|By Jim Rutledge
BIDDEFORD, Maine — Questions remain regarding the provenance of a 148-year-old baseball card that was sold on Feb. 5 by a Maine auction house to a Massachusetts collector for $92,000.
The rare card shows the 1865 team photo of the Brooklyn Atlantics. The auctioneer said the card was found in a yard sale last summer, but a similar card is missing from the baseball ephemera collection of one of baseball’s founding fathers, which was donated to the New York public library in the 1920s.
The Library of Congress proclaimed last month there are only two 1865 Brooklyn Atlantics cards known to exist, and it has one.
Auctioneer Troy Thibodeau of Saco River Auctions said a Maine man, who does not want to be identified, found the card inside a photo album while antique picking at a yard sale. The shopper also snatched some old Coca Cola bottles, a couple of oak chairs, and paid less than $100 for the lot.
Thibodeau says the man stumbled across the yard sale in the rural town of Baileyville, Maine on the Canadian boarder.
When the card was sold, because of its rarity and historic value, more than 100 media outlets reported the story.
The card differs from today’s baseball cards because it’s an original portrait of the team, nine players and the manager, mounted on a card, rather than just a portrait of a single player. The card is a carte de visite (cdv) type of photograph, or an albumen print, which is a thin paper photograph, glued and mounted on a thick paper card.
Both the buyer of the card, Jason LeBlanc, of Newburyport, Mass., and the Saco River auctioneers, do not believe the card was stolen. When questions were raised about the issue, Thibodeau sent the card to a Boston authenticator who verified the card was an original, and he did not find any library ownership marks on the back of the card, a normal practice for library curators to identify ownership.
LeBlanc brushed off suspicion of the card.
“Even if there were questions about the card, I would have bought it anyway. If the card belongs in a collection, I’ll turn it over to them.” He reasoned, “The card’s been out there for a while. If anyone had any questions, about it, whether from the FBI, or anyone else, they would have taken action. The card is clean. There is nothing on the back of it.”
More than 500 photographs and hundreds of documents were stolen from the library during the l970s. Since then, the FBI has recovered a few items and returned them to the library. FBI Agent J. Peter Donald told AntiqueWeek that an investigation is ongoing.
AntiqueWeek contacted the New York City Public Library headquarters at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, inquiring about the missing baseball card. Jonathan Pace, a spokesman from the public affairs office said, “After looking into this (matter), this is all we can say. The New York Public Library cannot comment on an on going investigation.”
Access to the collection has since been restricted and specific users will be monitored closely.
The card was among a collection of thousands of photographs, letters, team records, scrapbooks, caricatures drawings and other documents from the collection of Albert Goodwill Spalding, who was a baseball player and general manager, and instrumental in forming the National League, the first professional baseball league.
Spalding also founded the Spalding sporting goods company that still bears his name. After he died in 1915, at the age of 65, his widow donated the collection to the library in 1921. The collection has been called “the gold mine of baseball history.”
The library published an inventory of the collection titled Guide to Spalding Collection. The card is listed on page 11 of the 44-page, 1922 inventory. The card was specifically identified at the bottom of the page that listed 24 other pictorial items.
The card description was: Atlantics of Brooklyn. F. Norton, Syd. Smith, Pearce, Start, C. Smith, Chapman, Selwin, P.O. O’Brien, Crane, Tom Pratt. (Brooklyn, Williamson.)
The card identifies by name the nine baseball players and the team’s manager.
When the card and other items were discovered missing, the library staff prepared a seven-page inventory detailing 126 specific missing items. The list also noted that seven items on the list had been recovered including one item that had been sold on eBay in 1999, but was recovered in 2003.
The 1865 card was listed as item six on the list of 14 other missing photographs.
The Library of Congress has acknowledged and identified the 1865 Brooklyn Atlantics card maintained in its collections. The Library of Congress’ (LC) card and the missing card from the New York public library differ slightly. They were printed from different negatives according to the LC. When viewing both, LaBlanc’s card and the LC card, the name of the card’s printer, “Williamson, Brooklyn”, is printed on opposite sides of each card’s front.
Reference Section Librarian Jeff Bridges confirmed to AntiqueWeek they have the card in the Prints and Photographs Division, and is described in an online catalog, identifying the card’s photographer as Charles H., and the printing company, Williamson, published in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1865.
A photograph of the card and a short story line is published in a Harper Collins and Library of Congress book Baseball Americana, claiming the card is the first-ever baseball card.
The book describes that the card was normally distributed to team supporters and to opposing teams, as a jester of the team’s bravado.
The Brooklyn Atlantics was an amateur team that won the National Association of Base Ball Players championships in 1861, 1864 and 1865.
LeBlanc has been collecting baseball and non-sports cards since he was a kid.
In a conversation with AntiqueWeek, LeBlanc was thrilled by scoring the winning bid. Bidding started at $10,000 and climbed higher with LeBlanc competing with telephone bidders. He had written a note to himself with the cutoff amount at $80,000, and he said, “I was sticking to that. Sometimes you just have to stop.”
The winning bid was $80,000 – with a 15-percent buyer’s premium for a total of $92,000.
LeBlanc said his 1865 baseball card will be stored in a bank safety deposit box. He hopes to start a foundation to fight autism. His son is being treated at Boston’s Children’s Hospital. LeBlanc’s wife died shortly after his son’s birth. He is a retail industry consultant.
“This is a full-time hobby,” LeBlanc said of his collection. “I feel like a kid again. I do this for Alec.” He collects non-sports cards from the l930s; war cards, Indians, tobacco and more. He buys collections, and buys and sells on eBay under the name j.a.Blanc2345.
Whether this card is from the missing Spalding Collection, the real answer will only come when the investigation is completed.