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By Peter J. Nash

April 23, 2010

“1891 Jos. Hall Cabinet Card of “Smiling” Mickey Welch”

Appearing as lot 100 in Robert Edward Auctions’ Spring sale of baseball cards and memorabilia was a rare baseball card of Hall-of-Famer “Smiling” Mickey Welch. Welch won 315 games between 1880 and 1892 and was known as one of the greatest right-hand-pitchers of the 19th century. His 1891 cabinet card, which was slated to be sold at auction on May 1st, was produced by Brooklyn photographer Joseph Hall and is encapsulated in a plastic case and graded “authentic” by card grading company SportsCard Guaranty (SGC). The auction house headed by Robert Lifson describes the card as “the first example we’ve ever seen” and notes that “the reverse displays tape remnants, surface paper loss, and handwritten notations, one of which (the name “Bob”) is in red marker.” The card is quite possibly unique and far rarer than the $2.8 million-dollar Honus Wagner card put on display at the Hall of Fame this past weekend as part of the collection of MLB owner Ken Kendrick- there are at least fifty T-206 Wagner cards known to exist. The problem is, the possibly one-of-a-kind card of “Smilin’ Mickey” that was on the auction block appears to be the property of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Evidence of the theft is revealed in the paper loss and apparent vandalism exhibited on the reverse of the Welch card. Both the auction house and the card grading company fail to disclose that the damage to the back clearly indicates  information previously written on the card has been removed. In addition, the reverse shows the name “BOB” written in red marker in the upper right hand corner but, upon closer examination, it appears to have originally been “PD.”  “PD” written in red marker on the reverse of a photo is a designation found on images that are “Public Domain” in the collection of the National Baseball Library at the Hall of Fame.  The altering of the “PD” to appear as “BOB” and the additional paper loss on the reverse illustrate a clear attempt to conceal tell-tale ownership marks.

The Welch card has been “slabbed” in an encapsulated holder that was originally developed for 20th century issues of traditional baseball cards, however, in recent years 19th century cabinet cards like the Welch have been graded in holders to enhance their value for collectors of graded material.  In the case of the Hall of Fame’s Welch card, SportsCard Guaranty’s encapsulation of the card didn’t enhance its value, rather it preserved a crime-scene for the authorities who will ultimately investigate the theft.  

Further investigation into the matter has revealed that in 1957 the Hall of Fame received a donation of a group of Joseph Hall cabinet cards featuring the 1891 New York Giant players, including Mickey Welch. Records also indicate that in 1967 the cabinet cards were photographed by the library and a set of negatives were preserved. The inscription which has been defaced and vandalized on the reverse of the card most likely   read: “Negatives 2/2/67.” That same inscription appears on another 1891 card in the Hall of Fame collection, referring to the set of negatives documenting the Joseph Hall cards in 1967. One of the negatives in the set is believed to bear the image of the exact same cabinet card of “Smilin’ Mickey” Welch being offered in the current Robert Edward Auctions sale. It’s solid proof  that the New Jersey auction house was selling the Baseball Hall of Fame’s donated property. The Hall of Fame declined to furnish copies of the negatives when requested for this story.

Sources indicate that Hall of Fame officials are currently conducting their own investigation into the matter. In regard to the issues related to the theft of the Welch card, Brad Horn, the museum’s senior director of communications, stated that the Baseball Hall of Fame would not comment on the situation.

Other reports from sources indicate that the FBI is also investigating the theft in conjunction with an existing Federal probe into other stolen items sold by Robert Edward Auctions in the past. In addition to offering the Hall of Fame’s Mickey Welch card, Robert Edward Auctions has previously sold and handled several other items documented as stolen from the New York Public Library’s A. G. Spalding Baseball Collection . REA head Robert Lifson has also made a recent public confession that he was once apprehended while attempting to steal baseball material from the New York Public Library collection. 

Lifson was also the special consultant to Sotheby’s for the 1999 sale of the “Barry Halper Collection,” which also included many items stolen and suspected stolen from institutional collections, including the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 2007, Lifson sold the remaining collection of the deceased Yankee minority owner Barry Halper in a consignment from the Halper estate. That consignment from Halper’s widow, present Yankee minority owner Sharon Halper, included two stolen items from the Boston Public Library and at least one from the NYPL. The FBI and Boston Public Library confirmed that  Halper’s widow and Lifson were compelled to return those items.

Even more troubling than the theft and proposed sale of the Welch card is the possibility that other rare Joseph Hall cabinet cards of New York Giant players may also be missing from the Hall of Fame collection. In 1983, the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) published an image of an 1891 Joseph Hall cabinet card of pitcher Tim Keefe and credited it to the Hall of Fame. The card appeared in a “Special Pictorial Issue” of baseball photography entitled, The National Pastime: A Review of Baseball History. Haulsofshame.com recently requested to view that 1891 cabinet card of Hall-of-Famer Tim Keefe as well as others featuring Hall-of-Famer’s Roger Connor and James O’Rourke.  The library staff, however, could only locate the O’Rourke card, which featured a “PD” designation on its back in red marker. Original contact sheets from SABR’s 1983 photo shoot at the Hall of Fame feature several images of  the 1891 Joseph Hall cabinets including Keefe, Connor and O’Rourke. The Hall of Fame declined to answer inquiries as to whether other 1891 cabinet cards were missing from the collection. 

Robert Edward Auctions was contacted for comment today but did not respond to the inquiry.  However, it appears that shortly after the inquiry was made alerting the auction house of the claims of Hall of Fame ownership, the Welch card was removed from the sale.  The auction house website states that the lot was withdrawn “due to an issue related to title.” 

Back of SGC Graded Welch Card With Hall of Fame Data Vandalized

(This article has been revised to include additional information that was presented after its original publication)

Although Robert Edward Auctions did not respond to haulsofshame.com’s original inquiry this past Friday, attorney Barry Kozyra, on their behalf, sent a letter late Friday including a claim that in regard to the withdrawal of Lot 100: “Removal and delisting were done as soon as Robert Edward Auctions LLC and Robert Lifson learned of the issue and before receipt of your email inquiry.” Haulsofshame.com sent an email inquiry to REA at 12:15 PM, Friday April 23rd. Kozyra and REA provided no additional information regarding the specific time of the delisting and removal.

After publishing this article on Friday April 23rd, haulsofshame.com also learned that Robert Edward Auctions removed and delisted two additional lots suspected to have originated from the collection of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY:

Rare Boston Baseball Documents Withdrawn From Robert Edward Auctions Sale With 1908 Chicago Cub Affidavits; Items May Be From Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown

April 30, 2010

Lot 1157, the 1876-1888 Boston Base Ball Association Stock Certificate Collection (43) was removed from the auction on Friday. Evidence at the National Baseball Library suggests that this group of documents may have originated from the files of the Frederick E. Long Papers Collection, which was donated to the Hall of Fame in 1983. Long was the Boston club’s treasurer (c1871-1888) and the Hall of Fame describes the collection as including “records and correspondence relating to the operation of of the baseball clubs, with the bulk of the material consisting of financial and administrative records.” The container list for the collection created by the National Baseball Library also describes folders which include, “Stockholder information 1876-1887.” The collection also features correspondence from Harry Wright to Long (approximately 35 letters) spanning from 1873 to 1884. Another item suspected to have originated from the Long archive is an 1879 letter from Wright to Long that was sold in Robert Edward Auctions’ 2006 auction as lot 469. The auctioned letter is dated July 29, 1879 and sent to Long from Syracuse, NY. The Hall of Fame collection has a similar letter from Wright to Long, dated July 25, 1879 and also sent from Syracuse, NY.

Robert Edward Auctions has also sold several Boston stock certificates over the past two decades and when offering an 1873 certificate in their 2007 auction they described the provenance of the certificates as follows:

“Decades ago several dozen 1870’s Boston stock certificates surfaced along with various papers related to the club. All 1870’s Boston stock certificates originate from this extraordinary find.”

In 2009, REA offered an 1872 Boston stock certificate and in their lot description wrote:
“Decades ago several dozen 1870’s Boston stock certificates surfaced along with various papers related to the club, possibly originating from the estate of Harry Wright.”

In the present 2010 auction, the withdrawn group of Boston stock certificates were described by REA as having “miraculously surfaced in the summer of 2008. Incredibly, they were found in an antique shop in Georgia where they had been sitting undisturbed for decades.” REA, in conjunction with their earlier descriptions of a group of stock certificates discovered in the 1970’s states: “The collection of 1876-1888 Boston National League stock certificates almost certainly relates to that find, long ago seperated from the late 1970’s find.”

Boston stock certificates appear to have first surfaced at public auction in the 1990 and 1991 baseball sales conducted by Guernsey’s and Sotheby’s. In 1999 Sotheby’s sold another certificate issued to Harry Wright as part of the Barry Halper Collection. Boston Base Ball Association certificate #32 issued to Wright in 1875 was sold as Lot 1318 which also included: “a power of attorney signed in ink by Harry Wright…and a stock transfer voucher issued to Wright for one share of capital stock in the Boston Club (VG with glue stains along the left border).”

Evidence suggests that earlier specimens of Boston stock certificates may have originated from the New York Public Library’s Harry Wright Correspondence Scrapbook, volume 1 (1865-1877). The scrapbook volume disappeared from the NYPL in the 1970’s with two other volumes containing Wright’s correspondence. One scrapbook volume of Wright’s papers remains in the NYPL collection and spans the years 1877 to 1884. Volume 2 includes several documents related to stockholder meetings and corporate business matters of the Boston Base Ball Association.

The FBI opened an investigation into the NYPL thefts last summer when a “cache of letters to Harry Wright” appeared in an auction sponsored by Major League Baseball at the 2009 All-Star Game. Sources indicate that the FBI is investigating whether the Boston stock certificates are part of the Hall of Fame and NYPL collections.

 

"Boston Stock Certificate issued to Harry Wright From Sotheby's 1999 Halper Sale. Stock is executed and signed by Frederick E. Long"

 

Lot 1212, the 1908 Chicago Cubs “Gill Game” Protest Affidavits related to “Merkle’s Boner,” was also removed from the REA sale Friday. Evidence at the National Baseball Library in Cooperstown suggests that these documents may have originated from the August “Garry” Herrmann Papers archive. The Herrmann archive includes the National League’s protested games files spanning the years from 1902 to 1926. The files include documents from the Pittsburgh team including statements presented by Pirate owner Barney Dreyfuss and his manager Fred Clarke in regard to the “Gill Game.” The statements submitted by the Chicago Cubs appear to be missing from the file. Last week Heritage Auctions in Dallas withdrew from their baseball auction a similar protest letter written by Pittsburgh manager Fred Clarke in 1909.

The withdrawals of lots from major auction houses REA and Heritage last week illustrate how serious the issue of theft from institutional collections is in the baseball memorabilia industry.  An investigation conducted by haulsofshame.com supports concern in the industry that the problem of theft from the Baseball Hall of Fame collection may be considerably greater than originally suspected.  Evidence uncovered in the haulsofshame.com investigation suggest that quite possibly every major auction house has offered items suspected to have originated from the Hall of Fame’s collections.

Further illustrating this point is the fact that over the past two decades Robert Edward Auctions and Robert Lifson alone have handled and sold several other items suspected to have originated from the Hall of Fame’s Herrmann Papers archive:

2008- Lot 915: 1902 Promissory Note signed by John T. Brush (Re: Cincinnati Reds)

2001- Lot 802: 1902 Check Issued for Sale of Cincinnati Reds.
          Lot 1204: 1900’s Historic Team Documents of Cincinnati Reds

2000- Lot 98: 1919 Official World Series Game Receipts
          Lot 567: 1913 Charles Ebbets Letter (Re: Protested Game)
          Lot 574: 1916 Christy Mathewson Letter (Re: Protested Game)

In 1999, REA’s Robert Lifson was hired by Sotheby’s as their Senior Consultant for the Barry Halper Collection auction. Lifson oversaw all aspects of the sale and chose authenticator Mike Gutierrez to examine all autographed items and documents slated for the sale. Several items included in the 1999 sale, approved by Lifson and authenticated by Gutierrez, appear to have originated from the Hall of Fame’s Herrmann Papers archive:

Lot 411: 1910 John J. McGraw Letter (Re: Protested Game)
Lot 456: 1912 Fred Clarke Letter (Re: Protested Game)
Lot 518: 1916 Hugh Jennings Letter to August Herrmann
Lot 526:  1917 Christy Mathewson Letter to August Herrmann
Lot 1283: 1923 Christy Mathewson Letter (Re: Protested Game)
Lot 1206B072498 1908 Sworn Affidavit by John Evers (Re: Protested Game)
Lot 1206F182649 1908 Sworn Affidavit by Joe Tinker (Re: Protested Game)
Lot 645464403P 1920 Bill Klem Letter (Re: Protested Game)

The Baseball Hall of Fame declined to comment on the withdrawals of the lots. Through their attorney in their letter of Friday April 23rd, Robert Edward Auctions expressed that, “Whenever questions of title or provenance have been raised about consigned items, Robert Edward Auctions, LLC and Mr. Lifson have done what is necessary to address the issues.”


4 Comments

  1. How could anyone look at the back of that card and not suspect that something was fishy??
    Hope the Hall gets it back soon.

    Comment by dixie w — April 24, 2010 @ 6:47 pm

  2. What is the Hall of Fame’s stance on this? Why havn’t they issued a public statement regarding the theft/thefts?

    Comment by pat kennedy — April 30, 2010 @ 9:20 pm

  3. It seems ridiculous that that the Hall of Fame hasn’t confirmed this publicly. They could save a lot of face by stepping forward.

    Comment by Mikey — May 3, 2010 @ 10:24 am

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