Just about everything surrounding the 1999 sale of the Halper Collection at Sotheby’s in New York City was exciting, from the week-long museum-like preview of the material at Sotheby’s elegant digs on 72nd Street to the frenzied media coverage and ultimately the sale itself.
But all the way through it, Halper himself was perhaps the calmest guy on site. I had talked with him for many years about his desire to see his collection preserved largely intact in a museum, but here he was selling the bulk of it piecemeal through an admittedly spectacular auction.
It wasn’t technically the way he had envisioned the final curtain for his epic accumulation, but he seemed at peace with it all by the time the gavel fell on Lot No. 1, an 1868 Mueller & Deacon bronze baseball figurine ($12,650). It must have helped a bit that only months earlier he had sold a $5-million chunk of his stuff to Major League Baseball, which had promptly turned it all over to the Baseball Hall of Fame. That, in turn, gave rise to the Barry Halper wing at the Hall, which offers a nice glimpse of the Herculean efforts of the most prolific baseball memorabilia collector who ever lived.
Here’s a story I always liked about Halper, in part because – like so many of the best Halper stories – it didn’t center around a stratospheric dollar figure for this or that piece of memorabilia. Halper sold his stuff for $30 million-plus, but if you talked to him, the tales always centered around the stuff, not how much he paid for the stuff or what he might sell it for.
“A collector once sent me two porcelain fingers, with a note saying that they came from the family of Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown,” Halper said with a smile during one of the brief moments of calm at the auction. “The note said, ‘I know this is the missing link to your collection.’ ”
The same guy also sent Halper a pebble that allegedly was the one that a certain ground ball struck en route to crashing into Tony Kubek’s Adam’s apple and thus altering the outcome of the 1960 World Series.
The merry prankster who mailed those ersatz treasures to an amused Halper? None other than our own Marty Appel, the former Yankees PR director, acclaimed author and SCD columnist.