The phone rang at Robert Edward Auctions last Sunday.
When you’re in the sports memorabilia business, that happens a lot. More often than not, it’s someone hoping they’ve found a goldmine at their local yard sale. Rob Lifson’s job is to break the bad news. That giant box of “old” baseball cards from the 1970s isn’t worth that much.
This was not one of those calls.
Those who deal in vintage sports collectibles are optimists by nature. 199 times in a row, the caller on the other end doesn’t have something valuable or even interesting. They persevere because there is always the possibility that the 200th might lead to a find that makes it all worthwhile.
On the other end of the line on the last day of September was from a gentleman who had purchased an old house in East Moriches, New York and moved in just two months before. The property also included an old, rundown cottage with no running water. The smaller structure had an attic that was only accessible from the outside and as part of his inspection, the man climbed a ladder to gain entry and found it was not empty.
The newest date he could find among the items scattered about was from the 1920s. Amazingly, the old building appeared to have been virtually untouched since that era. Most of what had been abandoned could be considered junk.
Most, but not all.
Among the dusty relics was an old photograph of well-dressed men. Luckily, they were identified by name on the back. The photograph, still housed in its original frame measuring 22 x 27 inches, was an original large format salt print display photo taken in December 1862. The man who’s name appeared on some of the papers found in the attic matched one on the back of the photo. Walter T. Avery.
The following day the new homeowner and his wife brought the framed photograph, along with various miscellaneous paper items and correspondence relating to Walter Avery, to REA’s New Jersey offices. What they had was truly remarkable. Dated December of 1862, the photo pictured a veritable All-Star team of great early New York Knickerbockers, including Avery. All were key members of the club from 1845 to 1850 who had apparently gathered for a farewell party honoring one of their own. Avery was the last surviving original Knickerbocker at the time.
Avery’s first appearance with the Knickerbockers was on April 14, 1846, when he played on Alexander Cartwright’s team, scoring seven runs in a 55-33 intramural Knickerbockers game. He also played in the first baseball game ever played between two different teams.
The California gold rush motivated Avery to leave New York on the steamship Columbus, arriving in San Francisco on June 6, 1850. He later returned to New York and died on June 10, 1904.
“This is truly a photograph of what is really the old guard of the original New York Knickerbockers,” Lifson said. “The men depicted are the earliest, most respected, and most important members of the team. “Perhaps most incredible of all is the fact that this photograph includes the only known images of some of the most important early Knickerbockers, and is one of only a few images known to exist of Knickerbocker legends such as Doc Adams and Duncan Curry. ”
Renowned baseball historian John Thorn has suggested that this photograph may have been taken in honor of Knickerbockers Adams’ departure from the club. Late in 1862 Adams had announced his plans to leave New York, move to Connecticut and get married. This is, in fact, exactly what he did. It is very likely that this historic assemblage of early original Knickerbockers was gathered to pay tribute to Adams, a founding club member. The photograph, a very rare artist-enhanced solar-enlarged salt print, was likely taken to create a special keepsake for Adams and the other key early team members pictured.
Lifson consulted Thorn and other baseball scholars and found all identifications perfectly match the identifications on the back of the photo. “We believe it is a certainty that the players for which no known image previously existed are accurately identified on the piece.”
The photograph and other Avery items have been consigned to REA and will be a part of the company’s April 2008 auction.
“This is part of what makes the auction business exciting for us. In the past we’ve had calls with valuable cards that have been found in basements or attics. We’ve handled many collections of items that were long forgotten in the homes of former ballplayers, sometimes found by relatives of the ballplayer when cleaning up, and sometimes by the new owners of their homes, who happened to stumble upon items left behind decades earlier.”
The find also brought back memories of another collection REA brought into the marketplace ten years ago when a family living in the home once occupied by early 20th century infielder Neal Ball.
“They had never explored the attic. When they did, they found all kinds of baseball items related to Ball’s major and minor league career, including his contracts, panoramic team photos, even the letter asking his permission to include him in the T206 set, which is the only surviving letter of this type known.”
Lifson isn’t sure what the Knickerbockers photo could fetch but he expects it will sell for a minimum of $10,000. Even if it isn’t the highest priced item in next spring’s auction, it is certainly the most historically significant.
“This is one of only a few photos that qualify as a Knickerbockers team photo and one of only a few sport related salt prints known to exist. It’s definitely a museum piece. How that translates into value will be determined by the market.”
“I don’t like throwing big numbers around because if I am wrong it can create disappointment, and there’s just no way I can predict on such a unique item. I always remind consignors that in 35+ years, I’ve never been right guessing what a rare item is going to sell for.”
“There is no other photograph in the world known to exist that remotely compares to this in terms of capturing the images of these important early baseball pioneers,” Lifson said. “It has been a thrill for us to have this piece literally fall from the sky into the auction.”