|Although a trove of historical baseball memorabilia was pulled from the July 14 Major League All-Star game during the first week of July, talk among serious baseball collectors had been buzzing for months.
As far back as April, the word was out that the FBI was looking at the auction – coordinated by Major League Baseball and commissioned to Hunt Auctions, one of the country’s top baseball memorabilia auction houses.
During that month, “Philliesphan,” a member of the popular sports collector website www.net54baseball wrote: “I own a Harry Wright contract amendment for Chas. Ferguson for the 1898 season, that was obtained from the Halper sale. Do I now need to worry about being the rightful owner of this item, which is fully handwritten and signed by Harry Wright?”
The answer: “You don’t have to worry yet,” another collector posted. “It may be fine (but you might want to delete your post).”
As yet, it has not been determined whether the Harry Wright items up for auction on July 14 were stolen from the New York Public Library more than 20 years ago. However, the federal investigation has sent ripples across the placid pond of baseball memorabilia.
“Has this given the baseball collecting fraternity a black eye?” asks one veteran collector. “Sure it has. Like we have already had 1,000 black eyes. This is only number 1,001.”
Federal investigation is nothing new to the baseball memorabilia industry. Throughout much of the 1990s, the FBI initiated “Operation Bullpen” and, then, “Operation Foul Ball” targeting forged autographed memorabilia. As a result of those investigations, the FBI now maintains that “cooperating subjects and memorabilia experts estimate forged memorabilia comprises over $100 million of the market each year.”
And now, these historical sporting artifacts – many of which have reposed in libraries for decades - have become easy pickings for the criminal element.
The Harry Wright papers, considered an important cornerstone of the A. G. Spalding collection, were donated to the New York Public Library in 1921. Three of four important volumes were reported missing in 1986-87.
“It’s sad, but there’s a great amount of stuff stolen from the public,” says Barry Sloate, baseball memorabilia author, collector and dealer. “Not long ago this elderly woman came to me and asked if I wanted to buy some old baseball cards she had in a scrapbook. I think she was from Massachusetts. I told her I was interested.
“Then, she called me back a few days later and said she decided to donate them to her local library. She asked me if I was disappointed. And, I said, ’no, I’m not that disappointed. But, I have to tell you that once you donate them to the library, people will come in there and rip the cards out of the album … they’ll take them in no time.’
Libraries, museums and other public institutions, by their very nature, do not actively broadcast and aggressively pursue thefts, according to memorabilia insiders.
“They like to keep things quiet,” says Rob Lifson, president of Robert Edwards Auctions, one of the country’s top baseball memorabilia auction houses. “Especially, because they rely on donations. People donating this material want to believe that these institutions are preserving and protecting their items.”
Lifson, who has worked with the FBI on several cases involving fraudulent and stolen sports memorabilia, said much of the material – particular when it is pulled from a scrapbook, without notation or identifying marks – is difficult to trace.
It is easy, he says, for an auction house to accept a piece with a questionable provenance.
Prior to pulling the 25 lots of Wright papers from the All-Star auction, Dave Hunt, president of Hunt Auctions, told The New York Times he was “confident the items were not connected to any missing materials.” Baseball officials concurred with this opinion.
“I know that Dave Hunt believed those letters came from a reputable source,” Sloate says. “I got an email from him, saying as much.”
But, dealers such as Sloate, often admit – at least to their colleagues – that nothing is 100 percent sure. And for the buyer, it’s caveat emptor.
“As far as pieces I have sold in the past, I have sold dozens and dozens of rare items, and I admit I do not know the provenance of any of them,” Sloate wrote on www.net54baseball in April. “I hope all of them were good but like I said, I do not know the source.”
Eric C. Rodenberg