It started simply enough. A handsome little baseball figurine was hammered down for $11,000, and what everybody anticipated would be the most incredible auction in the history of the hobby was underway. Barry Halper's unfathomable collection of baseball memorabilia was one week away from being scattered to the winds, and a year-long buildup to an historic week was over. D-Day had arrived. Or maybe, B-Day.
Seven days and $22 million later, it was over. Few things in America seem to be able to live up to their hype anymore, from Hurricane Floyd to blockbuster movies, but the auction of the famed Barry Halper Collection managed quite nicely. Fortunately, I got to be there. Don't tell my boss, but I'd have done it for nothing. This was history, and I wanted to be there and be part of it, as, I suspect, so did a number of others. And while events this long in the unveiling often disappoint, this one didn't. Not even close.
The first big item that got the crowd's attention was Lot No. 14, an apparently unassuming item described as 1894 National League team-signed ledgers. To the untrained eye, it might not have seemed like much of a big deal, but there weren't many untrained eyes at Sotheby's in New York City at 6 p.m. on Sept. 23. This was the deep end of the pool, as we were about to find out.
A gem with 113 signatures from major leaguers in 1894, Lot No. 14 commanded a final price of $96,000, once the buyer's premium was tacked on. It was bought by John Brigandi, a veteran hobbyist and dealer more than astute enough to realize what a prize the ledgers represented. It was a nice reminder, if anyone needed one, that the next 2,475 lots or so would be material largely unlike anything ever seen before in the hobby.
Not that the hobby hasn't seen stratospheric prices or even remarkable memorabilia specimens before, but the Halper Collection was (past tense sounds funny, doesn't it?) truly unique because he accumulated so many pieces from the players themselves, or their estates, or from the teams. Halper's ingenuity, his persistence, his foresight, his unparalleled access and certainly luck all combined to forge a collection of items that couldn't be put together again at almost any price.
Such an event would need an appropriate stage, and Halper found that at Sotheby's newly renovated digs at 72nd Street in New York City. After a week-long exhibition of the material on two floors that left literally thousands of visitors eager for the auction, the sale itself got underway in a spacious facility on the seventh floor that included seating for several hundred bidders on the main floor and skybox-type booths above the auction floor for some of the higher rollers.
Halper, of course, was comfortably situated in the luxury box, which was actually more like a suite. Food service and the like was available to all of the booths, but Halper got the Grade-A royal treatment, which seemed about right under the circumstances.
Rob Lifson, a name well-known to hobbyists through his own company, Robert Edwards Auctions, was one of the principal architects behind the auction, and he did a bang-up job of finding a coherent theme for each of the 16 sessions. The catalog, always vital at virtually any sale, was especially important here, and as we mentioned in previous articles, this one will almost certainly wind up as a collector's item and reference work. The placement of items at a live sale is also important in sustaining a certain level of excitement, and Sotheby's accomplished that nicely, as well. Even through stretches of what might be laughably called "pedestrian" material (in this case meaning $5,000 to $15,000), Lifson would sprinkle in many of the coveted Halper uniforms and jerseys like fenceposts at reasonable intervals.
The first such fencepost appeared at Lot. No. 16, a Wilbert Robinson Orioles jersey that sold for $27,600, followed at respectable intervals by jerseys from Joe McGinnity ($31,050), Chief Bender ($27,600), Jim Thorpe ($46,000) and Babe Ruth ($48,875 for a Dodgers coach's uniform). That astute strategy would continue generally throughout the auction.
The aforementioned prices were included to lay some groundwork for the staggering heights reached by the Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb jerseys later on in the sale. The uniforms had always been the centerpiece of Halper's collection, so it's hardly a surprise that they held a prominent role here.
And if the uniforms were the centerpiece, then Babe Ruth was the star. That's hardly a surprise, since Halper had always stressed his affection for The Bambino and had always insisted (quite correctly, it seems) that there was no one else even close. "Ruth was the man of the 20th century," Halper said from his perch above the sales floor. I think he meant "the man of the century in the sports world," but I can't swear that he would even include that qualifier. "It's proven when you have a Ruth autographed ball that went for $46,000," continued Halper. The ball in question, admittedly, had a really neat portrait of Babe painted on it as well, but one suspects that much of the dizzying price tag stemmed from its parentage in the Halper Collection and the fact that it was Ruth.
Hobby insiders expected all along that items in the sale would carry a substantial premium just for that reason, and nothing that happened from Sept. 23-29 would cause anybody to doubt that. Just in the first session alone, the Ruth imprint would be felt with a $40,250 handprint, a 1927 Ruth/Lou Gehrig signed photo ($29,900), a large, signed photo ($43,125), a 1933 Ruth contract ($37,375), his polo cap ($24,150) and even a Ruth 1948 farewell album and letter ($57,500).
And none of those even qualified as the most expensive Ruth item of the evening. That honor fell to the bat that Ruth leaned on in that 1948 farewell appearance at Yankee Stadium, which was purchased by Bill Mastro for a client, at a price tag of $107,000. As remarkable as those prices are, they probably weren't as surprising as some of the incredible sums paid for literally hundreds of other lots, from signed balls and pennants to team and panoramic photos, many of which left experienced hobbyists shaking their heads in amazement. "This is the one that sets the standard," said an elated Halper from his suite above the bidding floor at Sotheby's. "But those who know me know that this wasn't done for the money. I just couldn't collect anymore, and I'm thinking of the future and my family."
First Day Highlights: 500 Home Run Club autograph display piece with signed cards - $57,500; Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle and DiMaggio signed ball - $57,500; 1942 Oscar for "Pride of the Yankees" - $57,500; 1954 Norma Jean DiMaggio government ID card - $48,875; Mantle's first professional contract - $26,450; Mantle's last game-used bat - $40,250; single-signed Gehrig ball - $29,900; 1900-1930s photo and signature album - $29,900; 1920s baseball bat bench - $28,750; 1930s Moe Berg "spy" passport - $26,450; 1860 Live Oak Polka music - $25,300; and Marilyn Monroe signed baseball photo - $25,300.
The auction got a staggering amount of major media coverage in the weeks leading up to the opening, and even as it got underway, David Letterman gave it a mention on his TV show after the first night, noting that he was wearing Babe Ruth's underwear. He was kidding, of course, but he could have purchased them the next day for a mere $1,840. As Ruth items went at this auction, that was a primo bargain.
But just as he did in their heyday 70 years ago, The Babe found himself sharing the spotlight on the second day with Gehrig. In three sessions that totaled more than $5 million, Gehrig was the guy who turned heads with a trio of items in the evening sale that totaled more than $550,000. The big one was the 1927 Lou Gehrig Yankees road jersey that was purchased by Bill Mastro for Upper Deck for $305,000. As might be expected, that process elicited gasps from the audience, and then considerable cheering at the end when it was hammered down. It was announced the next day that Upper Deck had purchased the jersey and would use it for an upcoming promotion.
When told who had bought the jersey, Halper commented from his booth, "I hope they don't cut it up, because I had heard those rumors." They proved to be unfounded: Upper Deck officials made it clear that the artifact would remain intact. Day Two included morning and afternoon sessions that offered material from the turn-of-the-century and pre-World War I, but things really heated up for the Friday evening, "Murderers' Row - The Yankees of the 1920s" session. The signed agreement that sent Babe Ruth to the Yankees from the Red Sox sold for $189,500 to a private collector, which was a dollar figure not as startling to experienced collectors as the $151,000 paid for a 1930s Lou Gehrig cap. Just prior to that sale, Gehrig's 1927 World Series ring went for $96,000, again hardly a surprising figure for a piece of such historical significance.
More jolting to the hobby elite was the $79,500 paid for an admittedly spectacular Lot No. 621, a 1927 Bustin' Babes and Larrupin' Lous barnstorming panoramic photo.
Earlier Friday evening, autograph dealer Kevin Keating created a bit of a stir with a winning bid of $71,250 for Cy Young's baseball glove. Another autograph dealer, Mark Jordan, figuratively stepped up to the plate Friday evening, paying $96,000 for a 1921 Babe Ruth game-worn glove, the only one known in the hobby. That too, ultimately will belong to yet another major league hurler. "David Wells will wind up with it," said Jordan, who was the under bidder at $160,000 for the Ruth sale contract (for a different client).
Second Day Highlights: Alexander Cartwright family baseball and letter - $129,000 (purchased by Greg Manning Auctions); 1914-15 Ty Cobb Detroit Tigers contract - $63,000; 1861 Grand Match trophy baseball - $55,200; 1919 "Black Sox" single-signed ball collection - $52,900; Document collection relating to the sale of Ruth to the Yankees - $51,750; 1921 Lou Gehrig Yankees contract - $51,750 (Greg Manning Auctions); 1918 Babe Ruth Boston Red Sox contract - $51,750; 1859 presentation scorecard display - $51,750; and 1912 Joe Jackson signed photograph - $43,125.
Saturday morning, the folks at Upper Deck picked right up where they left off the previous evening. With Mastro staffer Dave Bushing doing the bidding, the card company purchased what would turn out to be the second-most expensive piece in a most-expensive auction: Ty Cobb's 1928 Philadelphia Athletics signed home jersey. For $332,500, with the juice.
John Brigandi won Babe Ruth's 1948 farewell album and letter ($57,500) and a swell 1915 photograph of Babe Ruth and his father in the family tavern ($7,475), the 1932 Yankees signed photograph album ($37,775), along with the amazing 1894 ledgers from the first day.
Another longtime dealer, Steve Verkman, was the winning bidder on a famous item that is no doubt familiar to SCD readers. The T206 Honus Wagner proof strip sold for $85,000 Saturday afternoon, just edging the Baltimore News Babe Ruth rookie card that went for $79,500 for top laurels in the baseball card section. But as experienced hobbyists know, Barry Halper "wasn't a card guy," as they say, having graduated from cards a long time ago. Still, his card stash grossed just over $1 million.
Third Day Highlights: 1926 World Series signed photograph, including Ruth - $39,100; 1887-89 N173 Old Judge cabinet collection of 29 - $34,500; Ty Cobb signed photograph - $34,500; T206 Ty Cobb with Ty Cobb back - $28,750; Circa 1920 John McGraw Giants home jersey - $26,450; Circa 1916 BF2 Ferguson Bakery Baseball felt pennants complete set - $23,000; 1926 Lou Gehrig autographed letter - $23,000; 1909-11 T206 White Border near-complete set - $20,700; 1912 T202 Hassan Triple Folders collection of 124 - $20,700; 1933 Goudey complete set - $19,550; 1950 Bowman complete set - $18,400: 1920s Louisville Slugger advertising display - $18,400; and 1920 Cleveland Americans panorama - $18,400.
Sunday was a day of rest for the Halper Auction and a game Sotheby's staff ... almost. Only one session, but still this managed to haul in $1,688,235, due in part to a number of high-ticket items. As they had in earlier sessions, Ruth and Gehrig proved up to the task. That lineup included a Gehrig game-used bat and a 1931 Gehrig World Tour jersey that each brought $63,000, Ruth's 1932 Yankees contract that went for the same amount and a 1934 Tour of Japan album with team-signed photograph and sheet that sold for $37,375.
Fourth Day Highlights: Moe Berg's "Spy" camera from the 1934 Tour of Japan, with related letter - $63,000 (purchased by Bill Sear); Joe DiMaggio San Francisco Seals signed Pacific Coast League rookie jersey - $51,750; Rock-Ola World Series arcade game - $48,875; 1936 DiMaggio rookie year signed glove - $40,250; 1933 Chuck Klein National League All-Star uniform - $37,775; and 1932 Yankees signed photograph album - $37,775.
For those who thought that collectors might be running out of money by the start of the week, a $3.5 million Monday put to rest a theory that didn't merit much consideration anyway. Even if folks were starting to max out their credit cards, Barry Halper wasn't exactly running out of stuff. Not for a couple of days.
What Sotheby's officials described as "The Play of the Week" came Monday evening, when two phone bidders began a tug-of-war over a circa 1960 Mickey Mantle game-worn glove. The bidding quickly passed $50,000, then creeped along in $10,000 increments. The crowd began clapping as the bidding topped $200,000, then escalated to uproarious applause as the gavel fell at $239,000. As auctioneer Jamie Niven waited to hear the paddle number, comedian Billy Crystal poked his head from the window of one of the skybox booths above the salesroom floor. Waving his bidding paddle, he asked the stunned audience, "Can I jump from here?" It was a magical moment, almost like seeing Mickey Mantle sock a triple that rattled between the monuments in center field. "Look at me. I'm shaking. I've never done anything like this before," said the comic, who reportedly was white as a ghost at the time, but no doubt looked "maahvelous" the next day.
Crystal is one of the more well-known Mickey Mantle fans in this hemisphere, so he must have enjoyed the evening, which featured several historic Mantle items. Mantle's Triple Crown Award from 1956 was won by Joseph M. Walsh for $211,500, and will be displayed in his restaurant, The Stadium, in Garrison, N.Y. Mantle's 1956 World Series ring sold for $123,500 to Michael Fuchs, former head of HBO and Warner Music. Fuchs has counted Mantle as "his greatest hero" since childhood. "This is more than a glove or a shirt: some people complete their whole lives to get to the World Series," said Fuchs. Lofty company, but none of the Mantle lots qualified as the most expensive of the day. That honor fell to Del Webb's 1947-64 World Series and AL Championship rings, which sold for $310,500, the third-most expensive piece in the entire sale. Those rings were purchased by another hobby name Alan "Mr. Mint" Rosen and Superior Galleries from Mrs. Webb in 1993, and later picked up by Halper in a trade/sale.
Earlier in the day, Ted Williams' 1947 Triple Crown Award sold for $97,100 and a 1939 Hall of Fame induction ceremonies signed photograph brought $63,000.
Fifth Day Highlights: Late 1940s Joe DiMaggio game-used glove - $49,450; Hall of Fame signed First-Day Cover - $48,300; 1948 DiMaggio Yankees signed home jersey - $40,250; 1940 Lou Gehrig signed lawsuit release - $40,250; 1951 Joe DiMaggio Yankees World Series ring - $37,775; Circa 1894 Amos Rusie New York Giants jersey - $37,775; Babe Ruth single-signed ball - $35,650; 1945 Hank Greenberg Tigers signed road jersey - $33,350; Mike "King" Kelly signed contract - $31,625; 1956 Mickey Mantle Yankees signed road jersey - $29,900; 1946 Jackie Robinson publicity questionnaire - $28,750; DiMaggio autographed game-used bat - $25,875; Walter Johnson silver dollar - $25,875; and a 1942 Stan Musial Cardinals signed, rookie home jersey - $23,000.
For baby boomers, Tuesday was like Christmas, with opportunities to bid on everything from an original Playboy first issue signed by Joe DiMaggio to the glove and cleats that Bill Buckner wore during that fateful Game Six of the 1986 World Series.
That Playboy magazine is one of the more famous pieces from the Halper stash. Halper welcomed DiMaggio into his home on dozens of occasions, and as was custom in the household, guests would sign any number of items as they moved around the shrine. Almost timidly (which he is not), Halper handed the Yankee Clipper the inaugural issue of Playboy, which has Marilyn Monroe on the cover and in the centerfold. "What do you want me to do with this, sign it?" asked DiMaggio. Halper nodded. After some consideration, DiMaggio agreed to sign it, but only on the condition that Halper never show it to anyone as long as DiMaggio was alive.
It was a request that the collector honored, without exception. First issue Playboys have considerable collector value for all of the obvious and traditional reasons: this one apparently has a bit more than that, under the circumstances. It would be hammered down for $40,250, making it one of the priciest items of the entire day's bidding.
The most-expensive piece in the three Tuesday sessions was Halper's 1903-98 World Series Ticket Collection (256 pieces), which went to a private collector for $140,000. The third Triple Crown trophy in the auction (that's a fairly impressive statement by itself) was Carl Yastrzemski's 1967 award, and it brought $85,000 in the morning session, only minutes after a signed Sandy Koufax road jersey from 1966 was bid to $57,500.
Sixth Day Highlights: 1903 World Series program at Boston - $63,000; 1992 Roberto Alomar World Series Trophy - $37,375; 1967 Reggie Jackson Kansas City Athletics signed rookie jersey - $31,050; 1929 World Series signed photograph - $28,750; 1963 Stan Musial Cardinals signed road jersey - $27,600; 1926 Yankees panoramic photograph - $27,600; 1963 Casey Stengel Mets road jersey - $25,300; Bill White's 1961 Gold Glove Award - $23,000; 1968 Pete Rose Reds signed road jersey - $19,550; 1967 Rod Carew signed rookie road jersey - $19,550; and 1965 Zoilo Versalles AL MVP Award - $19,550.
In a week that never failed to live up to expectations, finding a suitable closing would seem like an imposing task, but to the surprise of few, Sotheby's and the Halper Collection managed it. With only a handful of lots to go (and more than 2,400 already gone), Lou Gehrig's final glove from the 1939 season sold for $387,500, topping all items in a week where using the term "record-breaking" sounded redundant. Gehrig, who had a pretty good week himself, turned in a boffo final day with a presentation jersey at $123,500 and a Columbia University signed glove and ball at $68,500. Babe Ruth also got in a couple of ninth-innings licks with a 1935 Yankees jersey (not game worn - the Babe had been granted his release by then) that sold for $79,500, his last game-used bat ($74,000) and contracts from the Yankees in 1934 ($63,000) and the Braves the following season ($37,375).
Still, it was the younger generation that grabbed the spotlight on the final day, and I sure hope Nolan Ryan, Pete Rose, Hank Aaron and George Brett appreciate being thusly designated. Rose's home uniform from his 4,192nd hit game sold for $90,500; the Astros uniform that Ryan wore as he notched strikeout No. 3,509 was good for $43,125. Bucky Dent's playoff home run bat from 1978 ended at $64,100; Brett's "Pine Tar Game" jersey was hammered down for $31,625, Rose's Silver Bat for winning the NL batting crown in 1973 sold for $40,250 and a 1973 Willie Mays signed Mets road jersey went for $37,375.
Final Day Highlights: Baseball sheet music collection - $48,875; 1903-29 Yankee signature collection - $37,375; 1919 Branch Rickey Cardinals road jersey - $37,375; Hank Aaron's "Most Memorable Moment" 715th Home Run trophy - $29,900; Tom Seaver Mets signed road jersey - $24,150; and a Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron signed ball - $23,000.
And just like that, it was all over. Sotheby's tallied up all the numbers, and told us that more than 1,500 bidders wrassled for 2,481 lots over seven days and that once the smoke had cleared, not one single lot was left unsold. They added that 85 percent of the lots sold for above the high pre-auction estimate. Not too shabby.
But of course, it's hardly over, and I am not talking now about the Internet stuff (which, believe or not, is really cool stuff, too). What I mean is that all this wonderful material is going to be floating around in our hobby for the duration of lifetimes. I am sure that lots of people who won items probably don't intend to sell, but everybody does, sooner or later. Even Barry Halper.
Talk about full circle.
- T.S. O'Connell, reporting from Sotheby's in N.Y.C.