonsense Guzzi describes is the shady baseball artifact trade that has even extended to the theft of her great-great grandfather’s last will and testament from a Philadelphia courthouse. The codicil to that document bequeathing his letters and archive to the National League in 1895 was also sold by the auctioneer that offered the stolen letters in 2009, David Hunt. Despite being notified that he also sold the stolen codicil to Wright’s will, Hunt has failed to recover and return the document he sold for over $10,000 in the late 1990s. Hunt did not respond to requests for comment.
Guzzi is understandably disturbed. She added, “This is my great-great grandfather’s legacy we are talking about and I feel utterly helpless. These documents are a major part of history and will be lost forever if something isn’t done immediately to return them to their rightful resting place at the NYPL.”
We also contacted a descendant of A. G. Spalding, who compiled the entire NYPL collection, and informed him about the FBI return of the Wright letters. Keith Spalding Robbins, the Godson of Spalding’s only son Keith Spalding said, “Such profiteering from stolen goods is a cancer that erodes the integrity and hurts the legitimacy of the sports memorabilia marketplace and must be eradicated.” Robbins said he recalled his family discussing the Spalding thefts at the dinner table in the late 1970s and added, “The Spalding Collection is not just a collection of books images and letters, it is a record of achievement and baseball knowledge of small towns and numerous families. The archives need to be restored and returned to the public for all to see, enjoy and learn from.”
Responding to our inquiries about the Wright letters, the NYPL’s Director of Communications, Angela Montefinise, said, “The New York Public Library is fully committed to retrieving all items stolen from its Spalding collection in the 1970s. While we are being patient with Federal investigators – who have an extremely difficult job definitively proving that items came from the Library – we are also actively pursuing other options to try to ensure that our materials are returned. For example, we have reached out to at least one auction house directly to request that an item be removed from sale, as we believe it originated in the Spalding collection.”
In response to the outcry over the FBI’s return of the letters Montefinise added, “As for the letters being (returned) by Hunt’s, we have to defer to the FBI on this matter, as it is conducting the investigation. What we can say is that The New York Public Library has made it extremely clear to all involved that it wants all of its materials returned and made accessible to the public, where they belong. The Library never conceded that these items were not ours, and certainly never instructed the auction house to sell the materials. That is completely untrue.”
Sources indicate that the library has contacted Huggins & Scott Auctions and identified the Harry Wright letter they are currently offering as NYPL property. The company has not yet responded to that inquiry and auction rep Josh Wulkan has not responded to ours.
Special Agent Jim Margolin from the FBI’s New York City press office declined comment on the return of the Wright documents but added, “The investigation into the Spalding Collection thefts is still open and active.” But the FBI failed to answer how the US Attorney apparently failed to make a case to keep the letters despite the fact that eight of the twenty-five Hunt lots were verified as NYPL property through the Seymour citations, research notes and the eyewitness testimony of Dorothy Seymour Mills. The remaining lots which were not cited included letters pasted to jagged pages ripped out of scrapbooks and bearing the same dates as the missing Wright scrapbooks.
Having been informed of the responses provided by the library and the FBI, Dorothy Seymour Mills responded, “I thought the FBI was more efficient than that. I’ve lost confidence in them. The FBI should have demanded the return of Library property.” As for the NYPL response she said, ”The Library should have asserted its rights over that material instead of leaving it all to the FBI. At the very least the Library officials should have given a press conference saying it wanted its possessions back and (said) why the FBI couldn’t get it for them. The Library should have pointed out how strong the evidence was. This is really disappointing.”
A source familiar with the FBI probe says that there have also been other significant items recovered by the FBI, some said to have been taken via civil forfeiture, and others that were seized and since returned to other owners. An item said to have been recovered was at least one of the missing Harry Wright scrapbooks which was described as mangled with most of its pages and contents removed. Both the NYPL and FBI declined to comment on any additional recoveries.
Keith Spalding Robbins, the man whose family originally made the generous gift of the Spalding Collection to the library in 1921 left us with this, “I would suggest that some of the descendants of the 19th century baseball (pioneers) stand on the steps of the NYPL and hold a press conference demanding to know what has happened and that a crime has occurred.” Robbins also noted that City officials bear responsibility saying, ”It’s most infuriating and disappointing that the priceless material of the Spalding Collection at the NYPL was stolen by a bunch of wanna-be wise guys from New Jersey, and the only thing of meaning for the current crop of Mayoral candidates is figuring how to keep their pants on rather than protecting treasured material that belongs to Public Library and the citizens of New York.”
(More coverage of the NYPL Spalding Collection thefts can be found in the Sunday edition of the New York Post)
UPDATE (July 31, 2013): Another Stolen Harry Wright Document Is Sold At Premier Auctions In Arizona For $2,244; Auction House Now Linked To Two Pages Ripped From Wright’s Account Ledger Books In NYPLs Spalding Collection-
On the heels of the New York Post and Haulsofshame.com reports revealing the FBI’s return of stolen Harry Wright letters to the 2009 Hunt/MLB All-Star Game auction consignor, Premier Auctions of Arizona has offered and sold yet another document that clearly originated from Harry Wright’s personal archive that was donated to the National League in 1895.
The document appears to have been ripped from either Wright’s original account book ledger or one of Wright’s incoming correspondence scrapbooks which were donated to the NYPL in 1921 by A. G. Spalding’s widow. The document offered by Premier is dated from 1892 and originated either from volume 16 or 18 in the Wright “Note and Account Books 1860-1893″ at the New York Public Library. The auction house describes the document as:
Approximately 6” x 7 ¾” sheet from a ledger written and signed in black fountain pen while Wright was manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1892, Nm/Mt signature. The sheet was for a road trip to Baltimore that season and “Statement of Baltimore trip Aug. 12/92” is handwritten by Wright on the reverse. The sheet has three intersecting folds and an irregularly trimmed top edge but is in otherwise remarkable condition given its age. Fantastic example from the posthumously inducted Hall of Famer. JSA Auction LOA.
This is the second document believed to have been stolen from the NYPL’s collection that Premier has offered for sale, the last of which was reported by Haulsofshame.com earlier this year. We interviewed author Daryl Brock about the document:
Daryl Brock, author of If I Never Get Back, a celebrated novel that incorporates Harry Wright as a character, utilized the NYPL collection in his research and recalls viewing the first volume of Wright’s “Note and Account Books” which covered the years 1860 through 1871. We showed Brock the stolen page offered by Premier and afterwards he recalled the volume he examined. ”Pages were missing and I have no way of knowing if the one in question now was one of them. The small penciled page sure looks like the same format though,” said Brock.
Premier never responded to our inquiries about the first offering earlier this year and they failed to respond to our inquiry yesterday. We asked if the two documents were consigned by the same consignor and whether the auction house had any provenance information on the document dated from 1892. Premier list its principals as Jasmani Francis, an appraiser from PBS’ Antiques Roadshow, Walter Cerini and Matthew Palmero who is listed as a former employee of Mike Gutierrez the current consignment director at Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas, Texas.
NYPL spokesperson Angela Montefinise did not respond to our inquiry about the document being offered by Premier. Montefinise told the New York Post last weekend, “The NYPL has made it extremely clear that it wants all of its materials returned and made accessible to the public.” Several baseball historians we spoke with agreed that his document originated from the Wright collection with one calling the current offering a “pathetic joke.”
In our last report historian Dorothy Seymour Mills called for the firing of NYPL President Tony Marx for his failures in recovering the stolen material for the library.
Premier sold the Wright document earlier this evening for $2,244, considerably less than what a legitimate document signed by Wright in ink would command. One collector told us he stayed away from the Premier lot because he believed it was stolen from the NYPL.
Wright’s great-great granddaughter, Pam Guzzi, was disturbed that another document was sold. She said, “At what point are people going to realize what a travesty it is that these documents of such significant historical value continue to find their way into the hands of greedy collectors/sellers? These materials should be kept together for all to see and we need to demand they be returned to their rightful home at the NYPL. Why is this latest Harry Wright letter allowed to be up for bidding at Premier Auctions of Arizona? I implore the Auction house to do the right thing and remove it from the block, pending further investigation.”
Legitimate documents signed by Wright are very scarce and are worth anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000. There are only a handful of legitimate letters written by Wright in private hands. A Wright letter stolen from the NYPL Harry Wright scrapbooks is also being offered by Huggins & Scott in their current auction.
Josh Wulkan of Huggins & Scott has still not responded to inquiries about the provenance of that auction lot.