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Lot # 1190 (of 1743)   < Previous Lot | Next Lot >

Circa 1860 John Van Horn CDV: The Greatest Baseball Maker of the Nineteenth Century

Starting Bid - $500, Sold For - $588

Offered here is one of the most intriguing nineteenth-century photos we have ever seen: a carte-de-visite of legendary baseball-maker John Van Horn. John Van Horn was a former ballplayer and professional shoemaker in New York, who became the leading producer of baseballs during the 1850s and 1860s. He supplied the Knickerbocker Club among others and has been dubbed the "greatest ball maker of the 19th century." The photo pictures Van Horn in formal attire as the poses next to a bannister. The CDV has been mounted and framed together with a small descriptive card which reads "John Van Horn/Maker of original leather covered/Base Balls."

What makes this photo particularly challenging to do justice to is the fact that we cannot verify with certainty the identification. The reason for that is simple: outside of this CDV no other positively confirmed identified photographs of John Van Horn are known to exist for comparison. Despite the lack of any comparison photos, there is reason to believe that this CDV does indeed picture John Van Horn. This piece originates directly from the legendary collection of Frank and Peggy Steele, where it has been on display at their home for these past many decades. This framed display, with identification in calligraphic style as part of the display matted beneath the photo by Frank Steele, was a favorite of Frank's and hung proudly in a very prominent place in the living room. Unfortunately, Frank is no longer with us and the information he had regarding the photo (and he most certainly had information, as anyone who knew Frank would know) appears lost to the ages. Frank Steele was one of the most knowledgeable and respected nineteenth-century baseball scholars to ever live. He had a great respect for history. The value of items had no role in his appreciation of history. In the era in which he collected, a CDV of baseball-maker John Van Horn had little or no monetary value. There was no motivation for anyone to intentionally misidentify this photo as Van Horn. Frank Steele would never have identified the gentleman pictured here as John Van Horn without very good reason, let alone display this photograph in a place of honor in his home for a day, let alone decades, if he personally did not believe without question that the identification was correct, especially since Van Horn is an obscure, albeit historically significant, baseball figure. Confirmed photos of Van Horn may someday surface, but until then we acknowledge that there is, by definition, an unavoidable leap of faith that accompanies the identification. There is no question, however, that at the very least, Frank Steele believed this to be John Van Horn, and this identification would be a topic that would fall directly in Frank Steele's area of expertise. In short, we would be shocked if this image were not John Van Horn. It should be mentioned that we have not removed the CDV from its frame because it appears to be affixed, by means of an adhesive on the reverse, to its mount. (We felt that any removal would simply have resulted in damage to the piece, which displays beautifully as is, without any knowledge being gained.) Not much is known about Van Horn personally, other than he was a shoemaker by trade and a second baseman for the Union Club of Morrisania in the 1850s (we have also seen reference to him playing for the Baltic Club of New York). In the 1850s he began producing baseballs out of his shop, using rubber strips cut from old soles as the core for his balls and sheepskin for the cover. This produced a "lively" ball and it became so popular the he earned the title of "greatest ball maker of the nineteenth century." Unfortunately, even with such a grand title, his name today is largely forgotten with the exception of nineteenth-century baseball historians and equipment collectors. Not coincidentally, his anonymity today is almost certainly related to the fact that no positively identified photos of him have survived except, most likely, for this rare gem. The CDV (2.375 x 4 inches) has four clipped corners and is affixed (by means of an adhesive on the reverse) to its mount; it is otherwise in Excellent to Mint condition, displaying exceptional clarity. Framed to total dimensions of 7 x 9 inches. From the Collection of Frank and Peggy Steele. Reserve $500. Estimate (open). SOLD FOR $588


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