Breaking News

By Peter J. Nash

April 24, 2015

Last month it was revealed in court papers that former Mastro Auctions exec Doug Allen was accused by the Detroit Public Library of stealing two photos from its Ernie Harwell Collection. This month, Allen’s former partner and documented library thief, Rob Lifson, of Robert Edward Auctions in Watchung, New Jersey, is selling two photos that fit the description of items stolen from the New York Public Library and appear on its Spalding CollectionMissing List.” The list was created after library officials took an 1987 inventory of the donated Spalding photographic holdings and found that over one hundred rarities were missing including an 1879 cabinet card image of A. G. Spalding and his Chicago White Stockings and a cabinet card of the 1879 Boston team listed as “Unidentified group with Harry Wright.”

The 1879 Chicago photograph is being sold by REA as “newly discovered” and was identified in the published 1922 NYPL Spalding inventory  as “White Stockings of Chicago. 1870. California Team” with the names of every player identified on the cabinet mount. The date of 1870, however, was a typographical error as the White Stockings only had a California tour in 1879 and all of the players listed appear in the photograph. REA’s Boston cabinet card features the same image that NYPL officials were unable to identify in 1922 and described as “Cincinnati, Boston or Philadelphia?” for (3) photographs.  Two of those items went missing from the library but the one surviving NYPL copy features the same image as the REA auction lot depicting Wright and his 1879 club.

It’s been nearly 100 years since the original NYPL Spalding inventory identified the 1879 White Stockings photo as NYPL property and the example being offered by REA and its President, Rob Lifson, represents the first appearance of any photograph fitting the description of that missing Spalding treasure. In its current auction catalog Lifson and REA describe the lot as:

“Exceedingly rare team cabinet card capturing eleven members of the Chicago White Stockings’ “California Tour” team in 1879, including Cap Anson and A. G. Spalding. This is the first example of this extraordinary Chicago team cabinet we have ever seen or handled….”

REA's current lot description calls the 1879 Chicago White Stocking cabinet photo a "newly discovered example" that neither REA or auction President Rob Lifson had ever handled or seen before.

According to REA, the newly discovered rarity came from outside of the hobby and not from an established or well known collector.  In the lot description REA details the provenance of the photo without mentioning the consignor’s identity:

“This card was part of a small but very exciting new find of three nineteenth-century cabinet cards that came to us last fall. (Two of the cards, an 1878 Boston team cabinet and a 1879 White Stockings team cabinet, sold in our fall auction.) All three cards had, for decades, been in the possession of a noncollector’s family. The only time these cards have even had a “brush” with the modern collecting world was in 1989, when members of the family, curious as to what the cards were and if they had any value, decided to have them appraised. Because they lived in California, they brought them to Richard Wolfers Auctions in San Francisco and were told by a representative of the company that the cards were valuable and worth thousands of dollars. At that time, the owner decided not to sell them and instead gave them to her grandson, a young 8-year old collector who was passionate about baseball, with instructions to keep them in a safe deposit box at the bank. The grandson, our consignor, has now decided that the time has come to sell them.”

REA also claims that they had seen the same image on the 19th century baseball uniform website, Threads of the Game, but what REA fails to mention, however, is that they provided the image for that same website after they acquired a digital copy from their consignor.  The written description of the same 1879 Chicago photograph has been accessible in the published inventory of the Spalding Collection since 1922.

The REA auction lot of the 1879 Chicago cabinet fits the description of an item listed in the 1922 NYPL Spalding inventory and the 1987 "Missing List" created after losses were discovered by NYPL officials.

Considering the fact that REA’s Rob Lifson has claimed in the past to have handled more rare cabinet cards and CDV’s than any other dealer or auctioneer, the fact that he says he’s never seen this cabinet photo should at least open up a dialogue as to how his consignor’s family acquired the rare photograph?  In addition, considering the fact Lifson, himself, was apprehended stealing CDV’s and cabinet cards from the NYPL’s Spalding Collection in 1979, it should also be addressed why he never mentioned the documentation of the missing NYPL copy in his lot description? Could lot number five in REA’s “blockbuster” Spring auction be A. G. Spalding’s missing “California Team” treasure?

Dealer Rhys Yeakley sold this "1915 re-shoot of the original" 1879 White Stockings photo. Unlike the REA auction lot, this image appears to be from a larger 'Imperial' size photo. (Photo courtesy of Rhys Yeakley)

Although REA fails to identify or mention the existence of the missing NYPL example, this writer has been aware of the photographic image since 2009 when a copy of the 1879 photo was forwarded to the FBI and included in a 300-page report detailing the library heist in the 1970’s and the whereabouts of scores of stolen Spalding artifacts. At the time, memorabilia dealer Rhys Yeakley of Prewarsports.com had offered on his website what he described as a “1915 re-shoot” of one of the original 1879 albumen prints depicting Spalding’s “California Team.” Yeakley’s offering of the 1879 team photo provided the NYPL and the FBI a visual representation of the missing artifact and at the time was the only known resource to document what investigators needed to look for in the NYPL recovery process.

The image captured on the 2nd generation print appears to be an Imperial size cabinet much larger than the example being offered by REA.  When we asked Yeakley if he could recall where his photo originated he told us, “I think it came from the Helms Museum when that collection was being sold on eBay maybe 5-6 years ago.”

In 2009 an image of the 1879 Chicago cabinet was submitted to the FBI and NYPL in a report (left) documenting the thefts. The report was submitted after the NY Times (right) reported that Spalding items were offered in an MLB auction.

The FBI investigation was commenced when a “rare cache” of 19th century letters sent to baseball pioneer Harry Wright appeared in a 2009 MLB All Star Game auction.  The letters were once part of several scrapbook volumes of Wright’s correspondence that vanished from the NYPL in the 1970s and the New York Times published several articles quoting historian Dorothy Seymour Mills who confirmed that several letters in the sale were cited by her and her late husband in published works. Since 2009 the FBI has been investigating the NYPL thefts and has attempted to recover items with Spalding Collection provenance but they have been highly unsuccessful in their recovery efforts.  To date the NYPL has only recovered a handful of thousands of stolen items that are now in private hands.

Lifson & REA have sold items stolen from NYPL's Spalding Collection: (Top Row l to r) 1872 signed Warren CDVs of Geo. Wright, Ross Barnes and Cal McVey; 1875 Hartford BBC CDV; Andrew Peck signed cabinet card (Second Row l to r) Harry Wright cabinet cards by MacIntire, Randall & Warren; Alexander Cartwright Tabor cabinet photo; 1874 AG Spalding letter to Harry Wright (Third Row l to r) 1889 Geo Stallings letter to Wright; 1873 Boston BBC CDV, Rob Lifson, Barry Halper (Bottom Row) Knick Challenge letters from Excelsior, Star and Hamilton teams.

While Lifson is the only individual ever apprehended stealing artifacts from the NYPL’s Spalding Collection, his company, Robert Edward Auctions, has also sold more items documented as being stolen from the NYPL than any other auction house. The 1999 Halper Collection sale at Sotheby’s actually contained more stolen items but Lifson also oversaw that sale as Sotheby’s hand-picked consultant in-charge. Lifson wrote up the lot descriptions and handled scores of stolen item that were being sold by his long-time associate and top client, New York Yankees partner Barry Halper.

When Lifson first opened his auction house in 1991 he advertised his knack to “unearth rare baseball items” but is it a coincidence that so many items matching descriptions of missing Spalding items have made their way into his auctions?  That being said, there is also another rarity being sold in Lifson’s current auction that fits the description of an additional NYPL missing artifact featuring Harry Wright.

REA describes another 1879 cabinet card in its auction as "One of the most extraordinary nineteenth-century team cabinets we have ever seen! This is the only example of this team cabinet we have ever seen, let alone handled.".

Originating from what REA calls a different consignor is an 1879 cabinet card of Wright’s Boston Red Stockings that REA and Lifson describe as:

“One of the most extraordinary nineteenth-century team cabinets we have ever seen! This is the only example of this team cabinet we have ever seen, let alone handled (though from collectors we are aware of the existence of at least one other example in damaged condition)…”

It’s yet another example of REA receiving an ultra-rare consignment that fits the description of a photograph missing from the Spalding Collection.  The 1922 library inventory identifies three photographs as “Unidentified group with Harry Wright” and baseball researcher Charles Mears marked his own inventory booklet and noted that the same 3 photos were stored in boxes 4, 5 and 11 and that one of them was “identified by C. W. Mears.”

An example of REA's 1879 Boston cabinet card in a larger (Imperial) format appears as part of the Spalding Collection at the NYPL but it appears that perhaps two other cabinets like it are currently missing.

Oddly enough, box 11 also housed some of the collection’s over-sized cabinet photographs and the example that is marked on the reverse with a handwritten “11″ by Mears features the exact same image that is found on REA’s “most extraordinary” example.  The other two photos identified as “Unidentified groups with Harry Wright” (once stored in boxes 4 and 5) are missing from the collection. All of the evidence suggests that the “unidentified group” from the NYPL inventory was Wright’s 1879 club.

Hauls of Shame has also located another copy of the 1879 Boston cabinet photo that was sold by Bill Mastro and “The Best of Yesterday” in a 1995 SCD phone auction. That photo is mounted on a cabinet card that does not identify the photographer and Mastro described the card as having “blank reverse.” The REA cabinet photo, the larger NYPL copy and the cabinet card sold by Mastro are the only three 1879 cabinets we could confirm exist.

A second example of the 1879 Boston cabinet card (left) was sold by Bill Mastro in a 1995 SCD phone auction (right).

The FBI and the NYPL have both been notified of the 1879 photographs appearing in the REA sale and when asked about the status of the six-year investigation into the NYPL heist, the FBI’s Supervisory Special Agent in the Bureau’s New York Press office, Chris Sinos, declined comment on whether the Spalding Collection probe is still “on-going.” It is unlikely that the FBI or the NYPL will take any action or claim title to the items that may have been stolen from the Fifth Avenue Branch in New York City.  Library President Tony Marx has done little to reclaim the millions of dollars in artifacts that the institution failed to protect, preserve and recover in the name of the baseball pioneer whose widow bequeathed them to the City of New York in 1921. Angela Montefinise, the NYPL’s Director of Media Relations, told us “The Library’s goal is to retrieve all items from its collection and make those items available to the public. It has procedures in place when a possible item comes to its attention, and it continues to follow those procedures, actively pursuing items when possible.”  Montefinise and the NYPL declined comment as to whether the FBI investigation is still in effect and did not answer any questions we had regarding specific items that have been returned to the library. In addition, Jaqueline Bausch, the library’s VP and Deputy General Counsel denied a New York State Freedom of Information Law request made by Hauls of Shame stating that the New York Public Library is a “private and not for profit corporation.”

The NYPL and the FBI have returned stolen artifacts to consignors who could not establish clear title or provenance for their items and in other cases have claimed that the objects did not show NYPL ownership marks.  The two photos in the current REA sale do not display any visible NYPL stamps or identifying marks, but it is documented that Rob Lifson has used at least one conservator named Louise Kuflik to remove NYPL marks from a stolen Spalding Collection cabinet photo. The 1879 Boston cabinet does, however, show evidence of the removal of writing on the back as REA identifies, “the presence of faint traces of erased pencil on the blank reverse (close inspection reveals that “Boston 1878″ was written at one time)

Hauls of Shame contacted Spalding descendant, Keith Spalding Robbins, and informed him of the sale of the suspect 1879 Chicago photo and the NYPL rejection of our FOIL request. Robbins told us, “The NYPL is a most perplexing place. The thefts of the items from the Spalding archives (highlight) two issues.  One, of Library misappropriation of donated items and, two, (it’s supply) of foundational items that have spawned a billion-dollar sports memorabilia industry that both private vendors privately benefit (from).” Robbins also feels that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred should be involved in the recovery process and added, “What is just as displeasing is the new commissioner’s silence on the issue, and thus it begs the question is he the CEO of Baseball or the Commissioner of the best interests of the game?”

The surviving Spalding Collection photo of the 1879 Boston team was originally donated to the National League as the property of Harry Wright and it clearly features his handwriting on the reverse of the photo identifying each player. The two missing 1879 Boston team photos were also bequeathed to organized baseball. Back in 2009 when the stolen Wright letters appeared in the MLB All-Star Game auction, auctioneer David Hunt said the “rare cache” of letters was consigned by a man who inherited them from his grandparents.  At the time Wright’s great great granddaughter, Pam Guzzi, told New York Times reporter Jack Curry, “It seems odd to me. Why would someone have them if they weren’t related to him? Why would they be in their grandmother’s attic?”

The same question can be asked about REA’s offerings of these two rare 1879 photographs featuring Spalding and Wright. Where did these grandmas and grandpas obtain their photos of MLB’s founding fathers?

(Editor’s Note: The co-chairman of SABR’s Pictorial History Research Committee, Mark Fimoff , has informed us that a cropped image of the 1879 White Stockings appeared in “The Baseball Anthology – 125 Years,” Joseph Wallace, Aberdale Press, 1994, p. 77 with a credit to Culver Pictures.)


12 Comments »

  1. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Trust me.

    Comment by Mrs. Oleary's Cow — April 24, 2015 @ 12:21 pm

  2. This guy is like the hobby’s Hillary Clinton.

    Comment by Simone — April 24, 2015 @ 1:02 pm

  3. You didn’t mention that both photos have bids of $10,000 and $7,000

    Comment by Chris — April 24, 2015 @ 1:44 pm

  4. This guy is like the hobby’s Dick Cheney.
    Only this guy didn’t lie about WMD, and start a war leading to the deaths of thousands of American soldiers.

    (Hey Peter, do you really want the site to become another place where political BULLSHIT reigns? How about deleting comment 2, as it brings nothing to the discussion. It’s not even snarky. It’s fucking dumb.)

    Comment by Gary Alexander — April 25, 2015 @ 8:16 am

  5. Peter, great job as always.

    It amazes me how, considering the money involved, there is still a Wild West atmosphere in the industry. Then again, I think I answered why in the question.

    At this point, when I see a great vintage item for sale I assume it’s either fake or stolen.

    Comment by Mike B. — April 25, 2015 @ 11:45 am

  6. As NYPL does little to recover items stolen from the Spalding Collection, library officials show they can pursue recovery when they want to (and the items don’t relate to baseball)…. http://nypost.com/2015/04/24/theft-of-centuries-old-books-from-nypl-probed-by-grand-jury/?utm_campaign=SocialFlow&utm_source=NYPTwitter&utm_medium=SocialFlow

    Comment by admin — April 25, 2015 @ 12:14 pm

  7. According to the article linked to here, the grand jury was convened at the NYPL’s request to delve into the mystery of eight books missing from the NYPL for at least thirty years – a loss the Library was apparently not even aware of until the existence of the eight books was brought to light by an allegedly unsuspecting owner, who reportedly found them while going through her deceased parents’ belongings and tried to sell them back to the Library based on markings seen on the books. The NYPL contacted the district attorney, and the grand jury was convened. But Peter is, sadly, correct when he emphasizes the “items [that] don’t relate to baseball” part of the equation in figuring out why the Library has chosen to pursue this case and yet is so unconcerned about the thefts of so many of its baseball-related treasures. The missing books comprise seven old and rare BIBLES, and one historical publication from Ben Franklin’s printing house. In crime-busting, as in politics, the Bible trumps all. How ironic that that’s hardly what Ben Franklin or any of the original founders of our nation intended. As a matter of fact, it’s what they sought to impose safeguards against.

    In my religion, MY bible begins: “Baseball is a game played by two teams of nine players each…,” NOT “In the beginning…” Shame on the New York Public Library, one of the world’s greatest cultural and educational institutions, for placing more value on the recovery of seven bibles than on the reacquisition of scores of priceless, one-of-a-kind baseball treasures that were entrusted to its care. The library apparently has the will to investigate some of its losses – why not all? Keep up the good work, Peter! You are my favorite gadfly.

    Comment by Perry — April 25, 2015 @ 3:57 pm

  8. I would like to share some thoughts relating to the opportunity I had to purchase a couple of items that I thought may have been from the NYPL Spalding collection in the last year or so. When I was offered the first artifact, a letter, I was a bit suspicious about where it was sourced from. I was told that it came from the Harry Wright estate and to be honest with you, I did not realize at that time that his collection was also housed at the NYPL. During the next year (in part from your website) I came to the realization that both collections were housed at the NYPL. This bothered me and so when the same seller contacted me again with an even more desirable example a few months later, I decided to buy it with the intention of giving both letters back to the New York Public library.
    Well after a few months, I acted on my plan and contacted the library about returning the items. The lady I talked to initially sounded somewhat interested in what I was trying to do for them, but said she had to go to a meeting and would call me back soon. She had all of my contact information. At least 3 weeks went by and I heard nothing. Finally I called again, went through the same story of what I was trying to do with a gentleman that was over the Spalding Collection. He sounded very excited and thankful that I was doing this. I gave him all of my contact information, as I had done during my first call and he said that he would be back to me. So many months have gone by that I don’t even recall how many now, but sadly he never called me back. I must admit that this angered me somewhat. They didn’t even have the decency to say thanks but no thanks and this is why.
    With all that’s been reported on your website about the Spalding collection and after my own experience with the NYPL, this is my conclusion about the whole mess.
    First of all, the letters offered at Hunt’s Auction years ago were probably returned to the consigner because the library did not have a detailed enough inventory describing each letter in detail and therefore could not prove that they ever owned them. Secondly, because of all of the publicity from this website and from other publications relating to the thefts, I think they are embarrassed about their lack of diligence in safeguarding the collection in the past and would just prefer that the whole story would now just go away. It appears to me that the NYPL has thrown in the towel on it altogether.
    Lastly, I would like to add that in my opinion the collectors that have purchased items in the past that may have come from the Spalding collection without knowledge of all of this should be given a break. The collectors in this hobby have been subjected to all kinds of wrong doing by some auction companies (as most of us know) for years and it seems that we are in most cases, always the ones without a voice in this hobby. Again, it appears to me that the NYPL has thrown in the towel on this, so should the collectors who innocently purchased some of these items now feel guilty and ashamed for trying to collect something they love only to find out later that they’ve been taken again? So what are the collectors now to do? You have a library that doesn’t want the stuff back, nor do they even seem to want to talk about it, the FBI is giving clear title to some of the consignors of the artifacts and the collectors that purchase the stuff in auctions over the last 15 – 20 years who are stuck in the middle are supposed to do what? I say “let our people go”, enough is enough.

    Comment by Gary — April 26, 2015 @ 2:45 am

  9. The Chicago cabinet ended up selling for $35k and the Boston cabinet for $7,500. Gary,thats some experience you had. The library should be embarassed but you are right, they shouldnt leave everyone in limbo. There are a few scrapbooks missing that had all of Harry Wrights letters pasted in. Most all of the letters in Hunt and sold in other auctions show that they were pasted in scrapbooks. For these clowns to say they cant prove the letters are theirs is pathetic. The relatives of the donors should ask for all of it back. What a mess.

    Comment by Chris — April 26, 2015 @ 7:02 am

  10. Imagine the conversations in the Yankee Stadium minority owner box between Halper and Lifson back in the day. Phil Rizzuto: “Holy Cow!”.

    Comment by Weezer — April 28, 2015 @ 2:48 pm

  11. ok why is rea not arrested then??

    Comment by vic franklin — April 29, 2015 @ 5:55 pm

  12. yea yea yea — same news?? why is rea still running auctions?

    Comment by vic franklin — April 29, 2015 @ 5:55 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment