By Peter J. Nash
July 6, 2011
Barry Halper sure could tell a story. Not only could he weave them, he collected them along with the artifacts that comprised what many considered the greatest baseball trove this side of Cooperstown.
What started as the innocent pastime of an eight-year-old autograph hound patrolling Ruppert Stadium in Newark, New Jersey, became a lifelong obsession for the man who would amass the world’s largest private baseball collection. Thirty years after he received his first souvenirs from the Newark Bears, Barry Halper even ended up fulfilling his childhood dream of owning a small piece of the New York Yankees as one of George Steinbrenner’s limited partners.
Long considered the founding father of baseball collecting, Halper played a key role in the growth of what’s become today’s billion-dollar sports memorabilia industry. So when Halper cashed in his chips in 1999 and liquidated his massive collection, Sotheby’s auction house forked over $30,000,000 to him, and Major League Baseball contributed another $7.5 million. The MLB purchase was made on behalf of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which would welcome approximately 200 choice artifacts from the famous Halper collection. Upon completion of the deal, Commissioner Bud Selig said in an MLB press release, “This important baseball collection belongs in the Hall of Fame and that is where it will be for all time.”
Halper died in 2005, and in a published memorial tribute his friend and baseball historian John Thorn recalled how the late Halper “left an enduring mark on the game he loved” and how, in the end, he had also laid “claim on a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame.” In September of 1999, the Hall unveiled the “Barry Halper Gallery,” filled with his former treasures ranging from “Shoeless” Joe Jackson’s jersey and “Black Betsy” bat to Ty Cobb’s diary and the paperwork that sent Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees in 1920. The Hall even got Mickey Mantle’s rare rookie Yankee jersey featuring the number 6. Then-Hall of Fame president Dale Petroskey called Halper’s collection “So important to the Hall of Fame in perpetuity, because these artifacts are among the game’s greatest artifacts. They allow us to tell the story better, and they’ll go on forever.”
And what a tale Halper’s own life story was, as well. With just a pushcart, his Russian immigrant grandfather founded a paper products company in 1910, and nearly a century later, his grandson, who carried on the family business, earned permanent recognition in Baseball’s Hall of Fame and part-ownership of one of the most valuable sports franchises in the world. At the 1999 dedication of the Halper Gallery in Cooperstown, Halper noted, “I believe I made my most important contributions to the hobby in discovering rare examples of baseball materials that were, for all intents and purposes, forgotten.”
The “forgotten” rarities Halper claimed to have discovered were staggering in scope, and the stories of their acquisitions became legendary. He recalled for Sports Collectors Digest how he once drove to Greenville, South Carolina, from the University of Miami in the late 1950s to visit “Shoeless” Joe Jackson’s widow and purchase the slugger’s 1919 Black Sox jersey and other relics. He told Mickey Mantle that Yankee clubhouse attendant Pete Sheehy once gifted him a bag containing the Mick’s 1951 rookie jersey. He told Sports Illustrated he tracked down Ty Cobb’s biographer Al Stump and purchased Cobb’s own diary and the shotgun Cobb’s mother used to kill his father. He wrote an essay in Total Baseball revealing the story of his acquisitions of rare 19th century uniforms and Babe Ruth’s first Yankee jersey (autographed) from an old-time Brooklyn Dodger named Ollie O’Mara. He described to writer Peter Golenbock how he acquired the game’s oldest baseball from 1846 directly from the family of Hall of Famer Alexander J. Cartwright Jr. (with letters of provenance from Cartwright and his kin). From a man in Iowa, he secured a lock of Babe Ruth’s hair with a letter of authenticity from the Bambino himself. Halper told the New York Times he got the Ruthian lock by trading him some of General George Custer’s hair. He described for the New York Times how he traded Lou Gehrig’s widow six bottles of J&B Scotch in exchange for the uniform in which Gehrig made his ”Luckiest Man Speech.” Halper even claimed to have acquired Gehrig’s last glove from his replacement, Babe Dahlgren.
Halper’s long-time friend and former Yankee publicist, Marty Appel, once told the Newark Star-Ledger, “(Barry) loved to tell the story of the acquisition. I loved the tale as much as the piece itself.”
Halper made many of his acquisitions long before the baseball-collecting craze took hold of the nation. He told Sports Illustrated in 1995, “My advantage was buying things years before they became real collectibles. Rockefeller wouldn’t have had enough money to buy these things now.”
With his unique profile as a Yankee limited partner and prolific collector, Halper was the darling of the national, New York and baseball presses. An ex-Hall of Fame official described to us how, on a visit to Halper’s home in the late 1980s, Halper spent over an hour proudly showing him a huge scrapbook of press clippings he’d compiled about himself and his collection. The New York Times called him a “One-man Smithsonian”; Sports Illustrated referred to him as “The Sultan of Swap”; and 60 Minutes called him the “ultimate collector.”
Halper told USAToday that he’d honed his collecting skills as an eight-year-old, in 1948, when he jumped under a Yankee Stadium police barricade to get the autograph of an ailing Bambino on “Babe Ruth Day.” Then, Halper claimed, he took that same sheet the Babe signed with him to college where his baseball coach at the University of Miami, Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx, also signed it along with Mel Ott who once visited with his coach. The sheet then had the signatures of all three men who hit 500 home runs. Halper served up stories like this one as if on cue, and the media ate them up accordingly.
Fueled by the cash generated by his family’s paper products business, Halper successfully wheeled and deal-ed his way into an other-worldly stratosphere of collecting. By 1985 he claimed to have “more than a million cards, 864 uniforms, 3,265 autographed baseballs,” as well as boasting that he had the autographs of every single player ever enshrined at Cooperstown. Halper’s friend, Bill Madden, of the New York Daily News and Sporting News, called Halper’s house “Cooperstown South,” and in no time comparisons and a friendly rivalry developed between the collector and the shrine.
Hall of Fame president Ed Stack regularly stated how the Hall was not in competition with Halper, but would have loved to have his collection. In 1987, Stack told USAToday, “We have a far superior collection. We have the distinct advantage of being the official repository of baseball memorabilia.” However, he added, “Some day we would like to have a Barry Halper Room or a Barry Halper Wing at the Hall of Fame.”
Halper, conversely, told reporters he thought his collection was superior to that of Cooperstown, and that the Hall would have to pay big bucks if it wanted it. Halper had other visions of his own museum in Hoboken, New Jersey, home of the former Elysian Fields, where the pioneer Knickerbocker Base Ball Club played its games as early as 1846. Like most, Halper thought Cooperstown’s Abner Doubleday myth was a fraud, and considered Knickerbocker Alexander Joy Cartwright Jr. the game’s true “father.” Still, in spite of his Doubleday disagreement, Halper was generous enough to donate to the Hall a duplicate he had of the rare T-206 Honus Wagner tobacco card, which Cooperstown’s collection was lacking.
But the Hall of Fame also owned something Halper didn’t have and coveted desperately: a particular uniform. Archived on an actual dry-cleaner’s carousel in a secret compartment of his home, Halper claimed to have an example of a game-used uniform or jersey of every player ever inducted into the Hall of Fame, except for one of pitcher named Eppa Rixey. The Hall of Fame actually had Rixey’s jersey. Halper told Franz Lidz of Sports Illustrated he offered the Hall a Ty Cobb uniform for it and even offered to “throw in a Gehrig.” When he heard the Museum could not legally make such a transaction, Halper told Lidz, “I’ll just have to go through life missing an Eppa Rixey.” Halper was used to having it all.
It was Halper’s proclivity to “have it all,” though, that first raised some skeptical eyebrows in the high-end collecting world. When Halper announced to Sports Illustrated’s Robert Creamer his 1982 acquisition of Tommy McCarthy’s last will and testament, he said it was the final item to complete his full set of Hall of Famer signatures. If he ever found an Eppa Rixey uniform, his set of Hall of Famer uniforms would then be complete. Halper looked at these amalgamations as if they were sets of baseball cards with a checklist. The problem was that several insiders knew that attaining such complete runs of signatures and uniforms was virtually impossible. Halper was defying the principles of logic.
When we asked the autograph expert Ron Keurajian what the likelihood was for Halper attaining every HOFer signature, he said, “It’s an impossibility, as too many are considered excessively rare and unique. One would have a better chance finding a cure for cancer.”
Additionally, rumors had swirled about for years regarding Halper’s possession of rare photographs and documents stolen from institutional collections, including the New York Public Library and the Boston Public Library. In the mid-to-late 1970s, the NYPL lost hundreds of photos and thousands of documents from its famous “Spalding Baseball Collection.” Likewise, the BPL lost close to thirty-percent of its famous “McGreevey Baseball Picture Collection.” When Halper responded to an inquiry into the BPL thefts in the 1980’s, he categorically denied ever owning items from the library.
The mystique afforded Halper by the hundreds of press clippings included in his scrapbook never hinted at the darker side of the Halper memorabilia empire. Accordingly, it appears that Halper wielded his own influence in the industry to keep it that way. Because he was a primary source of material for a host of prominent auctioneers and dealers, one hobby veteran told us, “No one wanted to rock the Halper boat with issues of title and authenticity. The guy was like the golden goose.” Halper’s items usually came with inscribed index cards from players or family members attesting to the items’ legitimacy. Another prominent collector said, “Items that came from Halper had a special cache because he was so famous and a Yankee owner to boot.” Halper himself even claimed to have originated the term “Letter of Authenticity” for the hobby.
Halper also made several television appearances as a hobby expert commenting on issues of fraud in the industry. Appearing on ESPN’s Outside the Lines in 2000, Halper was asked by host Bob Ley what percentage of material on the market was bogus. Halper answered, “It’s probably in excess of 50 percent that is not real.” He also admitted he’d been victimized by forgeries adding, “I think every one in this hobby at some time or another has been duped.” In Halper’s estimation, “Wheverer there is money to be made is the most thievery.” When Halper appeared on 60 Minutes he told Morley Safer that most baseball dealers “would sell their own grandma.” Safer replied, “Especially if Grandma made the Hall of Fame.”
By 1995, Halper’s plans for his own Hall of Fame or museum in Hoboken or New York City had failed and, having suffered a heart attack in 1994, he focused on an exit strategy for his collection. So Halper approached Christie’s Fine Art Auctioneers to formallly appraise his holdings. Then he retained the investment banking firm Lazard, Freres & Company to market his entire collection to willing buyers. The item-by-item appraisal done by Christie’s put a value on the collection that exceeded $40 million.
To step up interest in his plans to sell, Halper made the rounds of the press, once again telling the New York Times, “It was time, you can’t hold onto it forever…It’s grown out of control. It’s time to get it out to the public.” Richard Sandomir of the Times described Halper’s gems, including “Shoeless” Joe’s 1919 uniform and Halper’s ”network of contacts” which included Yankee clubhouse man Pete Sheehy and ex-Brooklyn Dodger Ollie O’Mara. Halper added that nothing was going to be donated to the Hall of Fame. Said Halper, “I donated a Honus Wagner card to them, and that was without regrets, even if its worth a few hundred thousand now. I’ve tried to trade with them, but that’s not their policy.”
But in the three years following the Times announcement that Halper was selling, no one came to the table at the $40 million asking price. So Halper decided that the best outcome for the collection was to auction it all off at Sotheby’s. In turn, dealers, collectors, and auctioneers in the industry looked forward to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stock up on the king’s ransom. Even the Hall of Fame came to the table as Hall Chairman Jane Forbes Clark persuaded George Steinbrenner and his fellow MLB owners to contribute to a $7.5 million fund to secure select items from Halper for the Hall, before the Sotheby’s sale.
The Hall was intent on filling certain “holes” in its own collection and sent curators to Halper’s home in Livingston, New Jersey, to select items to tell the stories of nineteenth-century baseball, the Negro Leagues and the Black Sox scandal, just to name a few. Soon after the selection process was completed, Halper’s close friend, Bill Madden of the New York Daily News, reported that the Hall had secured “Shoeless” Joe Jackson’s “Black Betsy” bat and uniform from 1919, the sale papers that transferred Babe Ruth to the Yankees from the Red Sox, and Mickey Mantle’s 1951 Yankee rookie uniform. Sports Collectors Digest also reported that, “The Hall of Fame will also recieve 85 uniforms from Halper’s legendary collection, including those of Satchel Paige, Tony Lazzeri and pre-1900 HOFers like Bobby Lowe, John Clarkson and Hoss Radbourn.”
At the National Sports Collectors Convention in the summer of 1999, the Hall of Fame set up an exhibition to display its new acquisitions from the Halper Collection. It was there that the first real challenges surfaced regarding the legitimacy of the artifacts the Hall of Fame had acquired from Halper. Auctioneer Josh Evans, chairman of Lelands, saw the display and couldn’t believe his eyes. Says Evans, “I was absolutely floored at how much of it was fake. There were several early jerseys I saw and all of them were no good.” Evans was so disturbed he called a member of the Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors, Bill Gladstone, to inform him of what he witnessed. Evans recalls being told that the problem would be dealt with and afterwards remembered, “I called again later to see what happened and Gladstone said they took care of it. I don’t know if they did.”
At the same time Sotheby’s was in the midst of cataloguing the rest of Halper’s trove, including many other rare and unique jerseys dating back to the nineteenth century. In 2005, the New York Daily News reported that when MLB purchased from Halper in 1998, “the Hall of Fame passed on several jerseys because it deemed them fake.” Subsequently, Sotheby’s and their consultant Rob Lifson hired authenticators Grey Flannel to examine all of the uniforms presented for the Halper sale.
At the time of Sotheby’s sale, Josh Evans also confronted Halper about all of the other questionable jerseys slated for inclusion in his auction. Evans, a long-time Halper friend and business associate recalls, “I confronted him on authenticity. I told him a lot of his jerseys were no good, that all of the 19th century stuff was fake. He hated me for that and we never spoke again.”
The scrutiny brought about by Evans’s claims and the fact that the Hall of Fame allegedly passed on or returned numerous garments they had at first selected no doubt created challenges for the Sotheby’s staff and the consultants creating the auction catalogue. Writer Peter Golenbock had written the introduction for the catalogue, marvelling at Halper’s acquisitions of early uniforms. Golenbock described how Halper was introduced to an old ballplayer named Ollie O’Mara who “had a collection of turn-of-the-century items.” Golenbock stated that O’Mara was a major source for Halper, one that ”that never failed him.” In talking to Halper, Golenbock learned and wrote that, “Through the former Dodger, Barry acquired uniforms once worn by nineteenth century legends John Montgomery Ward, Cap Anson, Mike Kelly, Hoss Radbourn and Charlie Comiskey.” But the talk among advanced collectors and dealers like Josh Evans was that the early Halper uniforms were to be avoided. Although O’Mara’s name appeared in the introduction to the catalogue, none of the Halper lot descriptions mentioned an O’Mara provenance.
One collector from the Baltimore area didn’t get word about the controversy until he’d already purchased one of the suspect garments for more than $26,000. Having purchased an alleged 1894 jersey of Baltimore Hall of Famer Wilbert Robinson, the attorney from Maryland wrote Sotheby’s and asked about the rumors and alleged problems with Halper’s nineteenth century materials acquired from Ollie O’Mara. The Sotheby’s executive in charge of the Halper sale, Marsha Malinowski, replied to the winning bidder on November 5, 1999, stating that the garment was authenticated by Sotheby’s experts and that, “Mr. Halper did not purchase all, or even most, of his early uniforms from Mr. O’Meara [sic]. If you have any evidence regarding these two issues, I would be most happy to review it with you.”
Having no additional information about the jersey or O’Mara, for that matter, the winning bidder never pursued it further. When we recently asked Malinowski if she had ever asked Halper directly whether he acquired the Wilbert Robinson jersey from Ollie O’Mara, she told us he flatly denied it. Malinowski told us, ”He said no.” Unfortunately, the winning bidder was unaware of a 1993 essay Halper wrote with Bill Madden for the prominent baseball compendium, Total Baseball. In the essay, Halper confirmed his claim that he had purchased the Robinson jersey directly from O’Mara. Halper wrote, “Apparently O’Mara had maintained a close friendship with Robinson. That is the only explanation I can offer for the fact that he had in his possession the 1894 Baltimore Orioles uniforms of Robinson, Joe Kelley, Wee Willie Keeler, Dan Brouthers and Hughie Jennings. O’Mara never did tell me how he got the uniforms or why he had kept them all those years in near-perfect condition. In 1989 he went to his grave with that secret….”
Ironically, the man Halper wrote his Total Baseball essay with in 1993, Bill Madden, also wrote more recently in the New York Daily News that the Wilbert Robinson and Hughie Jennings jerseys were included in the group of uniforms that the Hall of Fame rejected as fakes in 1999. When the Sotheby’s winning bidder put his Robinson jersey up for auction in 2009, Legendary Auctions told him the jersey was not authentic, based on comparisons to another Baltimore jersey they sold as a consignment directly from the family of player Bill Hofer. The Robinson jersey that sold for $26,000 at Sotheby’s didn’t even fetch $2,000 at Legendary.
So why wasn’t such a great story of provenance included in the original Sotheby’s lot description of the Robinson jersey? And if there was controvery over the authenticity of the alleged O’Mara items, why was the jersey included in the sale? Did Sotheby’s know that the jersey had been rejected by the Hall of Fame?
More important, why would Halper have lied about O’Mara to Sotheby’s head Marsha Malinowski?
The answer likely lies in the blockbuster announcement made by officials at the Baseball Hall of Fame this past October in regard to Halper’s donated “Shoeless” Joe Jackson jersey. In response to a report published by this writer in August of 2010, claiming that the Jackson jersey was not authentic, Hall spokesman Brad Horn admitted to the New York Post that the jersey that Halper sold to MLB in 1999 was a fake. Horn confirmed that tests conducted on the garment revealed that the White Sox logo affixed to the jersey ”contained acrylic (coloring) that was first created in 1941.” In addition, the Hall also confirmed that the fibers used to secure the logo to the garment were made of polyester, a material first introduced in the 1950s.
Considering the Hall of Fame’s findings, the story Halper had told MLB and the Hall about acquiring the jersey directly from Jackson’s widow in her home during the 1950s was impossible. Furthermore, in 1985 Halper told yet a different story to Bill Madden of the Sporting News, stating that the jersey was a “recent acquisition,” purchased through the mail in a cash deal with Jackson relatives.
Since the Hall of Fame’s revelation in October, Halper’s collection has been scrutinized closely, only to reveal more troubling instances of items found to be inauthentic, fraudulent, or stolen. Upon close examination, it appears that many of the signature items in the deceased Yankee partner’s collection, the ones written about extensively for years in the press, are not what Halper said they were. Halper’s breathtaking items are turning out to be fakes that just bolstered the legitimate but less scarce items that constituted the bulk of his collection.
The revelations are piling up:
The autograph Halper said he got from the Babe in 1948 has been deemed a forgery by experts; so has Ruth’s letter authenticating his alleged lock of hair (the hair is bogus, too). In 2009, Ernie Harwell reported, in the Detroit-Free Press, that the FBI determined Halper’s Ty Cobb’s diary was a forgery, and in 2010 expert Ron Keurajian determined it was likely forged by his biographer, Al Stump. SABR researcher Ron Cobb proved in an article he published last August that Cobb’s mother shot his father with a pistol, not with Halper’s shotgun that was featured in SI. Ollie O’Mara’s son claims that his father never sold Halper any uniforms and that his father was a fugitive from 1950 to 1966 and only saved a scrapbook from his playing days with the Dodgers. The Last Will of Tommy McCarthy, that rounded out Halper’s Hall of Famer autograph collection, has been confirmed as stolen from a Boston Probate Court.
Even Halper’s claims of having played for Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx at the University of Miami turned out to be false. Sheldon Dunkel, Foxx’s second baseman confirmed that Halper never played for the Miami team and that Foxx was no longer the coach when Halper first enrolled at the school in September of 1957. Says Dunkel, “If Halper played on those Miami teams, he was a ghost.”
A crown jewel of Halper’s collection and a key item for his plans to develop a museum in Hoboken , his alleged 1846 Knickerbocker baseball, was considered counterfeit by many advanced collectors who claimed the ball was the wrong size and construction for the period. The 1865 letter that accompanied the ball in the Sotheby’s sale was confirmed as stolen from the Archives of Hawaii. The letter was featured in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, BASEBALL. The ball and letter sold for $139,000.
Perhaps the most stunning revelation was that Mickey Mantle’s 1951 rookie jersey, which MLB purchased from Halper in 1998, and featured in Hall brochure, was returned to Halper by the museum as a forgery. Hall of Fame officials denied even being donated the jersey when initially questioned, but a source at the New York Post says that the Hall of Fame confirmed the jersey was returned to Halper. Hall representatives did not, however, reveal when it was returned. In 1989, while filming a segment with Mantle for a commercially released documentary about his collection, Halper told Mantle how Yankee clubhouse manager Pete Sheehy gave him the jersey after Halper told him he had Babe Ruth’s rookie jersey (which has also been deemed a forgery). Halper got Mantle to autograph the jersey on camera and also secured a signed index card from Mantle that read: “To Barry, This is my rookie uniform. I wore No. 6 for the first half of the season….” In 2007, the jersey was consigned to auction by Halper’s widow and was sold as a “replica” of Mantle’s rookie jersey. Nowhere did the auctioneer mention that the “replica” was the same jersey that was purchased by MLB as authentic, nor that it was returned to Halper under suspicion of being a forgery.
Another controversial Mantle item was one Billy Crystal paid $239,000 for, a glove advertised by Halper and Sotheby’s as Mantle’s Rawlings model from c. 1960. In 2003, the New York Daily News reported that a glove designer from Rawlings, Bob Clevenhagen, said the glove was, “Made no earlier than 1964 and most likely used in 1966.” Crystal did not respond to numerous calls from the News.
Even more embarassing was Halper’s sale of Lou Gehrig’s “last glove” at Sotheby’s for a record price of $387,500, when Gehrig’s authentic last mitt was on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame, a donation by Gehrig’s mother as part of her last will and testament. When Halper acquired the glove from ex-Yankee Babe Dahlgren in 1980 Dahlgren didn’t claim it was the Iron Horse’s last glove and said he was given the glove one year after Gehrig retired. But Halper’s Sotheby’s description changed that story for potential bidders claiming Dahlgren got the glove from Yankee clubhouse man Pete Sheehy on the day of the Iron Horse’s last game.
Another striking instance illustrating the magnitude of fakes in the Halper collection was memorialized on the cover of an issue of The Sporting News. In 1985 Halper appeared on the cover with George Steinbrenner, Rickey Henderson, Yogi Berra, and other Yankees in handlebar moustaches and wearing Halper’s alleged uniforms of Ty Cobb, John J. McGraw, Cy Young, Joe Jackson and Pud Galvin. But current investigations show that every one of the jerseys worn in the picture was a fake. Says uniform authenticator Dave Grob, “That picture is the Mount Rushmore of uniform fraud.”
With all of the fakes uncovered to date it must also be noted that Halper still had many legitimate items, too. The Lou Gehrig jersey Halper got from Mrs. Gehrig for those six bottles of scotch, however, appears to have been the genuine article. Halper had hundreds of other jerseys also assumed to be authentic, but questions now linger about virtually everything he had in the collection that was designated as ”game-used.”
Sources estimate that at least $2 million worth of Halper items from the Sotheby’s auction in 1999 were either non-genuine or outright fraudulent. The Hall of Fame’s donated items from the MLB purchase of 1998 include at least another $2 million in fakes, including Joe Jackson’s jersey, bat, glove, and pocket watch, as well as Mickey Mantle’s rookie jersey and Ty Cobb’s diary.
One internet collector discussion forum called Net 54 recently posted a thread entitled, “The Evidence Against Barry Halper is Mounting,” which featured spirited discussion about the Halper scandal. One poster, a collector named Dan Bretta, commented, “I would not lie about how I obtained a high dollar piece of memorabilia that ends up in the Baseball Hall of Fame, especially if its a fraud. You know, that might make it look like I knew all along that the item was fraudulent.” Another collector whose handle is “Steve S.” mused, “I always wondered why people seemed to treat Halper like he was above reproach.”
Evidence does suggest that Halper knew all, or most, of the items he acquired from Ty Cobb’s biographer, Al Stump, were forgeries, including the alleged shotgun used to kill Cobb’s father and Cobb’s dentures. Sotheby’s pulled the shotgun from the sale, but sold all of the other Cobb-Stump collection items.
In addition, it turns out that Halper’s Sotheby’s sale also included significant items confirmed by the FBI as stolen from the New York Public Library and others stolen from the Boston Public Library, the Archives of Hawaii, and the National Baseball Library in Cooperstown. Sources indicate Sotheby’s sold a quarter-million dollars worth of items that had been stolen from institutional collections.
When Halper died in 2005, his estate put up for auction the remaining items he retained in his personal collection. Some of the items his widow found in their home featured ownership marks of the New York and Boston Public Libraries. The FBI took possession of the New York Public Library items, and the others were returned to Boston.
Halper’s documented ownership, as early as 1977, of the personal correspondence of baseball pioneer Harry Wright is also the subject of a current Federal investigation into the thefts from the New York Public Library’s famous Spalding Collection. Wright’s letters, once featured prominently in Halper’s collection, originated from three large scrapbook volumes prepared by the New york Public Library in 1921. The three scrapbook volumes, and the few thousand documents they held, mysteriously vanished from the Fifth Avenue Branch of the library in the 1970s. The estimated value of the missing documents is at least $1 million, and several of those stolen documents were sold by Halper in the 1999 Sotheby’s sale. A source familiar with the current FBI investigation into the thefts recently said, “When tracking the stolen items, all roads seem to lead to Barry Halper.”
The baseball-collecting community is shocked and amazed by the swift and sudden turn of events that have sullied the reputation of the most celebrated collector of all time. When the revelations were first made about the Joe Jackson jersey in the summer of 2010, former Halper friends, colleagues, and fellow collectors were willing to give the deceased collector the benefit of the doubt. Some speculated that Halper may have been the victim of a con and duped by unscrupulous dealers. When the New York Post first broke the story and reported that this writer had claimed that “up to 10% of (Halper’s) collection was fake,” Halper’s son Jason responded by saying the claim was ”baseless.”
But as more details have emerged about Halper’s conflicting acquisition stories about the Jackson jersey and other items, it is clear that Halper knew that he was selling fraudulent and stolen materials. As new evidence surfaces, allegations are also being made that Halper was actually involved in the fabrication of fraudulent relics and that he orchestrated pay-offs to the relatives of a Baseball Hall of Famer for bogus letters of provenance to support those items.
Sources indicate that those closest to Halper while he was living feel betrayed. With all of the accolades and praise showered on him by the press for decades, it is hard for some to come to grips with the magnitude of Halper’s probable fraud. The record established in newspapers and books is now littered with false information and fraudulent artifacts. Even Halper’s obituaries highlight fakes from the collection.
In 2009, Halper’s old friend Bert Sugar devoted a full-page photo of Halper’s fake Jackson jersey in his coffee table book, Bert Sugar’s Baseball Hall of Fame, but after the New York Post reports were first published Sugar said he was working with his publisher, Running Press, to correct future printings.
In Cooperstown, the Hall of Fame’s Museum floor plans given out to visitors still feature the “Halper Gallery,” just a stones throw from the Hall’s gallery of bronze induction plaques. The gallery now hosts temporary exhibitions in a space covering 1,100 square feet. Funding for the construction of the space was furnished by a grant from the Yawkey Foundation II.
Not too far from the bronze plaques in the main gallery another plaque hangs in the “Halper Gallery” recognizing Halper’s accomplishments. It reads, in part, “Because of Barry Halper’s dedication to preserving baseball history the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum has named this changing exhibition space in his honor.”
Having the gallery named after him was quite an honor for a collector like Halper who never played in or managed a Major League game. Halper did have his “cup of coffee” as an MLB exec in 1992 when he was appointed YankeeVP of Baseball Operations above, GM Gene “Stick” Michael during George Steinbrenner’s banishment from baseball. At the time, some in the press, like Don Burke of the Bergen-Record, poked fun referring to him as, Barry “Can I Have That Uniform When You Retire?” Halper. Burke joked that in trade talks Halper might propose trading a Yankee player for, “a 1919 White Sox uniform, a wedge of Leo Durocher’s tobacco from the 1951 National League playoffs, and a clump of Roger Maris’ hair.”
The startling revelations about Halper’s collection have fueled additional discussion regarding the Hall of Fame’s responsibility related to the Halper scandal. Baseball luminaries and historians alike have also wondered if the nondescript gallery should still bear Halper’s name?
Fay Vincent, Baseball’s former Commissioner and an Honarary Director of the Baseball Hall of Fame says, “Given the evidence that has come to light in the past several years, the Hall of Fame should immediately reconsider the naming of that gallery to honor Barry Halper. I do not think he deserves the honor.”
Major League Baseball’s official historian, John Thorn doesn’t think there’s a need to rename the Halper Gallery. Says Thorn, “Outside of the plaque gallery, the Hall of Fame honors all of baseball’’s greats, including Joe Jackson and Pete Rose.”
Ron Cobb, a board member at the Ty Cobb Museum and author of last summer’s award-winning Society for American Baseball Research paper, Stumped by the Storyteller, that exposed the fraudelent Ty Cobb items in Halper’s collection, is disturbed by his post-mortem Cooperstown profile. Says Cobb, “Halper used his position as the country’s pre-eminent collector to deceive his friends, the press and the Hall of Fame. Through that deceit he enriched his reputation, his wallet and his own ego. He bought known fakes and created artifacts that would meet his needs. There is no place for someone with a flaw like this in the Hall of Fame.”
Despite having purchased perhaps millions of dollars in counterfeit artifacts from Halper, it appears that neither MLB nor the Hall of Fame are looking for reimbursement or restitution. Halper’s son, Jason Halper, a New Jersey attorney recently told a Society for American Baseball Research committee, “My family has not recieved any communications from the Baseball Hall of Fame questioning the authentication of the Joe Jackson uniform jersey, or any other item that was formerly part of my father’s collection.”
Halper’s widow, Sharon Halper, inherited her husband’s two percent ownership interest in the New York Yankees limited partnership and is listed as a partner in the team’s current 2011 season yearbook.
When asked if the Hall was considering removing Halper’s name from the exhibition space tied to MLB’s purchase from Halper in 1998, Hall spokesman Brad Horn declined comment.
Perhaps the ultimate irony in the Halper-Hall of Fame saga is the involvement of Hall Chairman Jane Forbes Clark, the granddaughter of Hall founder Stephen C. Clark. Clark, a world renowned art collector and philanthropist was responsible for displaying the museum’s first fraudulent artifact, the “Abner Doubleday baseball,” which was alleged to have been used by Doubleday and his classmate Abner Graves.
Jane Forbes Clark, who called Halper the “Babe Ruth of collectors” was instrumental in convincing the MLB owners to contribute to the fund that enabled the Hall to purchase his alleged treasures. In putting the deal together, she made it possible for Halper’s fake “Shoeless” Joe Jackson shirt to tour the nation as part of the Hall’s travelling exhibition “Baseball as America.” It is ironic that Clark’s great-great-grandfather co-founded the Singer Sewing Machine Company, and that Clark is the sole heir to the Singer fortune, because last October the Hall published their own article about the fraudulent Joe Jackson jersey and noted how the fake garment featured, “Jackson’s stitched name made of rayon.” In the end, the Hall of Fame and Clark were defrauded by a forger’s handiwork with a common sewing machine. The counterfeit Jackson jersey was displayed publicly by the Hall for over a decade.
Collector Chris Sullivan, of Duxbury, Massachusetts, considers himself one of Halper’s victims. The Red Sox fan decided to purchase from the Yankee limited partner’s collection because of his reputation as the king of collectors. Like many other aficionados, Sullivan was originally thrilled with his purchase of an alleged 1907 jersey of Boston’s greatest third baseman, Jimmy Collins. But twelve years after raising his paddle at Sotheby’s and paying more than $31,000 for the jersey, Sullivan was informed by uniform expert Dave Grob that his jersey is a fraud, showing evidence of foul-play and suspect tagging. What’s more, the jersey features a red logo. Jimmy Collins was traded away to Philadelphia in July of 1907, and the Red Sox didn’t actually wear ”red” until 1908.
Thanks to a Sotheby’s policy, which gives buyers a five-year window to return purchases due to authenticity issues, Sullivan isn’t confident the auction giant will make him whole. Last year, he even tried to consign the jersey to Grey Flannel, the outfit who originally authenticated it for Sotheby’s and Halper. But Grey Flannel rejected the jersey and sent it back to him with a letter stating that Halper’s “19th century jerseys (were) full of controversy.”
Halper collected close to $40 million from Sotheby’s and MLB when he unloaded his collection in 1999 and, when he died in 2005, his widow, Sharon, retained his valuable two percent interest in the limited partnership of the Yankees. With all the millions out there, Sullivan’s just looking to recoup his hard earned 30-grand and says he’s considering filing suit against the Halper estate for reimbursement. Says the die-hard Red Sox fan about the Yankee who sold him short, “It seems like Barry Halper was the Madoff of memorabilia.”