Documenting the Source of Autographed Pre-War Cards: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Autograph Collecting
Immediately, following the December 2018 disclosure of over a dozen forged signatures on T206 cards appearing in several big auction houses, I spent a good two months researching the sources of authentic autographed pre-war cards back as far as possible. There is good reason to be suspicious with any autograph you did not get in person. I do think it is up to every autograph collector to do what he can to educate himself before collecting autographs. Forgeries have always been part of the autograph hobby, at least from the first time someone witnessed a collector spending money on an autograph he didn’t get in person. It is why so many do not collect autographs of deceased folks and do not understand why anyone in their right mind would.
A lot of suspicion with respect to the current signed pre-war card scandal is driven by the experience of hobbyists, most or whom never even heard of or saw authentic signed pre-war cards being discussed in any public hobby magazine or forum until the last 10 or 15 years. So, I have been speaking with the folks who got the autographs on the cards and, with a lot of help from Hobby Historian David Kathman, reviewing a number of old hobby publications from the 1950s and 60s to try to uncover some evidence of their existence.
A large part of my collection, and the rest of the signed pre-war cards in the hobby, come either directly or indirectly from Jeff Morey. I was able to interview Jeff in 2007, and he and I have been hobby friends ever since. You can see Jeff’s collection and listen to his interview here.
Jeff sold most of his collection in Mastro auctions in 2001, but before he did, he made black and white photo copies of most of his cards. He recently sent me a picture of him with his collection circa 1973, and in the bottom right corner of the photo, you can see a photo album open to a page containing 15 autographed T206 cards. Jeff dated the photo based on the 1972 Hall of Famer photographs over his shoulder, and Richie Coggins pictured over his head, who last played for Rochester in 1972. Although Mastro didn’t take pictures of the entirety of Jeff’s collection, you can still line up the 1973 picture with the cards that he submitted to Mastro in 2001, based on the black and white photo copies he made in anticipation of that consignment.
And you also can see that Jeff sold the Cicotte pictured above in the March 25, 2002 Mastro Auctions screenshot below for just over $1,000. In short, we have photographic proof of the same signed T206 Cicotte over a 30-year span, dating back now almost 50 years! Who has the card today is anyone’s guess.
Based on hobby publications, we also have documentary proof back to 1969 (the year that Cicotte died) that Jeff had the same signed Cicotte — and had listed it for sale — in the July 1969 Sports Trader, where Jeff offered "1910 T205 (sic) White Border Cigarette Cards signed" of Cicotte, as well as Sam Crawford, Bill Carrigan, Lefty Leifield, and Fred Snodgrass:
Digging deeper, I was very happy to find a summary of Jeff’s collection in the March 1968 Sports Collectors Journal, in which Jeff stated that among his “most valuable items” were “some 1910 old baseball cards autographed by such men as Sam Crawford, Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb, and Napolian Lajoie.”
Somehow more exciting was finding Jeff attempting to sell autographed tobacco cards as early as 1968. In the January 1968 issue of Sports Trader, you can see Jeff offering “1910 era cig cards – Carrigan – signed on back” and “wahoo Sam Crawford – 2 diff, each $2.00 – signed on picture”:
The below comes from page 10 of an autograph mailer that Jeff sent to a collector list in May 1972. You can see that his signed T206 collection was really starting to grow.
I recently asked Jeff whether he recalled selling these signed tobacco cards, and he said “No — think they stayed with me a bit – even back then many did not understand the fun of signed BB cards.” I actually think they remained unsold until Jeff sold his entire collection through Mastro in 2001. As hard as it is to imagine, but while there may not have been much of a supply of signed pre-war cards prior to 10 or 15 years ago, interest in them was not particularly high either. So many of the first group of signed T206 cards I began picking up in 2004 were available for about $100, some for under that. It was not until about 2008 or later that prices started to pick up, and more surfaced – some due to forgery in response to the exorbitant prices being realized.
As an aside, where did Jeff get all of these old baseball cards to get autographed? From fellow collectors, of course. In fact, in the April/May 1957 issue of Sport Hobbyist, Jeff placed a classified ad seeking T202 and T205s, among other cards, both kinds of which he was able to get signed.
But Jeff was not even close to the only collector who thought that getting pre-war cards signed was a good idea. Mark Jordan, currently Consignment Director, Sports, at Heritage Auctions, also was a collector of signed pre-war cards. Mark wrote an article called “News and Views on Collecting” in the August 1971 issue of Sports Trader. As you can see below, Mark wrote: “Incidentally, I have 1,000 autographed baseball cards, including Glendale Meats of Sullivan and some coupon cigarettes with blue lettering.”
That’s right, Mark was talking about autographed T213-2s! I’ve never seen a signed T213-2 before, and while Jordan recently confirmed for me that he did indeed write this article, he was not able to confirm what he had in his collection over 45 years ago, or where they might be today.
And if you were lucky enough to carefully read page 29 of the February 1976 issue of The Trader Speaks, you could have walked away with an autographed Fred Snodgrass T206 card -- WITH A HINDU BACK -- for $3.00! I have emailed Dan Dischley to see if he still has it available, and I would pay 3,000 times that today.
One thing I have definitely learned from all of this is to preserve the provenance. For years, once the TPA put the signed card in the case, the value of provenance was significantly diminished. The card once entombed was supposedly forever authentic just because a TPA said so. Who needs the letter from Fred Snodgrass to hobby legend John D. Wagner enclosing a “cigarette photo card with my autograph”:
Or Doc Steen’s correspondence, with postmarked envelope, in which Doc Steen asked Nap Lajoie to sign his M101-2 Sporting News Supplement, and Nap replied “Send picture. I will take care of it.” And he sure did!
Auction houses have been separating letters from cards, and throwing the envelopes into even another lot because they can sell the envelope as a separate autograph since the player wrote his last name in the return address. The 2018 Steiner "Spring Fever" Auction (May 6, 2018) had four signed T206 cards in it from a wonderfully large through the mail collection. Steiner broke the entire collection up and failed to share the evidence of where the cards were obtained, by whom, and how. Did you know, for example, that the baseball address list that the collector used to find his ballplayers was also included deep in the auction, as just a random, soulless vintage baseball player address list?
There was space for a “description” like “This is how our consignor of hundreds of TTM autographs found his players” but instead it was left appallingly blank. With the help of some additional information Steiner provided to me, I spent several hours combing through two different Steiner Auctions to piece back together the fabric and soul of this collection, which by the way happened to include four signed T206 cards:
Lot 17 (Doc White T206)
Lot 18 (Sam Crawford T206):
Lot 19 (Flick T206)
Lot 20 (Snodgrass T206)
The Lot #17, Doc White, Lot 18 Sam Crawford, Lot 19 Elmer Flick and Lot 20 Fred Snodgrass in this auction all came from a same private collection of a retired attorney in his mid-70s named Tom Marsilio. How do I know that? Because the owner of these cards was primarily a 3x5" index card collector, and the auction sold several of his cards where the players wrote "To/Dear Tom Marsilio". In fact, Steiner sold a collection of over 200 signed index cards that he collected from the mid-1950s to early 1960s. The signed T206 cards were probably gotten around 1966, which is when Crawford dated his.
A majority of the lower end 3x5” index cards form this collection were also sold in lot 237 of the 2018 Spring Fever Auction:
Additional signed items from this collection that also sold in the Spring Fever Auction were lots:
276 (“Marquard Letter”)
294 (“Hubbell Grove Plaque”)
295 (“Lajoie 3x5”)
The consigner additionally had an index card signed by Fred Snodgrass that was sold in Steiner's April 29, 2018 Auction in lot 310
...and Elmer Flick (again with the date 1966 - perhaps it was included with the Flick T206) in lot 320
Lots 286-326 in the April 29 auction all came from this collection as well, including:
286 (Peckinpaugh 3x5)
313 & 323 (Roush 3x5)
315 & 326 (Marquard 3x5)
When the TPAs cannot to be trusted – and frankly, even if they’re doing their level best – it is information like this which provides the corroborative or circumstantial evidence of authenticity -- the "provenance" we crave when taking that leap of faith and purchasing a wonderful little autographed piece of cardboard.