From rapper to baseball collector, the wild tale of Peter Nash (cont.)
John Tobin, a Boston city councilman, was thrilled to meet Nash at the premiere of the Royal Rooters documentary. "Pop Goes the Weasel was like our anthem in college, on Thursday nights when we'd go drinking," Tobin says. He later organized "a night of rapping and baseball" in his brother-in-law's basement, and Nash came with a friend named Robert Fraser, who brought a 1912 Boston Red Sox World Series trophy he had bought in a transaction brokered by Nash. "Pete, my brother-in-law and a friend did an impromptu rap," Tobin says. "Pop Goes the Weasel. Pete made me promise it would never show up on YouTube."
By 2006 Nash cut the figure of a prosperous entrepreneur who might still be flush with music-business royalties. He drove a Mercedes SUV and owned a lakeside house in Cooperstown. But in fact he had acute money problems. Both the wax museum and Dreams Park partnerships had dissolved in lawsuits. His 3rd Bass royalties came to only about $5,000 a year, and an attempted reunion of the group, which included a performance at Woodstock 1999, never gained traction. Still, Nash showed no interest in a 9-to-5 career. "He never lost the celebrity attitude," says Fraser, who says he fell out with Nash after he refused to sell Nash the 1912 Red Sox trophy. "A regular job was beneath him."
Although Nash received a settlement in the Dreams Park litigation, the money went to satisfy legal and other debts. The house in Cooperstown was repeatedly under threat of foreclosure, the repo man was after his car, and Nash took to calling up friends for help in paying his basic living expenses: rent, a tank of gas, diapers, the phone bill. He seemed to be constantly juggling complex triangular deals in which he borrowed money (sometimes upwards of $100,000) using his baseball memorabilia as collateral. Sometimes he used the cash to hold off creditors, sometimes to buy more memorabilia.
"The only thing Pete failed at was being able to live without an object," says another collector and former friend of Nash's. "That's what always got him in trouble, because when he had money, he always needed the next thing -- and who can survive that, if you don't have a job?"
The last week of July, Cleveland's International Expo Center teemed with men and boys enjoying the all-American pastime of baseball-card collecting. It is a huge business, even in the middle of a recession. Fathers and sons roamed the 400,000 square feet of the National Sports Collectors Convention, glassy-eyed over the acres of graded, encapsulated tobacco cards from the turn of the 20th century, and display cases brimming with game-used bats and balls and jerseys. They had come, as they do every year, to commune with the game's past through its relics and paraphernalia. But two young men were there for a different reason. They were agents from the FBI and the U.S. Postal Service and had come to interview dealers and hand out subpoenas for auction invoices and other records. This was the feds' second year in a row at the show.
For all its many upstanding, passionate collectors, the baseball-memorabilia subculture is also a notoriously seedy shadowland of Mametesque schemers and dreamers, thick with forgeries and thefts, conflicts of interest, dubious "authenticators," shill bidding, card doctoring and any number of other dubious practices. "The hobby is mostly filled with low-life hucksters, some of whom grow up to own important auction houses," says a longtime collector of early baseball material. "You can count the number of people who are smart and educated and honest on one hand."
Among the most notable thefts: In 1972 five baseballs signed by U.S. presidents were stolen from a display case at the Hall of Fame; all were eventually recovered, several of them after turning up in auction catalogs. Many other pieces of historical baseball memorabilia, including the wills of Hall of Famers and scrapbooks of 19th-century ballplayers, have been filched from repositories such as the Hall of Fame, the New York Public Library, the Boston Public Library and various courthouses.
As for deceptions, the most expensive baseball card ever sold, a $2.8 million near-mint-condition T206 Honus Wagner once owned by Wayne Gretzky, is widely rumored to have been trimmed (long before it belonged to Gretzky). A game-used "1930s" Joe DiMaggio glove, vouched for by DiMaggio in an accompanying note, was actually manufactured after Joltin' Joe retired. And the feds' visit to the Collectors Convention last year was prompted by an investigation into whether Mastro Auctions, the hobby's biggest house, was engaged in shill bidding, among other illegal practices. (Mastro has since shuttered.)
Against this backdrop, one man has fashioned a reputation as something of a Boy Scout. Rob Lifson was one of the country's leading dealers by age 15, when he was featured in National Geographic World magazine as the owner of some 50,000 baseball cards. In 1999 the renowned collector Barry Halper -- who owned 2 percent of the Yankees, not to mention more than 100,000 pieces of memorabilia, including Ty Cobb's dentures, a lock of Babe Ruth's hair, Lou Gehrig's "luckiest man" uniform and a jar of Vaseline signed by Gaylord Perry -- chose Lifson to oversee the sale of his collection at Sotheby's. Today, at 49, the New Jersey-based Lifson is one of the hobby's top auctioneers and the preeminent clearinghouse for rare 19th- and early 20th-century material.
On his Web site, in his catalogs, in interviews and in e-mails to his customers, Lifson speaks proudly of the consulting work he has done for the FBI and of his strict avoidance of some of the industry's most disreputable practices, such as reconditioning baseball cards. To avoid conflict of interest, Lifson's auction house, Robert Edward Auctions, has a policy of not bidding in its own auctions. And to protect bidders' privacy when they enter the maximum amount they are willing to bid, Lifson instituted a computerized "honest auto-bid" system. The Card, a 2007 biography of the Gretzky T206 Wagner by Michael O'Keeffe and Teri Thompson, titled its chapter about Lifson A White Knight.
Lifson's relationship with Peter Nash has been symbiotic. Over the last two decades, through consignments from Nash, Lifson obtained such astonishing purported rarities as the oldest known baseball -- from the 1832 team called the Philadelphia Olympics -- and a case of painted trophy baseballs from the 1869 Red Stockings. "He knows a lot more than me," Lifson says of Nash's mastery of 19th-century baseball material. In return, Nash secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash advances from Lifson.
According to court documents, by early 2006 Nash owed Lifson nearly $1 million and had failed to deliver all of the collateral he had promised. Most troubling to Lifson was that, he says, a lot of the collateral was not passing muster with authenticators, and there were questions raised in the litigation about whether Nash even owned all of the items he had signed over. When Lifson asked Nash for help in tracing the disputed objects' provenance, he said Nash stonewalled. As a result Lifson was preparing to auction off those items that could be authenticated and whose ownership wasn't contested, foremost among them an object that Nash had bought at Sotheby's in 2005 for $132,000: the first ball ever thrown out at Fenway Park, the day it opened, in 1912. The thrower was Boston Mayor John (Honey Fitz) Fitzgerald, Royal Rooter and future grandfather of JFK.
Nash then did a surprising thing. Although Lifson was contractually entitled to sell his collateral, Nash now cited a side agreement in which he had sold 1 percent of the 1912 ball to Thomas Acton Fitzgerald Jr., a grandson of Honey Fitz. Nash was recreating early Red Sox fan Michael (Nuf Ced) McGreevy's Boston bar -- called the 3rd Base Saloon because it was the "last stop before home" -- and had told his partners that he would relocate his baseball-fan museum there, with priceless Red Sox memorabilia, including the 1912 Fenway ball and a trophy presented in 1897 to Hugh Duffy, a star for the old Boston Beaneaters.
When Nash had consigned the ball to Lifson, he had stated that he had full title to the ball. But Nash now claimed that the sale would be illegitimate, and he asked New Jersey's Somerset County Superior Court to intervene.
Lifson had already sent the ball to its new owner. He countersued Nash, and the case went on for more than a year. Among the allegations in the countersuit were that some of the collateral Nash had put up -- such as a ball and glove that had belonged to Fred Tenney, first baseman for the pennant-winning 1897 Beaneaters -- were not his to consign. Nash rescheduled court appointments, canceled his own deposition at the last minute and, when he was finally deposed under oath, invoked the Fifth Amendment dozens of times in response to questions about the origins of specific pieces of collateral.
The court found in favor of Lifson, and eventually Nash signed a court order in which he admitted to having committed fraud, without specifying how. Lifson, meanwhile, had done a black light test on a suspicious-looking Henry Chadwick business card that, he says, he got from Nash. He believed the test showed the card to be modern. He also sent the card to the Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Lab at the University of Arizona for a more definitive radiocarbon dating test; the lab concluded "there is no doubt the material is post-1950." (Chadwick died in 1908.) Nash did not respond to further queries from SI.
Of the $760,000 the court awarded to Lifson, he recouped $506,000 earlier this year when he conducted an unusual court-sanctioned buyer-beware auction of all his remaining Nash-sourced collateral. (The phony business card was not included.) Lifson stated that the most important material could not be approved by authenticators and that he didn't know which items were genuine and which were not. They included the 1897 Hugh Duffy trophy and the 1832 Philadelphia Olympics baseball. All the items were bought by an Arkansas dealer named John Rodgers. Even then Nash tried to stop the sale, proposing a last-minute triangular deal involving another friend, a New Jersey accountant and baseball-autograph collector named Al Angelo. Nash's lawyer also sent a letter to Lifson's lawyer threatening to go public with some "information that may impugn ... Lifson ... if there is no cooperation on your clients' [sic] part."
The lawyer was alluding to a rumored indiscretion from Lifson's youth. The story, passed around by hobbyists, was that in the 1970s Lifson had been caught stealing from the New York Public Library's Albert G. Spalding collection of historical baseballiana. And as Lifson struggled to collect the balance of his court judgment against Nash -- $256,000 plus interest, which was accruing by the day -- Nash spied an opportunity in the old rumor. Given the large amounts of material stolen from the Spalding Collection in the 1970s and '80s, at least some of which has appeared to circulate through auction houses, Nash thought that the alleged incident involving Lifson must have been only the tip of a larcenous iceberg. He began to concentrate his energies on finding evidence to support this. When Sports Illustrated first contacted Nash earlier this year, his e-mailed response included a reference to Lifson's alleged "thefts from the Spalding and Chadwick Baseball Collections at the New York Public Library." He also cited articles in early July in The New York Times and Boston Herald about objects that were turning up on the market that had supposedly been stolen from the New York and Boston public libraries and the probate court in Suffolk County, Mass. Some of the items seemed to have once been owned by Barry Halper. Later that month, in New York, Nash turned over to the FBI at least one object he alleged was stolen: an 1889 letter to Harry Wright from the player George Stallings, which Nash's friend Al Angelo had purchased in May from Robert Edward Auctions -- Lifson's operation. (Lifson told SI he has "no knowledge of the letter being stolen" but that he is fully cooperating with the investigation into the letter's provenance.)
Lifson, addressing the rumor of the library theft publicly for the first time, confirms that a kernel of it is true: Thirty-two years ago, he says, he was a precocious minor with too much money and freedom; one day while doing research at the library, high on a mix of drugs and alcohol, he secreted two photographs under a piece of cardboard attached to the outside of his briefcase. He was caught before he could leave the room. Other than one group school trip to the library, Lifson says, he had never been there before, and he has never been there since. The incident is embarrassing to talk about, Lifson continues, but it was also a life-changing experience. Now he is a virtual teetotaler. He has served as a consultant to the FBI in a number of memorabilia-related cases and is proud to have played a role in bringing at least some reform to the hobby. "Even I can't believe what is possible to do from my basement sometimes," Lifson says.
As for Nash, whom he calls "diabolical," Lifson says: "For it to be [him] trying to knock me down and undermine my credibility is almost a badge of honor. This is the greatest mystery of my life. It's like I'm dealing with an evil superhero from Batman. If I wasn't the target, it would be a lot more fun."
The FBI, according to two hobby insiders who have been interviewed by agents, is investigating whether Nash sold forged memorabilia. But Nash's most immediate problem is how to make a living. His Cooperstown house is in foreclosure, and he recently lost another skirmish with Lifson over the glove and ball belonging to Fred Tenney that Nash had put up as collateral. Carroll Tenney, a researcher and distant relative of Fred's who had been given the items by Fred's granddaughter, had seen the objects in a Lifson catalog and said he had only lent them to Nash for his Royal Rooters documentary. Over Nash's objections, the New Jersey judge declared Lifson free to return the objects to Carroll Tenney, effectively finding that they had never belonged to Nash. (The same day, the judge issued the arrest warrant for Nash, which remains in force and could be exercised at any time by law enforcement.)
Nash still owes Lifson the $256,000 plus interest and attorneys' fees, and all of Nash's income from the Boston bar -- more than $25,000 so far this year -- is being diverted to the auctioneer. Lifson also has a second mortgage on Nash's foreclosed house, is going after at least one valuable piece of memorabilia Nash still owns and may seek to attach Nash's 3rd Bass royalties.
Nash, for his part, dismisses a suggestion that a 3rd Bass reunion might help solve some of his problems. "Serch has asked me to do certain things," Nash says. "It's not like there's any huge money in doing it. There's a lot of interest, but I mean, it's nothing I have that much of an interest [in]."
On the other hand, he doesn't see baseball memorabilia as a way out either. "I have to say," Nash says, "I'm kind of getting soured on collections."