The Bernie Madoff…of Memorabilia?

In 1999, Barry Halper, often considered the “Father of Baseball Collecting,” auctioned off his entire collection. It sold for a whopping $37.5 million. But since that time, troubling questions have arisen, questions that have led many people to ask: Was Barry Halper the Bernie Madoff of memorabilia?

Did Barry Halper forge famous baseball memorabilia?

T206 Baseball Card of Honus Wagner (1910): Did Barry Halper forge famous baseball memorabilia such as this card?
Published by the American Tobacco Company
Photographed by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Barry Halper: Legendary Collector of Baseball Memorabilia?

Back in the 1980s, I collected old baseball cards with the Guerrilla Dad. And I knew about Barry Halper. His collection was legendary and even featured in the April 1987 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, which still sits on my bookshelf. Many nights I paged through the magazine, staring wistfully at his magnificent memorabilia. Little did I know that, like baseball itself, it may have been far less innocent than it appeared.

Barry Halper was born in 1939. He spent most of his adult life working for his family’s paper supply company. During that time, he accumulated a large fortune, which he used to build one of the greatest collections of baseball memorabilia ever assembled. According to the Smithsonian Magazine article, he owned more than a million baseball cards in 1987, along with over 900 uniforms and over 3,000 autographed baseballs. But while Halper enjoyed positive press, others viewed him with a large degree of skepticism. There were vague reports of missing photographs and documents from libraries in New York and Boston. Still, no one could prove anything.

Halper auctioned off his collection in 1999, receiving $7.5 million from the Baseball Hall of Fame and $30 million from Sotheby’s. The Baseball Hall of Fame got first pick, selecting such items as a Shoeless Joe Jackson jersey and Ty Cobb’s diary. In September 1999, these pieces were showcased as the “Barry Halper Gallery” within the Hall of Fame itself.

Was Barry Halper the Bernie Madoff of Memorabilia?

Halper passed away in 2005. But that didn’t stop the questions. Then in 2010, a report published by Peter J. Nash led the Hall of Fame to admit that Halper’s Jackson jersey was a forgery. The scandal exploded on the collecting world. As Nash describes on his Hauls of Shame blog:

The autograph Halper said he got from the Babe in 1948 has been deemed a forgery by experts; so has Ruth’s letter authenticating his alleged lock of hair (the hair is bogus, too). In 2009, Ernie Harwell reported, in the Detroit-Free Press, that the FBI determined Halper’s Ty Cobb’s diary was a forgery, and in 2010 expert Ron Keurajian determined it was likely forged by his biographer, Al Stump. SABR researcher Ron Cobb proved in an article he published last August that Cobb’s mother shot his father with a pistol, not with Halper’s shotgun that was featured in SI. Ollie O’Mara’s son claims that his father never sold Halper any uniforms and that his father was a fugitive from 1950 to 1966 and only saved a scrapbook from his playing days with the Dodgers. The Last Will of Tommy McCarthy, that rounded out Halper’s Hall of Famer autograph collection, has been confirmed as stolen from a Boston Probate Court.

It turned out that many of Halper’s most spectacular items were forgeries or stolen property. Other items were misrepresented. For example, a glove once owned by Lou Gehrig was advertised as his last one, even though the player who gave it to Halper never made that claim. And the lies didn’t stop there…even Halper’s claim of playing baseball at the University of Miami were proven false.

All told, at least $4 million of Halper’s collection is now considered “misrepresented or outright forgeries.” Another quarter million or so was stolen from the previously mentioned libraries in New York and Boston.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Barry Halper was idolized in life. But in death, he has become a bad memory. People who purchased items from him over the years are only now finding out that they are in possession of forgeries or stolen property. And unfortunately, the evidence is mounting that Halper knew what he was doing all along.

Recently, Bernie Madoff made news for running what has been described as the largest Ponzi scheme in history. While Barry Halper’s scam doesn’t quite fit that description, the comparison is apt. His wing at the Hall of Fame still exists today, at least in name. It seems likely that will change soon, especially if Fay Vincent, an Honorary Director of the Baseball Hall of Fame, has anything to do with it.

“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.” ~ Fay Vincent, Former Commissioner of Major League Baseball

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