As Hall of Famer Yogi Berra once said: “It’s Deja-vu all over again.”
Last year Hauls of Shame published an investigative report about the Baseball Hall of Fame thefts which identified several rare documents believed stolen from Cooperstown and traced them back to hobby veteran Lew Lipset and his Four Base Hits auctions back in 1989 and 1990.
The report included a copy of a 1970 letter sent by Hall director Ken Smith to New York sportswriter Red Foley acknowledging the receipt of fourteen 19th century New York Giant payroll receipts bearing the ultra-rare signatures of several Hall of Famers including Mickey Welch, Buck Ewing, James O’Rourke, Jesse Burkett and Roger Connor.
Now, one of those same documents, the signed Roger Connor receipt, has surfaced in Heritage Auction Galleries’ Platinum Night event scheduled in New York City for February 22nd. Like the Buck Ewing receipt from the same group, which sold for over $35,000 in a Mastro Auction in 2004, the Connor document represents an extremely valuable autographed rarity which could command a sales price of $50,000. Heritage describes the document as “just the third representation to surface in the modern collecting hobby.”
The problem is, the document also fits the exact description of a signed Roger Connor receipt sent to the Hall in 1970 by Red Foley and the auctioneer who sold that same Connor autograph in 1989 for $3,800 has no recollection of where he acquired the document, along with the others including O’Rourke, Ewing and Welch. The document sent by Foley (and the others) are all currently missing from the National Baseball Library.
When Hauls of Shame interviewed Lew Lipset last year he confirmed that he sold the rare Giant documents and also revealed that the winning bidder on a few of the lots was auctioneer Duane Garrett from Richard Wolfers Auctions. Lipset said that the Buck Ewing document sold for $3,625 in September of 1989 and the O’Rourke and Welch receipts sold for $4,500 and $4,400 respectively early in 1990. The Ewing document was subsequently authenticated and encapsulated by PSA/DNA and sold in a 2004 Mastro Auction and currently appears on the PSA “Autograph Facts” website as an exemplar of Ewing’s signature. When asked about the sale price of the Connor autograph, Lipset said he did not have any information indicating the price realized in his November 1990 sale.
When Lipset offered the documents for sale he noted that the ends of the documents were trimmed or clipped. When he sold the Buck Ewing autograph Lipset noted the document was “Partially cut at right, not affecting signature.” As we reported last year, it is likely that the documents were cut to remove the National Baseball Library accession information which would have indicated the year of donation and the sequence of the item’s donation during that time period.
In regard to his acquisition of the rare autographs Lipset told us, “I remember when I got ‘em. It was one of those too good to be true things. I didn’t give a thought to the fact that they could be stolen.” But as for who he acquired the stolen documents from Lipset responded, “I have no recollection where I got these but I remember I was suspicious not because of the origin but if they were real and I brought them to Mike Gutierrez, who told me they were good. It is also my recollection that they were in my collection for a few years before I sold them, so I would have purchased them a few years before the auctions.” We also asked Lipset if he had any records that might show the identity of the seller and he answered, “I have no check records from that far back, so I have no idea.”
Lipset, however, also revealed that he had a partnership at that time with Mike Gutierrez, who is now well-known as the prime suspect in the 1980’s Hall of Fame thefts and the subject of an FBI investigation due to the fact he sold a stolen Babe Ruth photo to New York dealer Josh Evans in 1988. According to ex-Hall employees the investigation was dropped because the institution feared bad publicity and backlash from past and future donors of artifacts to the museum. Gutierrez is currently working for Heritage’s Chris Ivy as one of his consignment directors.
Lipset and Gutierrez have a long history of partnering on memorabilia deals and the purchases of collections over the years. Gutierrez even served as the point-man for Lipset’s autograph survey published in the late 1980s in his hobby newsletter, The Old Judge. In one of his surveys Lipset also reveals that Gutierrez made several trips to the Hall of Fame to seek out exemplars for the survey and autograph price guide published in Lipset’s Old Judge newsletter.
In our report last year, we asked Lipset about his relationship with Gutierrez and he indicated that both men have not spoken in years. But Lipset did recall the days when they were close and even mentioned taking a trip to the National Baseball Library with Gutierrez in the late 1980s. Lipset told us, “The one time I went to the Hall with Mike, we weren’t there very long. We were in Tom Heitz’ office discussing Mike’s idea and I don’t believe anywhere else. I don’t think Mike was off by himself, but then I don’t really remember.” The “idea” Lipset mentioned was a proposal Gutierrez made to Hall officials to permit him access to contact information for Hall of Fame families and relatives in order to purchase memorabilia and then donate portions of those purchases to the Hall since the museum is not permitted to purchase artifacts.
The museum policy that bars the Hall from buying material directly was actually referred to in the 1970 letter sent by Ken Smith to Red Foley. In that letter, Smith made it clear to Foley that the generosity of the donor, a friend of Foley’s cousin identified as “Mrs. McSherry,” was greatly appreciated. Smith wrote, ”The museum does not purchase display and library material” and made a point to thank Foley upon his receipt of the documents in Cooperstown: “I certainly appreciate yours and your cousin’s kindness in remembering the Hall of Fame as a place where these signatures would be welcome.”
The revelation in our report published last year of Smith’s letter to Foley being found in the Hall of Fame files should have prompted Hall officials to investigate the situation and report the loss to the authorities. All items donated to the Hall are property of New York State, not the Hall of Fame or the Clark family who founded the institution in the 1930s. When we asked if the accession records could be reviewed to confirm the 1970 donation of the payroll documents Hall spokesman Brad Horn denied us access to the records and would not reveal if the Hall was in possession of other similar receipts as the 1970 letter to Foley indicated that there may have been additional “coupons” in Mrs. McSherry’s possession.
The failure of the Hall of Fame to properly report thefts and safeguard the treasures they have been entrusted to protect and preserve was illuminated even more when a CDV photograph of the 1870 Philadelphia Athletics, which was verified as stolen from the National Baseball Library, was sold at Legendary Auctions in 2012. Despite our production of unimpeachable photographic evidence proving the photo was stolen from the library, Hall of Fame officials did nothing to either claim title to or challenge the sale of the donated artifact. The A’s CDV had been photographed by the Society For American Baseball Research (SABR) in 1983 while it was still part of the Hall of Fame’s collection. The rare card ended up selling for about $1,600 (about $8,000 less than a legitimate one Legendary sold in 2010).
That CDV had no direct link to Mike Gutierrez or Lew Lipset and first appeared at auction in a 1994 Robert Edward Auctions sale conducted by Rob Lifson the self-confessed institutional thief who was apprehended stealing CDV’s at the New York Public Library in the late 1970s. Other items photographed by SABR in 1983 do, however, appear to be Hall of Fame property and have been sold in auctions conducted by Lew Lipset. Lipset sold 1886 and 1894 cabinet photos of the NY Giants team and a Horner portrait of John J. McGraw that appear on contact sheets from SABR’s 1983 photo-shoot at the Hall.
When we asked Lipset back in December of 2012 where he acquired the 1886 Giant team cabinet photo his response was identical to the answer he gave about the 19th century payroll receipts. Lipset again told us, “I know I had the 1886 in my collection for years before I put it in the auction. Its the same one as in the SABR publication. I have no record or recollection where I got it from.” After Lipset unloaded the photo in his own sale it ended up selling again at Heritage who auctioned the same cabinet card for over $10,000.
Lipset’s past partnership with Gutierrez and his handling of items stolen from the Hall with no recollection whatsoever of how he came into possession of them has created a body of circumstantial evidence that would lead many to believe he knew the items he was selling were stolen. Our research indicates there are many more suspect items that Lipset and Guttierrez have been partners on. One of those items is Keith Olbermann’s $63,000 Harry Wright cricket CDV that was removed from Robert Edward Auctions sale last year. That CDV was purchased by Lipset and Gutierrez at a 1989 Butterfield & Butterfield auction as part of a photo album alleged to have originated from Wright family relatives. But the album had no verifiable Wright provenance and Gutierrez was the auction consultant for Butterfield at the time. Gutierrez also alerted Lipset that the photos were being sold and asked that he front the money to purchase them. Lipset confirmed this last year when he told us, “I do remember the Butterfield auction. Mike was working for Butterfield as a consultant and he called me with a description of the album. I told him to “buy it”. We were partners on it.”
The evidence, however, suggests that the CDV album may have belonged to Harry Wright’s brother George and may also have been part of a very substantial donation Wright’s son Irving Wright made to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1941. Its just another situation where Gutierrez and Lipset are linked to items suspected to have been stolen with no verifiable or legitimate provenance. The same could be said for Gutierrez’ employer Heritage Auctions which has removed and also sold numerous documents believed to have been stolen from the Hall of Fame’s famous August Herrmann Papers Collection.
Despite all of the evidence suggesting the links between Gutierrez and Lipset and stolen items like the signed Roger Connor document in the current Heritage sale, the Baseball Hall of Fame continues to violate its charter by failing to protect and recover the artifacts entrusted to their care. The Hall’s failure to pursue recovery and establish title for items stolen from its library has not yet prompted the filing of any action against the museum by the office of the New York State Attorney General. The Hall of Fame’s Director of Communications, Craig Muder, responded to our inquiry about the Heritage sale and said, “The Museum has no comment on this.”
In response to our inquiry, Chris Ivy sent us this answer (in its entirety) via email:
“Heritage has no interest in selling stolen collectibles. Every consignor to our auctions signs a consignment agreement noting that they have legal claim of ownership and that is the case with this item as well. On rare occasion, we are contacted by authorities drawing legal ownership into question. Certainly if the Baseball Hall of Fame or any governmental agency were to contact us about this item we would take the appropriate steps. This has not happened. I can assure that we will not sell this item if any evidence supporting your claims of disputed ownership is supplied by the parties in question.”
In response, Hauls of Shame sent Ivy and his father, Heritage founder and CEO, Steve Ivy this email (in its entirety):
“In regard to the issue of disputed ownership I published an excerpt from a letter written by HOF director Ken Smith in 1970 which specifically documented his receipt and possession of a group of NY Baseball Club pay receipts. That document identifies a signed Roger Connor receipt and several others sent to the Hall by Red Foley. I cannot locate any such Connor receipt (or any others) in the collection of the National Baseball Library. You describe the Connor receipt as an “elite rarity” that was “located in the archives of the New York Giants.” What evidence or information do you have to support your stated claim that this document was in a New York Giant archive? Where was that archive? What research has the auction house conducted to assure its bidders that this item is legitimate?
You do realize your consignor’s claim of title is meaningless considering the same item was offered previously by Lew Lipset who claims he has no idea where he acquired the document before it was sold his own auction. I should also note that Mr. Lipset claims to have accompanied your employee Mike Gutierrez on a trip to the National Baseball Library shortly before the time he sold the Connor check in his own auction and had Gutierrez authenticate the signature for him.
Considering the rarity of the item and the dubious provenance beginning with Lew Lipset’s sale of the same Connor receipt are you still comfortable selling it?
Or is it that, even if it appears to be stolen from the Hall of Fame, Heritage is fine with selling the document simply because the Hall will not claim title and dispute the sale (as has been the case with numerous other items that you have even previously removed from sales)? I understand your dilemma regarding the Hall not disputing the sale, but wouldn’t the strong evidence supporting the claim that this is the property of New York State, deter Heritage from even getting involved with the sale of such an item?
When Legendary Auctions recently offered an 1870 CDV of the Phila A’s we published an article showing the exact same item (with the same unique imperfections) documented as HOF property in a photograph taken by SABR inside the museum in 1983. Even with that overwhelming evidence the HOF declined to claim title or dispute the sale. Is it Heritage’s belief that the inaction of the Hall in regard to past items like the A’s CDV has now somehow made these items free and clear of future title issues for your customers?
Aren’t you really just saying that even if an item is identified as stolen you have no problem selling it because the victim of the theft is not pursuing recovery? Just wanted you to clarify that based on your statement that Heritage “has no interest in selling stolen collectibles.” If the Hall doesn’t pursue recovery of a stolen item, isn’t it still stolen?
I have been blocked by Hall officials from viewing the museum accession records from 1970 to identify the donation number assigned to the Connor receipt in 1970. Have you attempted to access that information from the Hall of Fame? Do you feel an obligation to contact the Hall of Fame considering the evidence suggesting this document was stolen from the Hall’s archive?”
Steve Ivy responded to our inquiry via email:
“We have an obligation to both the consignor, and any potential buyer, as covered by our consignment agreement, and terms of sale. As outlined in Chris’s email, we also have an obligation to deal with any 3rd party that may have a claim, and we do so when such situations occur. We can’t address what ultimately amounts to conjecture, as you are asking us to do, as that may harm the consignor who has warranted good title. As you are aware, we also warrant good title to any potential buyer, and clearly have the financial wherewithal to back it up. You obviously have no standing in this matter. Your continued attempts to create issues where none exist (at least to our knowledge) to promote your own interests is transparent to all who know you.”
It appears Ivy believes an item still has good title even if the prior seller claims he has no idea where he acquired the item and was also partners with the prime suspect in the Hall of Fame thefts at the time he sold it. Ivy also fails to address Heritage’s prior sale of the $10,000 cabinet photo of the 1886 Giants which was stolen from the Hall of Fame and also previously sold by Lew Lipset. Ivy is also aware that Lipset could not recall where he acquired that stolen item either. Ivy appears to have no problem with his company selling stolen property.
We responded to Ivy and asked for one more clarification: ”Based upon your response is it safe to say you and your son Chris just made that thing up about the Connor receipt being “located in the archives of the New York Giants”?
Incident reports related to the New York BBC payroll receipts, including the Roger Connor receipt, are said to have been filed with Chief Michael Covert of the Cooperstown Police Department. Lew Lipset, who recently retired from the hobby as an active dealer and auctioneer, was contacted last night at his home in Carefree, Arizona, and still had no recollection where he picked up the Connor autograph. When asked if he had figured out how he acquired the $250,000 worth of signed documents since we spoke last year Lipset replied, “I still don’t remember.” Lipset is said to be working on a hobby memoir chronicling his career as a dealer and collector since the 1970s. It is not clear whether Lipset’s memoir will reveal more about his relationship with Mike Gutierrez or the source of the 19th-century payroll receipts he sold in his own auctions.