The Downfall Of Barry Halper, Baseball Collecting's Bernie Madoff (UPATE)

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Barry Halper told stories, but he collected them too, along with the artifacts that made up what many considered the greatest baseball trove this side of Cooperstown. Halper started collecting autographs as an eight-year-old at Ruppert Stadium in Newark and never looked back, eventually amassing his impressive reserve and a small stake in the New York Yankees.

Halper and his archive—which sold for nearly $40 million in 1999—played a key role in the growth of the modern sports memorabilia industry. After MLB bought nearly 200 things from him, Commissioner Bud Selig said, "This important baseball collection belongs in the Hall of Fame and that is where it will be for all time."

Halper made many of his acquisitions long before baseball collecting boomed. He told Sports Illustrated in 1995, "My advantage was buying things years before they became real collectibles. Rockefeller wouldn't have had enough money to buy these things now." The New York Times called him a "one-man Smithsonian," SI referred to him as "the sultan of swap," and 60 Minutes simply called him the "ultimate collector."

In 1987, Hall of Fame president Ed Stack told USA Today, "We have a far superior collection. But some day we would like to have a Barry Halper Room or a Barry Halper Wing at the Hall of Fame." Halper, conversely, told reporters he thought his collection was superior to that of Cooperstown, and that the Hall would have to pay big bucks if they wanted it.

But his collection came at a personal price. Rumors had swirled about Halper's possession of rare photographs and documents being stolen from public libraries in New York and Boston. In the mid-to-late 1970s, the NYPL lost hundreds of photos and thousands of documents from their famous "Spalding Baseball Collection." Likewise, the BPL lost close to 30 percent of their famous "McGreevey Baseball Picture Collection." When Halper responded to an inquiry into the BPL thefts in the 1980s, he denied ever having items from the library.

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After a 1994 heart attack, Halper decided to auction his collection off at Sotheby's. Dealers and hobbyists awaited a rare opportunity to stock up on the good stuff.

Even the Hall of Fame wanted in. MLB owners set aside $7.5 million to secure select items from Halper for the Hall before the Sotheby's sale. The Hall eventually purchased "Shoeless Joe" Jackson's "Black Betsy" bat and uniform from 1919, the sale papers that transferred Babe Ruth to the Yankees from the Red Sox, and Mickey Mantle's 1951 Yankee rookie uniform. Or so they thought.

At the National Sports Collectors Convention in the summer of 1999, the Hall of Fame displayed its new Halper acquisitions. Auctioneer Josh Evans, chairman of Lelands, saw the display and couldn't believe his eyes. Says Evans, "I was absolutely floored at how much of it was fake. There were several early jerseys I saw, and all of them were no good."

Now more people agree with Evans. In October, responding to a report published by this writer in August of 2010 that claimed the Jackson jersey was phony, Hall spokesman Brad Horn admitted to the New York Post that the jersey Halper sold to MLB in 1999 was a fake. Horn confirmed that tests conducted on the garment revealed that the White Sox logo affixed to the jersey "contained acrylic (coloring) that was first created in 1941." In addition, the Hall also confirmed that the fibers used to secure the logo to the garment were made of polyester, a material first introduced in the 1950s.

Since the Hall's announcement, further scrutiny on Halper's collection has revealed more items as stolen or fake.

Experts deemed the autograph Halper said he got from the Babe in 1948 a forgery. Same for Ruth's letter authenticating an alleged lock of hair—the hair was bogus, too. The FBI determined Halper's Ty Cobb diary was a forgery. SABR researcher Ron Cobb proved in an article he published last August that Cobb's mother shot his father with a pistol, not Halper's shotgun that was featured in SI.

Even Halper's claims of having played for Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx at the University of Miami turned out to be false. Sheldon Dunkel, Foxx's second baseman, confirmed that Halper never played for the Miami team and that Foxx was no longer the coach when Halper first enrolled at the school in September of 1957. Says Dunkel, "If Halper played on those Miami teams, he was a ghost."

A crown jewel of Halper's collection, his alleged 1846 Knickerbocker baseball, is now considered counterfeit by many advanced collectors, who claim the ball is the wrong size and construction for the period. The 1865 letter that accompanied the ball in the Sotheby's sale was confirmed as stolen from the Archives of Hawaii. The letter was featured in Ken Burns' documentary, Baseball. The ball and letter sold for $139,000.

More embarrassing was Halper's Sotheby's sale of Lou Gehrig's "last glove" for a record price of $387,500, when Gehrig's authentic last mitt sat on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame, a donation by Gehrig's mother as part of her last will and testament. When Halper acquired the glove from ex-Yankee Babe Dahlgren in 1980, Dahlgren didn't claim it was the Iron Horse's last glove and said he was given the glove one year after Gehrig retired. But Halper's Sotheby's description changed that story for potential bidders claiming Dahlgren got the glove from Yankee clubhouse man Pete Sheehy on the day of the Iron Horse's last game.

And museum officials have returned to Halper's estate Mickey Mantle's so-called 1951 rookie jersey, purchased from Halper by MLB in 1998 and once featured in the Hall brochure. In 2007, the jersey was consigned to auction by Halper's widow and was sold as a "replica" of Mantle's rookie jersey. Nowhere did the auctioneer mention it was the same jersey that was purchased by MLB as authentic, nor that it was returned to Halper under suspicion of being a forgery.

Sources estimate that at least $2 million of Halper items from the Sotheby's auction in 1999 were misrepresented or outright forgeries. The Hall of Fame's items from the MLB purchase of 1998 contain at least another $2 million in fakes, including Joe Jackson's jersey, bat glove and pocket watch, as well as Mickey Mantle's rookie jersey and Ty Cobb's diary.

Sources also indicate Sotheby's sold a quarter-million dollars worth of items stolen from institutional collections. When Halper died in 2005, his estate put up for auction the remaining items he retained in his personal collection—some featured ownership marks of the New York and Boston Public Libraries. The FBI recovered the NYPL items. A source familiar with the current FBI investigation into the thefts recently said, "When tracking the stolen items, all roads seem to lead to Barry Halper."

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This plaque honoring Barry Halper still hangs in the Hall of Fame's "Halper Gallery."
In Cooperstown, the Museum floor plans given out to visitors still feature the "Halper Gallery," just a stones throw from the Hall's gallery of bronze induction plaques. The gallery now hosts temporary exhibitions in a space covering 1,100 square feet. Funding for the construction of the space was furnished by a grant from the Yawkey Foundation II.

Not too far from the bronze plaques in the main gallery another plaque hangs in the "Halper Gallery" recognizing Halper's accomplishments and collection. It reads, in part, "Because of Barry Halper's dedication to preserving baseball history the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum has named this changing exhibition space in his honor." Baseball luminaries now wonder if the nondescript gallery should still bear Halper's name.

Fay Vincent, MLB's former commissioner, and an honorary director of the Baseball Hall of Fame, says, "Given the evidence that has come to light in the past several years, the Hall of Fame should immediately reconsider the naming of that gallery to honor Barry Halper. I do not think he deserves the honor." When asked if the Hall was considering removing Halper's name from the exhibition space, Hall spokesman Brad Horn declined comment.

Collector Chris Sullivan, of Duxbury, Massachusetts, considers himself one of Halper's victims. At first he was thrilled with his purchase of a 1907 Jimmy Collins Red Sox jersey. But 12 years after raising his paddle at Sotheby's and paying over $31,000, Sullivan was informed by uniform expert Dave Grob that his jersey is a fraud, showing evidence of foul play and suspect tagging. What's more, the jersey features a red logo. Jimmy Collins was traded to Philadelphia in July of 1907, and the Red Sox didn't actually wear "red" until 1908.

Thanks to a Sotheby's policy which gives buyers only five years to return dubious items, Sullivan isn't confident the auction giant will make him whole. Last year, he even tried to consign the jersey to Grey Flannel, the outfit that originally authenticated it for Sotheby's and Halper. But Grey Flannel rejected the jersey and sent it back to him with a letter stating that Halper's "19th century jerseys (were) full of controversy."

Sullivan wants to recoup his $30k and says he's considering filing suit against the Halper estate, which still includes Halper's two percent Yankees stake. Says the Red Sox die-hard about the Yankee who sold him short, "It seems like Barry Halper was the Madoff of memorabilia."

UPDATE: The Halper family claims that most of the material published in this article by Pete Nash is false; Nash says he has the evidence to back up all of his claims. Nash's credibility has been questioned elsewhere: for fuller background, read this Sports Illustrated article.

Peter Nash, formerly Prime Minister Pete Nice of Def Jam's 3rd Bass, is the author of two baseball books and also writes for Haulsofshame.com. He is currently working on his upcoming book, Hauls of Shame: The Cooperstown Conspiracy and the Madoff of Memorabilia.