Breaking News

By Peter J. Nash

November 12, 2014

Hot on the heels of the recent auction withdrawal of the 1909 Pittsburgh Pirate photo that was stolen from the National Baseball Library in Cooperstown, another vintage image of the 1921 Red Sox, was removed from another auction after it was identified by Hauls of Shame as also having been stolen from the archives of the Baseball shrine.

The photo was once part of the collection of the late artist, Richard Merkin, and was being offered by Hake’s Americana in York, Pennsylvania. Like other rare and valuable photographs stolen from the Hall featuring the portraits of Christy Mathewson, Nap Lajoie, Mickey Welch and others, this photo features Hall of Famers Hugh Duffy and Herb Pennock and also shows evidence of Hall of Fame library ownership identifications being obscured to conceal its Cooperstown provenance. But unlike other sports auction houses like Heritage and Huggins & Scott which have refused to withdraw stolen item from sales, Hake’s President, Alex Winter, immediately removed the photo from the sale when informed that the library accession number was visible on the reverse of the photo.  Said Winter, “The item has been removed. We will make sure the photo finds its way back to where it belongs.”  Winter said he would contact the Cooperstown Police Department to inquire how the photo can be returned to the Hall.  When similar stolen items have appeared at auction, however, the Hall of Fame has failed to claim title or attempt to recover the artifacts.  One case in particular involved a a rare 1870 CDV photograph of the Philadelphia Athletics that was sold by Legendary Auctions despite photographic evidence that documented the item was once part of the Hall’s collection.

The attempt to conceal the fact that the 1921 Red Sox photo was stolen from the library was unsuccessful as the library accession number is still clearly visible in black ink on the reverse of the photo. That number, which reads: “BL-11,608-89″ was transformed into “BOSTON” with a blue sharpie, but is still clearly visible. The number represents the 11,608th item donated to the National Baseball Library in 1989. The photo also shows evidence of the handwritten letters “PD” in the upper right corner which is written on photos at the library which are in the public domain.  Former Hall of Fame librarian, Tom Heitz, did not respond to our inquiry asking if he could identify the handwriting of the accession number.

The back of the 1921 Red Sox photo being offered by Hake's reveals two sections that have notations obscured by modern sharpie writing. When magnified it is also revealed that these notations were added to conceal the Hall of Fame accession number of the photo which reads: "BL-11,608-89." The number indicates this was the 11,608th item donated to the institution in 1989 and is New York State property.

The appearance of the stolen photo at auction is just further evidence of the multi-million dollar thefts that occurred at the Cooperstown institution in the 1980s.  As scores of reports published by Hauls of Shame have proven since 2011, the objects stolen from the Hall and listed on our “HOF Hot 100 list” have been scattered all over the hobby and have ended up in the hands of many unsuspecting parties.  This particular photograph was owned by the late artist Richard Merkin.

The handwritten HOF accession number covered by the blue sharpie ink on the stolen photo (top left) matches another accession number on a photo still in the HOF collection identified as: "BL-5160-88." An accession number appears on a Hugh Duffy cabinet photo donated in 1956 (top right) and another from 1986 (bottom right). The "PD" notations to the right signify that the HOF considers them "public domain."

Last month, when a 909 Pittsburgh Pirate photo appeared in a Huggins & Scott auction, Hauls of Shame alerted the Cooperstown Police Department and also submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson. The Cooperstown Police are currently investigating the situation and sources indicate they have been in contact with Huggins & Scott Auctions, the consignor of the photo and officials from the Hall of Fame.  Hall officials, however, have refused to comply with our FOIA request which they were supposed to respond to within five days of receipt under New York State law.  All of the artifacts in the Hall’s collection are owned by New York State, not the Hall of Fame, and it is our contention that all documentation and information related to donated artifacts is subject to FOIA guidelines.

Red Sox exec Bill James was critical of HOF leadership in his 1994 book (inset). Current HOF leadership under Jane Clark and Jeff Idelson is refusing to honor FOIA requests made by Hauls of Shame.

Bill James, in his 1994 book, Whatever Happened To The Hall Of Fame, said as much when he wrote:

“Before anything else, the Hall of Fame belongs to the State of New York.  There are state regulations regarding the operation of a museum and the care of its artifacts, and these regulations have the force of law.  The state is the ultimate owner of all of the Hall of Fame’s property.  If you give something to the Hall of Fame, you are giving it to the State of New York; if you were to steal something from the Hall of Fame, you would be stealing it from the State of New York.”

James, who is currently an executive with the Boston Red Sox, also wrote about a 1980s Hall of Fame scandal involving the sale of donated artifacts by, Joe Reichler, an assistant to then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.  When James wrote his book, however, he was unaware of the massive thefts and only had knowledge of a small selection of missing items involved in the Reichler scandal. All of those artifacts, mostly World Series programs, were ultimately recovered by the Hall after New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams sent a letter to Bowie Kuhn.

The current Hall President, Jeff Idelson, and Chairman, Janes Forbes Clark, appear to be at odds with James’ statement regarding New York State laws, and sources familiar with the inner workings of the institution have confirmed that the Hall’s stonewalling of our request is directly related to the continued cover-up of the thefts which expose the gross negligence related to the institution’s care of artifacts and even greater negligence in their failure to actively pursue recovery and claim title to stolen items that have surfaced in public auctions and in private collections.

L to R: Self-Portrait of artist Richard Merkin; 1993 "The New Yorker" cover by Merkin; Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album featuring Merkin (inset and in red).

Throughout the past few decades the materials stolen from the Hall of Fame have made their way into the unlikeliest of places and the inclusion of the 1921 Red Sox team photo in the collection of the late artist Richard Merkin is a testament to this.  Merkin was a noted artist with works in the collections of the Whitney Museum, the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Modern Art and his illustration work also graced the covers of magazines including The New Yorker.  Merkin also served as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair Magazine and was also a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design.  In his 2009 New York Times obituary writer Tom Wolfe said, “He was the greatest of that breed, the Artist Dandy, since Sargent, Whistler and Dali.  Like Dali, he had one of the few remaining Great Mustaches in the art world.”

Merkin was also a prominent collector of baseball artifacts and memorabilia with a particular focus on Cuban baseball and the Negro Leagues and throughout his career Merkin created many paintings of baseball legends ranging from 19th and early 20th century baseball pioneers such as Harry Wright and Rube Foster.  After Merkin passed away in 2009, his baseball collection began to appear for sale at Hake’s Americana which was founded by Merkin’s friend Theodore Hake. The auctioneer has been offering Merkin’s significant baseball holdings (and other treasures) in sales that have spanned over the past few years.  Merkin also had a notable collection of erotica which was the subject of his 1979 book Velvet Eden: The Richard Merkin Collection of Erotic Photography and he is also well known for his appearance on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album released in 1967.

Hake’s estimated that the value of Merkin’s 1921 Red Sox photo was about $400 but several experts we spoke with believed the photo was worth over $1,000 if it had clear title. Baseball Hall of Fame and President Jeff Idelson did not respond to our inquiry as to whether they will attempt to recover the photograph from Hake’s and failed to identify who donated the Red Sox photo back in 1989. The Cooperstown Police Department, which is currently investigating the theft of the 1909 Pirate photo withdrawn from a Huggins & Scott sale, became aware of the Hake’s offering and its withdrawal after they were contacted by Hauls of Shame.


3 Comments

  1. Merkin was a one of a kind and underated as an artist. He was one of the great collectors the hobby has ever seen. This goes a long way to show how out of control this HOF situation is. It seems like these stolen items surface on a weekly basis.

    Comment by Chris A — November 12, 2014 @ 10:01 am

  2. Keep exposing the fakes, phonies, frauds and thieves! But it is EVERY sport that has been affected by the greedy individuals who are supposed to be the stewards of history. I have seen dozens of examples of various state athletic commissions, most notably New York and California, having their records (boxing and wrestling) sold online.

    I would love to see the state of New York come down hard on the individuals that stole this material from the Cooperstown shrine, but wish they would look into the theft of historical records from the archives at the NYSAC, too.

    Comment by Scott Y — November 13, 2014 @ 9:41 am

  3. KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK! YOUR REPUTATION AT
    “HAULS OF SHAME” SHINES BRIGHT, WHILE THE CENTER OF THE HISTORIC BASEBALL WORLD, “THE HALL OF FAME”, CONTINUES TO
    DISAPPOINT THE ADORING FANS OF THAT INSTITUTION AND THE
    “NATIONAL PASTIME” ITSELF!

    Comment by JAY C. — November 13, 2014 @ 4:50 pm

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