May 6, 2011
A. G. Spalding could be considered the first true baseball collector of artifacts documenting the history of the game. By 1908 he had acquired the archives of pioneers Henry Chadwick and Harry Wright, as well as his own personal collection chronicling his career as a player, executive and pioneer in the game.
Five years after Spalding’s death, his widow bequeathed his voluminous baseball holdings to the New York Public Library in 1921. “The A. G. Spalding Baseball Collection” included most all of the photographs Spalding used as illustrations in his 1911 book, America’s National Game, as well as his own personal scrapbooks spanning his entire lifetime.
In 1983, historian John Thorn spearheaded an effort to microfilm the majority of the Spalding Collection scrapbooks and in 1986 the NYPL issued a report inventorying the entire Spalding Collection’s manuscript and scrapbook holdings.
The NYPL report, filed by librarian Melanie Yolles, indicated that a good portion of the scrapbook materials in the Spalding Collection were missing. The report also indicated that the missing scrapbook volumes from the collection had been documented on the original inventories filed by the library in 1921 and 1922.
In particular, Yolles noted that the personal scrapbook collection of A. G. Spalding originally included twelve volumes, but at the time her report was filed in 1986, only nine volumes remained. Volume number three, which spanned the years 1877 to 1882 was missing, as well as volumes five and six, which appeared to have spanned the years post-1885.
The NYPL’s original copy of Spalding’s first volume, dated 1874-1875, features a handwritten note by Spalding affixed to the first scrapbook page. Spalding wrote:
“Personal- Don’t mutilate or remove from this room. Return to A. G. Spalding, 108 Madison St. Chicago.”
As evidenced by the NYPL’s 1986 report, Spalding’s instructions were ignored for at least three of his scrapbook volumes and quite possibly for some of the contents within the other nine remaining scrapbooks at the library.
Spalding was well aware of the historical and monetary value of his collection and during his lifetime even had a fire-proof vault built in his Point Loma, California mansion to protect the archive.
Spalding’s vigilance prevented any loss from fire, however, the Spalding Collection could not escape the handiwork of thieves who targeted the collection in the 1970s. As a result, the NYPL is missing a few hundred rare photos and entire scrapbook volumes once owned by Spalding and Harry Wright. It is estimated that the value of the missing Spalding materials exceeds $2 million.
The FBI has been investigating the NYPL thefts since some of Harry Wright’s correspondence appeared for sale at Major League Baseball’s 2009 All Star Game FanFest auction. The New York Times reported that the consignor of the letters said “the letters had come from a grandparents estate,” but it was determined that several of the letters were definitively the property of the NYPL.
Over the past few decades scores of items both confirmed stolen and suspected to have originated from Spalding’s collection have sold at public auction and on the black market.
Just this month, a suspicious item surfaced in Robert Edward Auctions’ 2011 Spring sale; an 1889 cabinet card photograph of Spalding’s “World Tourists” posing at the Sphinx in Egypt.
REA’s lot description claims that their item is an ”Exceedingly rare and to the best of (their) knowledge previously unknown cabinet card.” In stating that it is the only cabinet-sized example of the Sphinx photo known to exist, REA also claims, “This is the first cabinet card of this image we have ever seen or heard of. The only other known period photos of this image, of which only a few have survived, are the large format display photos originating from World Tour photo albums given to each participating player.”
REA indicates that the photo, mounted on a Sarony Studios cabinet card, appears to have been removed from an album, with paper loss running down the left side of the reverse of the mount. REA also notes the significance of this “fascinating and noteworthy find” by their consignor stating, “Miraculously, this piece originates from a collection of mostly family-related photos left to her by her grandmother.”
Although REA claims that their auction lot might be the only cabinet card example of the Sphinx photo known to exist, we found another copy in the NYPL’s collection. This copy may have been part of the Spalding Collection and never properly inventoried in 1922, or it could have just been part of their “Pageant of America Collection,” which includes photographs used in the book series of that same title. Spalding’s baseball photos were used in the 1929 edition of, Pageant of America: The Annals of American Sport.
Spalding also used many of the photographs in his collection as illustrations in his 1911 book America’s National Game. On page 260 of the book, Spalding reproduced the same image of the Tourists at the Sphinx. The inclusion of that photo documents that Spalding had at least one Sphinx photo in his collection as early as 1911.
In their lot description, REA refers to the appearance of the Sphinx photo in Spalding’s book stating, “This photograph is the most celebrated image from the tour, and one of the finest and most famous of all nineteenth-century baseball photographs, having been reproduced in countless books and periodicals over the years.”
In his 1911 book, Spalding dedicated one-hundred and fourteen pages to illustrations and drawings. The original 1922 NYPL inventory of the Spalding Collection documents that at least one-hundred and seven of those photographs and drawings were part of the collection when it was donated. Spalding’s photo of the “Tourists at the Sphinx was not documented on that inventory. Since that inventory was taken in the 1920s, at least twenty-six of those photos have gone missing.
One of the missing photos appearing on the original inventory was listed as: “Chicago and All-American World Tour Teams 1888-89 (Sydney, Tuttle & Co.”). The missing photo appeared on page 254 of Saplding’s book and the “Sphinx” photo preceded it on page 250. It was also photographed and reproduced in a 1922 article about the Spalding Collection published in the Christian Science Monitor.
The Pageant of America series of books included the volume, “The Annals of American Sport” and featured a section devoted solely to baseball. The Spalding Collection was a major source of photographic material for the project. Of the thirty-two baseball illustrations featured in the book, twenty-four were credited to the, “Spalding Collection, New York Public Library.” Curiously, the caption of the 1889 Sphinx image included in the book is incomplete and reads: “The American baseball party at the Sphinx. From a photograph____________________” For some reason, the editors failed to complete the caption and include a photo credit. Perhaps, it was because the Sarony cabinet photo had no identifying ownership marks on its reverse? ( Handwritten notes in the NYPL volume reveal the photo was from a negative by Pascal Sebah Studios and published by Sarony Studios.)
The photograph to the right of the Sphinx image on page 133 is a portrait of A. G. Spalding that reads, “From a photograph in the Spalding Collection in the New York Public Library.” That Spalding portrait also appears on the NYPL’s 1922 inventory and is currently missing from the collection.
An image of the photograph actually used in the 1929 Pageant of America book series still survives in the form of a 1920s silver-gelatin print of the original. The Sarony Studios cabinet card example was not the image reproduced in the book, rather it was a larger Imperial-sized photograph that was featured, as evidenced by the silver-gelatin print of the original that is still part of the collection. The back of that print offers no additional information as to the source of the larger 10.5 x 14 Sphinx photo.
Research indicates that as few as four 10.5 x 14 albumen prints of the “Spalding Tourists at the Sphinx” are known to exist. Somehow, the archive of baseball’s first great collector, Spalding, is devoid of the Sphinx photo and any other 1889 World Tour images.
Robert Edward Auctions has sold a three of those known specimens of the large-format Sphinx photograph. The fourth example is part of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s collection. The REA Sphinx photos were sold as follows:
1- As Lot 64 in REA’s July 15, 2000 auction:(This 10.5 x 14 Imperial-size albumen photograph is the version of the Sphinx photo used for reproduction in the 1929 Pageant of America series. The NYPL still has in its possession the 1920s silver-gelatin print of the original of that image, which appears to be missing from the collection.)
2-As Lot 645 in REA’s April 29, 2006 auction:
(This photograph mirrors the copy sold at REA in 2000. It is the second known stand-alone copy of the Sphinx photo that is sized in the 10.5 x 14 Imperial style.)
3- As Lot 671 in REA’s April 30, 2005 auction as part of a full album of 10.5 x 14 photographs of the 1889 Spalding World Tour from the Barry Halper Collection: Auctioneer Josh Evans of Leland’s originally sold this volume to Barry Halper. Says Evans, “The only Tour book I know of is the one I sold to Barry Halper. I bought it in a NYC photo and book auction in the early 1980s.” In their lot description for the cabinet card in their current auction REA claims these albums were created by Spalding as gifts for the participants of the tour. However, there seems to be scant evidence to support this claim, as there are no other albums that have surfaced. Even the Baseball Hall of Fame doesn’t have a Spalding Tour photo album in their archives. The four Sphinx photographs and a few other scenes from the tour are the only other related photos known to exist.
Since the 1920s silver-gelatin print of the original photograph used in the Pageant of America series does not depict the NYPL’s Sarony Studios cabinet photo of the Spalding Tourists at the Sphinx, one of the three known copies in private hands could be Spalding’s missing photo.
The Spalding scrapbooks that remain in the NYPL’s collection contain many rare and valuable images from baseball’s formative years. Rare baseball portraits from Warren Studios in Boston, which have been sold at auction for tens of thousands of dollars, are pasted onto Spalding’s scrapbook pages. Some of these pages featuring photographic gems have been separated from the scrapbooks and are now stored in protective archival boxes at NYPL’s Fifth Avenue branch. We can only speculate as to what photographic and ephemeral treasures were included in the three Spalding scrapbooks that are missing.
Thefts of Spalding’s photographs have also been well documented on the NYPL’s 1987 inventory of the photo collection, which now includes a “Missing List” of well over one hundred vanished images. One of the missing photos was also featured in the 1929 Pageant of America series and documented on a silver-gelatin print. The photograph is listed on the 1922 Spalding inventory as, “Forest City Base Ball Club, 1869.” Like other Spalding photos illustrated in The Annals of American Sport, the copy of his 1869 Forest City team photo was also credited to the “Spalding Collection at the New York Public Library.” (Spalding also used this photo in his 1911, America’s National Game.)
Extremely rare and unique photographs related to Spalding’s early career have appeared for sale at auction in the past few decades under suspicion that they originated from Spalding’s missing volumes. One suspicious photograph features another portrait of Spalding and his 1869 Forest City team. In November of 2001, REA offered a rare CDV portrait of the team and described it as, “To our knowledge, this is the only known example of this CDV.”
The reverse of the rare 1869 photograph also exhibits an unusual soiling on the reverse consistent with other photographs confirmed as stolen from the NYPL’s Spalding Collection. Other stolen examples exhibit the effects of bleaching to conceal or hide the tell-tale NYPL ownership marks that were originally placed on the backs of the majority of photos in the Spalding Collection.
Photographs from Spalding’s collection that were included in the 1922 inventory of his “Pictorial Materials” were stored in boxes designated by numerals. Most every photograph in the collection was marked with a handwritten number and an NYPL ownership stamp. Several photos already confiscated and recovered by the FBI exhibit tell-tale defacing and bleaching that were done to conceal NYPL’s proof of ownership. However, items removed from the missing scrapbooks are much more difficult for investigators to identify. The Sphinx photo appearing in REA’s sale exhibits characteristics that suggest it may have been removed from a scrapbook, but a visible soiled section on the reverse indicates it could have been stamped and numbered like other Spalding photos.
The NYPL’s 1986 inventory of Spalding’s manuscripts and scrapbooks indicates that Spalding scrapbooks “8 to 11″ were dedicated to “”Spalding’s baseball World Tour, 1888-1889.” Investigators will have to examine those volumes for evidence of any “mutilation” or removals that Spalding, himself, had prohibited when he was alive. Many of the surviving scrapbooks in the collection, once belonging to Henry Chadwick, Harry Wright and the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, exhibit evidence of vandalism and theft with mangled and cut pages.
The “Riddle of the Sphinx,” and the mystery of the missing Spalding photos and scrapbooks has been brought to the attention of the FBI and the NYPL in relation to the probe into the multi-million dollar baseball heist. Sources close to the current investigation have revealed that new details related to the master-minding of the thefts and the individuals involved have recently come to light.