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Hamptons Life

Mar 8, 2010 4:38 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Crawl space find yields 'Accidental Fortune'

Mar 8, 2010 4:38 PM

A little more than two years ago, Jeremy Burke and his wife, Nicole, were just starting out married life together on the East End. The young couple had been wed a few years, had just welcomed their first daughter, Ellie Jean, into the world and had become first-time homeowners in East Moriches. Times weren’t necessarily tough for the young marrieds, but Mr. Burke was working three jobs—as a New York City fireman, laying carpet and doing security work—all to finance his version of the American dream.

But then, a chance find of a rare antique helia print taken in December 1862 took a little financial pressure off the cash-strapped newlyweds. While cleaning out an attic crawl space in the guest cottage of his new property, Mr. Burke stumbled across the old photograph, which turned out to be a rare “reunion” image of 10 New York baseball players from the early 1840s. The image, which auctioned for approximately $50,000 two years ago, made it possible for Mr. Burke to quit his two side jobs (carpet laying and security), pay off some bills and invest some much-needed TLC into his new home.

And sometime this spring, the story of Mr. Burke’s discovery will air on a new series, “Accidental Fortune,” on The Learning Channel (TLC). The show, which has a tentative air date of April 1, will feature reenactments and interviews with the Burkes, Hampton Bays-based antiques dealer and family friend Jim Maguire, authenticator John Thorn from Saugerties, New York, and Southold resident and actor Alan Stewart, who will portray New Jersey-based auctioneer Robert Edwards.

During an interview at Mr. Maguire’s antiques shop in Hampton Bays last week, Mr. Burke described the events that led to his discovery of the unexpected treasure in his East Moriches home.

“In 2007 we bought the house ... I was two years on the job for the New York Fire Department in the Bronx and Ellie Jean was about 4 months old,” Mr. Burke remembered. “The main house was full of crappy furniture with a few antiques sprinkled in. The guy we bought the house from lived in Florida, so I got it in the contract that he could either come take everything out of both houses or leave it all. He decided to leave everything.”

Mr. Burke reported that after ridding the main house of unwanted items destined for removal, he started on clearing out the cottage on his property. The smaller structure was in similar shape as the main house and looked to be a catch-all for excess furniture, old photographs, books and wood tools, he said. According to Mr. Burke, the cottage had once been a cobbler shop and a guest house, once occupied by one of the now dead baseball players in the photograph.

Mr. Burke said he initially thought the picture was from the Civil War, but upon further inspection, he saw an inscription on the back of the photo, which read “Knickerbocker Base Ball Club.” After doing some internet research, Mr. Burke said he thought he might have something valuable on his hands, so he called his friend the antiques store owner.

Mr. Maguire said that after talking to Mr. Burke, he drove out to East Moriches to inspect the photo and a few other antique pieces that might be of interest. After doing his own research, the antiques dealer realized that there might be some real value in the photo. He then called Robert Edwards Auctions, a New Jersey-based company that specializes in baseball collectibles.

“I said ‘I’m holding in my hands a photo of what might be the original world’s first baseball team,’” Mr. Maguire remembered. “They said, ‘there is no such thing’ but I said, ‘well there is now.’”

Mr. Maguire reported that after e-mailing a digital image of the photograph to the auctioneer, he and Mr. Burke drove it to New Jersey themselves for authentication.

“When we showed it to ‘em, all their jaws dropped,” he said, adding that the auctioneer told him that the image would auction for a minimum bid of $10,000.

Mr. Thorn, a writer and sports historian, was the person who actually authenticated the picture as a rare composite helia print. The painted and photographed image—the photos of the 10 men’s heads were real, though they had been “attached” or “pasted” onto a photo of the bodies of five seated and five standing men in waistcoats and dress jackets, according to Mr. Thorn—was an extremely rare “reunion” image, circa 1862, of the men who had played for the New York Knickerbocker baseball team in the 1840s.

“Whoever took this shot did a lot of painting,” Mr. Thorn said, adding that the rare image, though not taken as a live posed photograph, was still quite valuable to baseball historians and collectors. “When I first saw this photo, I thought ‘boy this is great.’ I recognized some of the men on sight, but there was one that by virtue of this find, I could fill in the gaps of who he was.”

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That's so fascinating!!!! Congratulations to the family, good luck with the new babies!!



P.S., Jim, may I ask what you are wearing? :)
By LilOnes21 (23), hampton bays on Mar 11, 10 1:37 PM
couldn't happen to a nicer family!!!!!
(jim, what are you wearing?)
By bellamostra (1), westhampton beach on Mar 11, 10 1:51 PM
Hope they paid income tax on that.
By C Law (354), Water Mill on Mar 16, 10 7:31 PM
Nice job,Jim! Thank god your not wearing what you normally wear.
By frank84 (10), hampton bays on Mar 18, 10 6:22 PM