This rare photo of Nap Lajoie is expected to fetch $15,000 at auction, and it's stolen from the Hall of Fame. Finding that out is as easy as looking on the back.
When photos are donated to Cooperstown's National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, they are designated sequential numbers traditionally handwritten on the reverse of the artifact. This process has been repeated thousands of times in the Hall's priceless collection of original photographs documenting the history of our National Pastime. Sometimes the Hall librarians even add additional information on the reverse of photos to assist researchers, authors and film producers who utilize the collection in their own work.
John Thorn, Major League Baseball's official historian and author of Baseball in the Garden of Eden, is very familiar with the Hall's collection and the identifications made by library staff on photos dating back to the 19th century. One mark, Thorn says, has been in use for decades. "In my experience, going back several decades, the 'PD' mark on Hall of Fame photos signifies that the library staff believe the image to be in the public domain."
This turn-of-the-century photo of the .400-hitter Nap Lajoie was once held in the hands of Hall librarians, but is now considered a CSI-like crime scene. Other stolen photos of Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and "Smiling Mickey" Welch have appeared for sale at public auction in the past and have been subsequently recovered by Cooperstown officials, after being identified by their vandalized accession numbers and "PD" mark. (Another was returned by an honest collector named David Halpern, who realized a photo he'd purchased of Pittsburgh Pirate Ed Abbaticchio had these Hall of Fame ID markings. The "PD" had been altered to read "BOB.")
Heritage Auction Galleries is now offering the stolen photo of HOFer Napoleon "Larry" Lajoie and describing it as a "museum-quality piece." (Update, 4:54 p.m.: The auction has been pulled. Here's a screenshot.) The lot already has a bid of $4,250 and Heritage estimates it will sell in excess of $15,000. It surely is "museum quality," as its reverse shows a HOF accession number that has been scraped off as well as the majority of the "PD" designation in the upper right hand corner, just like the stolen Mathewson, Welch, and Abbaticchio photos. The thief, however, failed to scrape off the entire "PD" mark, which was handwritten in red marker. Part of the "P" is still visible and matches other photos in the Hall's collection.
In the 1980s, the Hall of Fame fell victim to a massive heist of rare documents and photos. Suspicion fell on Heritage's current consignment director, Mike Gutierrez, who, according to former Hall of Fame officials, was subsequently banned from ever entering the National Baseball Library again. Gutierrez, who is also a current appraiser for PBS's Antiques Roadshow, came under fire after he sold a stolen signed photo of Babe Ruth to New York auctioneer, Josh Evans of Lelands, back in 1988. Evans discovered that the reverse of the photo had a HOF accession number that had been covered with white-out. According to Hall officials Gutierrez had spent considerable time researching at the library in the early 1980s and had unsupervised access to the collections. Evans reported the incident to the Hall's head librarian, Tom Heitz, and an FBI investigation followed. An ex-Hall official confirmed that in the course of the investigation a man who accompanied Gutierrez on a trip to the library stated he saw Gutierrez steal several rare documents after he had photocopied them. Hall of Fame officials never followed through with the probe or formal charges, fearing a public relations nightmare for past and future donors.
At the time, the Hall was still recovering from a 1982 scandal, uncovered by The Sporting News, in which Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's assistant, Joe Reichler, had sold off scores of vintage World Series programs that had been loaned to the Commissioner's Office. Bill James wrote about the scandal in his 1994 book The Politics of Glory stating that "hundreds, if not thousands of people who had given something to the Hall of Fame would contact the Hall asking about the security of their donation." James wrote, "An old ballplayer's family would call …that bat we gave you, that Willie used to drive in four runs in the World Series game, is that safe? You guys haven't sold that, have you?"
The monetary loss to the Hall in the Reichler scandal was minimal in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of rare photos and documents have made their way into the collecting world via auctions and black-market sales since the mid-'80s thefts. The Hall of Fame has done its best to turn a blind eye to it all, still fearing the PR nightmares, and the appearance of Lot 81268 in Heritage's current sale is proof that this nightmare continues into another baseball season. Over the past two years Heritage has pulled several other documents believed to have been stolen from the Hall's correspondence collection of former Cincinnati Reds owner August Herrmann, who was baseball's de facto commissioner before the office was created for Kenesaw Mountain Landis in the early 1920s.
MLB's current commissioner, Bud Selig, who recently had a research room dedicated in his name at the National Baseball Library, declined comment through MLB spokesman Matt Bourne, and the Hall of Fame's president, Jeff Idelson, was not available to comment about the stolen photo. Heritage Auctions' director of sports auctions, Chris Ivy, was made aware of the stolen Lajoie photo in 2010, when Haulsofshame.com first reported it.
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.