Aug. 30, 2011
A photograph fitting the description of a missing cabinet card of baseball pioneer Al Reach, stolen decades ago from the New York Public Library’s famous A. G. Spalding Collection, appears to have made its way onto eBay.
The rare photo was identified by collector and 19th century photography aficionado, Jimmy Leiderman, of Miami, Florida. While vacationing in Aruba last weekend, Leiderman spotted the eBay offering of the Reach cabinet on his BlackBerry. Said Leiderman, “I’ve followed the investigation into the NYPL thefts pretty closely and when I saw this image, I just knew it might be the missing Reach, it’s quite a rare image.”
A 19th-century cabinet photo created by the Philadelphia photographer, Phillip Edward Chillman, was documented on the NYPL’s 1922 inventory of the Spalding Collection but, after an inventory was taken by the library in 1987, it was discovered missing along with another photograph of Reach. Both cabinet photos appear on the NYPL’s official “Missing List” for the Spalding Collection’s photographic archive and both appear to have been offered at various auctions in the 1990s. (We published a report about the other missing Reach photo this past January and confirmed it was sold at Richard Wolfers Auctions.)
The card being offered on eBay by a seller in Indiana called “earlierera” currently has an opening bid at $49.99, but the rarity is worth several thousand dollars in the rare baseball collectibles marketplace. The seller also notes, “Photographs like this seldom become available in the marketplace.” The eBay seller does not give a full view of the card’s reverse, which could show evidence of the NYPL ownership marks if it is, in fact, the missing photo.
In the eBay description, the seller from Inglefield, IN, states that he acquired the photograph, “15 years or so ago at the National Sports Collectors convention.”
In 1997, Slater’s Americana of Indianapolis, Indiana, offered what appears to be the same photo in a Sports Collectors Digest auction featuring several other rare cabinet cards. In the offering, Slater’s listed a value of $350 for the photograph and described the item as a: “Very rare early cabinet photo of A. J. Reach c. 1880’s by Edw. Cullman Studio NY.”
Slater’s Americana was owned by Tom Slater who is now employed by Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas, Texas, as their “Director of Americana Auctions.”
In 2009, Haulsofshame.com submitted a report to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the NYPL detailing items stolen from the library in the 1970s and including information related to the sale of suspect items fitting descriptions of items missing from the Spalding Collection. The Reach cabinet card offered by Slater’s in 1997 was included in the report submitted to the FBI as a possible match for the missing photo. The photograph depicted in the 1997 Slater’s auction was not definitive since the quality of the image was so poor.
However, Jimmy Leiderman, upon his return home to Florida from vacation recalled that the same Reach cabinet may have appeared in another Slater’s sale. Leiderman refered to a Slater’s Political Gallery catalogue from November of 1996 and found the Reach cabinet depicted as lot 5 in that auction. The photo in the 1996 sale is the exact same one that is being offered on eBay. Both photographs exhibit the exact same crease and damage on the upper right corner of the albumen print.
Jimmy Leiderman requested additional scans of the reverse of the card from the seller and this morning the seller posted the image of the reverse on eBay. The image confirmed that the card is the missing Reach from the NYPL, evidenced by the tell-tale numeral “3″ handwritten on the upper left corner. The numeral was originally written by baseball researcher Charles W. Mears sometime after1922, as Mears was responsible for cataloguing the collection for storage in boxes. The “3″ indicates that the card was stored in “Box 3″ of the Spalding Collection.
All of the other photographs stored in “Box 3″ of the Spalding Collection bear the exact same “3″ in the identical handwriting of Mears. Additionally, the card of Ben Sanders, currently in the NYPL collection, bears an inscription stating, “Identified by C. W. Mears.” The Reach card likely has the same NYPL ownership stamps, but the quality of the image posted on eBay is not sufficient to see those marks on the card’s brown board mount.
Both of the missing Al Reach cabinet photos were once part of the Barry Halper collection and one of them appears on the Haulsofshame.com “Halper Hot 100 List” as item number 56. Sources indicate that Slater’s auction may have acquired the other missing photo from Halper. Halper was known to have supplied items to Slater auctions and a photograph from the 1995 National Sports Collectors convention at St. Louis shows Halper and Slater meeting at the Political Gallery booth. The current eBay seller in Indiana says he acquired the Reach cabinet “15 years or so ago at the National Sports Collectors convention.”
Halper, who died in 2005, has been documented as having owned and sold more stolen materials from the NYPL collection than any other source. The 1999 auction of his collection at Sotheby’s included a myriad of documents and photographs confirmed as missing items from the NYPL’s Spalding Collection and the Boston Public Library’s McGreevy Collection.
Both the FBI and the NYPL have been informed of the eBay sale of the missing Reach cabinet. The Federal investigation into the NYPL thefts has dragged on for over two years. Special Agent Jim Margolin of the New York FBI’s press office did not return calls for comment.
Jimmy Leiderman feels strongly about the recovery of the NYPL treasures that have been missing in action for decades. Said Leiderman, “I think the NYPL has a moral obligation to investigate and return this historical piece of baseball history to their archives.”
As of the publishing of this article, the Reach cabinet has three more days of bidding left and 6 bids on the card at $107.50
UPDATE (Wed. Aug 31): Since it was revealed in our report yesterday that the Al Reach cabinet being offered on eBay is the missing photo stolen from the New York Public Library, 13 bids have been placed on the photo with eBay seller “earlierera.” Haulsofshame.com has left a voicemail for “earlierera,” but we have not received a response.
UPDATE (Wed. Aug. 31 9:15PM): It appears that the FBI has become involved with the eBay sale of the rare Al Reach cabinet photo from the New York Public Library’s Spalding Collection. The seller, “earlierera” posted this message after 32 bids had been placed on the item:
We have ended the auction early for the following reason: There have been questions raised relating to title regarding this item. In response, we have gone to the trouble to contact the FBI to request their help in verifying that there is no title claim to this item by the NYPL or any other institution. Per our request, they are allowing us to send the cabinet card to them to examine. We anticipate that they will verify for us that there is absolutely NO claim of ownership by the NYPL and no title issue with this item. If that is the case, we will eagerly run this auction again after this is verified and the card is returned. They have told us that this may take a couple of weeks. To all bidders: we took this action to protect you, Ebay’s valued bidders. Thank you for your understanding and we hope to have this up again very soon.