Most of the dealers in our wonderful hobby will never make it to big-time status. They do not aspire to have their picture adorn the cover of SCD, their auction catalogs aren’t of biblical proportions and sales will never make any of them rich.
What almost all of the “mid-level” dealers have in common is a true love for the hobby. Almost exclusively they started in the hobby as collectors and the need to feed their collecting addiction led them to become dealers.
These are the dealers who’ll “get dirty” looking for treasures under tables at flea markets and garage sales. They are the dealers who are happy to set up shows not only to sell, but also to network with customers and friends.
They do not complain about booth location or pack up their wares days before the end of a show because they’ve bought their quota. They are not the corporations with million-dollar sales. It’s not just about the money, it’s about their love of the hobby. I am happy and proud to be part of that group that comprises the core of this hobby.
As dealers, we dream about the finds we read about on a regular basis in SCD. We all want to be like Indiana Jones and find the “Holy Grail.” It is almost a certainty that most of us will never touch a game-worn Babe Ruth jersey, or find boxes of unopened vintage baseball cards or be privy to million-dollar autograph collections; but it is also likely that at one time or another we will find something rare or unknown. It may come in the form of an uncataloged baseball card; a game-used piece of equipment or a variation of a piece of memorabilia. As the saying goes, “Every dog, has his day,” and if you are in this hobby long enough, you will almost assuredly have such an experience whether it be large scaled or small.
My partner, John Trincellito, and I (Inside the Park Collectibles) have been very fortunate over the years to have unearthed some minor pieces.
Although none were “earth shattering,” we were the first to present a rare variation of the Boston Braves Stanford Pottery bank, a giant-sized Carter-Hoffman Stanford Indian and a never before seen Fred Kail New York Yankee statue. But none of these small finds has compared to the thrill of handling our latest discovery, what we call – the Gibbs-Conner Find.
Before I talk about the find, let’s review what we previously knew about the Gibbs-Conner Co. It was a small manufacturer of porcelain products located in Cleveland, Ohio. Although it was not its main source of income, in the late 1940s/early 1950s Gibbs-Conner produced several porcelain banks with the likeness of the Cleveland Indians mascot- Chief Wahoo. Its work rivaled that of its main competitor, Stanford Pottery (also based in the Cleveland area), although its workmanship has always been considered a touch below in quality. As far as we can tell, Gibbs-Conner closed its doors for business in the late 1950s. The original banks were not produced in large quantities and are still very popular among figural collectors.
Our adventure started nearly two years ago with a very innocent phone call from a relative of a former employee of Gibbs-Conner. His late aunt had worked for “G-C” for a number of years as the designer and artist of many of their smaller lines.
After her death several years ago, the family discovered that she was a “pack rat” of sorts and had a house full of old memories. Among the rooms of old books, magazines and other keepings, the family discovered several wooden crates with the burnt etched lettering “Gibbs-Conner-Cleveland, Ohio.”
Inside these straw filled crates were porcelain items relating to Major League Baseball and NFL teams of the 1950s. There were mascot banks, ashtrays, cookie jars and other oddball pieces that were never offered for sale to the general public. These were the prototypes for a proposed project that may have helped in the downfall of the company.
Now as previously mentioned, prior to this call, the only items we attributed to “G-C” were two Cleveland Indians Chief Wahoo mascot banks. One has the Chief standing next to a large-sized baseball and the other one stands alone on a home plate wielding a baseball bat. The new discoveries in this find included interesting variations of the Indian banks and a number of similar-styled banks using the mascots of other Major League Baseball teams.
Some pieces even relate to several of the mid-1950s World Series. Even more exciting was the discovery of a number of never-before-seen NFL mascot banks. The newly found baseball and football pieces included teams that have long since moved locations or changed names such as the Boston & Milwaukee Braves, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the St. Louis Browns, the Philadelphia A’s and the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals. Needless to say, our hearts thumped with seeing each new piece. We struck a deal to purchase the bulk of the collection.
Before finalizing our deal, we, of course, needed ensure the legitimacy of these pieces. The estate provided us with the all the provenance that we would need. Among the paperwork found in the house, was a litany of documents that seem to tell the story of “G-C” right up to its eventual demise. There were checks, payroll vouchers and shipping invoices all on Gibbs-Conner letterheads that tied this ex-employee to the company.
More importantly, the estate found original hand-drawn sketches and specifications for the production of these prototype pieces. There was literally a running history of the proposed production and marketing of these items. If the project had been successful, orders from retail stores (like McCrory’s) were already in the works.
One of the shipping invoices predicted the ultimate fate of the company with the notation, “This one will make or break us!” In piecing the documentation together we can offer an educated guess that this project may have helped to lead to the company’s closing. For today’s collectors of figural sports memorabilia, it is a shame that only a handful of each of these prototype pieces survived.
Our association with the estate has lasted nearly two years and, as mentioned, we have purchased the majority of the collection. The family has decided to keep some of the pieces for sentimental reasons and some were sold prior to our dealings. We feel privileged to be one of the first to handle these incredible pieces. It is our belief that this is one of the most important finds of figural sports memorabilia the hobby has known.
OK, now that you know the story behind the find, here’s the best part – the pieces themselves. Because of their location in Cleveland, there was, of course a preponderance of Cleveland Indians items.
A variation of its original mascot bank included the embossed notation “54-111” on the baseball. A quick check on Indians history leads us to the conclusion that this is a reference to their 1954 season when they won a then record 111 games. The Indians would go to the World Series and lose in four games to the New York Giants.
Another reference to the 1954 season is an incredible World Series bank that has Chief Wahoo standing on a Giants foot. Other Chief Wahoo pieces include salt & pepper shakers, wall plaques, ashtrays and even a postage stamp dispenser. One of the best-looking pieces is a pipe with Chief Wahoo’s head as the bowl.
Perhaps the most exciting and saddest part of this find is the baseball banks using other teams mascots. Had this project been successful, the proposed team banks would have been an integral part of most figural collectors want lists.
Unfortunately, only a handful of each of these team banks still exist. The banks include examples of all of the 1950s origi nal 16 teams plus a new franchise – the Baltimore Orioles (formerly the St. Louis Browns). Some were made with the ball attachment and some of the mascots stood alone on a base.
One of the best-looking banks is an absolutely fabulous Chicago White Sox bank that features their winged Sox logo. Another bank is a tribute to the “fan club” of the then new Milwaukee Braves. It has the Braves mascot about to beat a drum with the embossed lettering “Tom-Tom Club.” The artists had to dig deep into their imaginations to come up with mascot banks of the Red Sox and Senators, but amazingly they “pulled it off.”
The find also yielded a few of the most amazing figural pieces you’ll ever see. There were a number of cookie jars with the heads of team mascots, including the Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates, both the Boston and Milwaukee Braves and the Brooklyn Dodgers’ bum. There was also a Dodgers cookie jar that featured the bum driving a trolley car (remember the Dodgers early nickname was the Trolley Dodgers).
But the project did not end with baseball. There were a number of NFL banks proposed and made as prototypes. Found in the crates were spectacular mascot banks of the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, Chicago Cardinals, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Redskins, Los Angeles Rams and the Green Bay Packers. The only team not found was the New York Giants. These banks are some of the most beautiful and important figural items the hobby has seen. There have been very few figural NFL mascot pieces manufactured throughout the years, so this find is a “stunner.”
Over the last year, we have offered a number of the pieces in our auctions. It has been a privilege to handle this amazing collection and the reaction of the figural community has been incredible. As the figural end of the hobby continues to grow in popularity, we look forward to future finds that may rival this one. It is our hope that everyone can someday experience the thrill of “The Find.”