Baltimore Colt Hall of Famer Tom Matte talks with antique appraiser Ross J. Kelbaugh on the set of Chesapeake Collectibles. (courtesy MPT)
You know that faded daguerreotype of your great-great-grandfather Hiram – the stoic ancestor who lost a leg at the Battle of Gettysburg? It’s that family heirloom you keep squirreled away from prying eyes, lest someone notice the uniform is more gray than blue. Have you ever wondered what that picture might actually be worth? The best person to ask may be Ellicott City-based author and appraiser, Ross J. Kelbaugh.
Kelbaugh – a retired social studies teacher who started collecting Civil War photographs in the 1960s – is one of the local stars of Maryland Public Television’s (MPTs) long-running series, Chesapeake Collectibles. Now entering its ninth year, Chesapeake Collectibles has showcased an array of unexpected treasures, including:
A collection of the complete plays of William Shakespeare, published in 1865 and valued at upwards of $225,000 today.
A pristine photograph, and matching freedom papers, from a Maryland woman, who was born a slave in 1813 and gained her freedom at age 28.
A silver creamer, handmade by Paul Revere, worth $80,000.
An Atkins double rifle gun owned by a famous tiger hunter in India valued at $300,000
MPT’s production staff is preparing to find more delectable treasures during its upcoming taping weekend, August 18 and 19, at Turf Valley Resort in Ellicott City. Kelbaugh told the Baltimore Post-Examiner he is looking forward to the happening, as he will again be front and center for all of the excitement and fun.
“I was a guest on the first show and a client brought in a pretty rare item,” said Kelbaugh. “It was a freedom paper from Anne Arundel County that dated back to the 1830s. Maryland had the largest Free-Black population in the United States before 1860. With such a large population, they could be challenged at any time to prove that they were in fact free. So this was a pretty rare document, and I had been looking for one for a long time. I’d say it’s one of the rarest documents for early African-American history.
“Much of the photography I’ve collected over the years came from flea markets, antique shows and auctions. Not so much yard sales, but then, you never know what will turn up. You have to go to an awful lot of yard sales before you find anything good. There used to be a great flea-market at the Columbia Mall, but then the internet came along and bang – killed it off.”
Kelbaugh said that ebay and The Antiques Roadshow have gone a long way in educating people about the true value of collectible items – making finds of any kind increasingly difficult. However, discoveries do still happen and often appear on Chesapeake Collectibles.
“Over the years, I’ve seen some great stuff. They asked me to come back after the first season to be kind of a specialist for Maryland items. Technically, my category is ‘Collectibles and Ephemera.’ That’s a pretty broad spectrum, so I see a lot of paper, but also a lot of objects. A lot of sports memorabilia, too. You just never know what will come across that table.”
We wondered how far people travel to get their objects evaluated on Chesapeake Collectibles?
“I’d say from Northen Virginia, southern Pennsylvania and all across Maryland. Initially, we did the taping at the MPT studios. In the third season, we went down to Easton on the Eastern Shore. That was really good because it brought in people who wouldn’t normally come up to Baltimore. For the last few years, we’ve been at the Turf Valley Resorts. It will be interesting to see what people continue to bring in. MPT has a reach all across the region, and a lot of people tune into our show.”
Kelbaugh talked about seeing the last baseball Cal Ripken signed before he officially retired, but he noted the oldest Oriole memorabilia he has seen was a pair of celluloid pins, which dated back to World Champion Oriole teams of the 1890s.
“We also get a lot of Colt memorabilia, too. The greatest collectible of that kind I have seen was owned by Tom Matte.
“Tom brought in his Super Bowl ring, but what I was really interested in seeing was that cuff he wore, when he played emergency quarterback, after John Unitas was hurt. I wanted to see how the plays were organized. He has two of them, but unfortunately, he didn’t bring either one in with him. One is in the NFL Hall of Fame – the other is in the Maryland Sports Legends Museum. But he did talk about them, though.
“Tom said basically, it was arranged in columns, and each column had a formation. Then, under that formation, he had plays that he could call. He said his wife was a schoolteacher, and she had hand-lettered the paper to go into the sleeve he had strapped to his wrist. So he would kid her and say that she played football. Tom said that, once the other team realized what he was doing, they really tried to rip that cuff off of him. But I enjoyed getting a chance to talk with him.
“While Tom was in the building, a lady brought in a lamp that was presented to members of the press by the Colts. The lampshade had pictures of some of the players. I called Tom over and he said the lamp was produced in 1957 – the year before he joined the Colts. But the lady was thrilled to have gotten a chance to actually meet one of the Colts.”
Kelbaugh briefly touched on a few of his other favorite Chesapeake Collectibles items, including:
– A dinner menu from the creation of the Atlantic Charter (Aug. 1941), signed at the bottom by FDR and Winston Churchill. “This is something I would expect to see in the National Archives”
– Last signed photograph of General Patton, brought in by the daughter of a WWII general who was friends with Gen. Patton. Patton signed the photograph one day before a paralyzing car accident. The photo is believed to be the last one to be signed by General Patton before his death.
– “The Thomas Jacob Archive:” The owner’s grandfather, Thomas Jacob, in 1939, at age 15, wrote to every professional baseball club and every living former player to commemorate the centennial of professional baseball. Kelbaugh said Thomas Jacobs was a stamp collector, so the blank autograph sheets he sent off were well marked and carefully organized. Signature sheets included one from each of the sixteen teams actively operating at the time; one of former Most Valuable Player awardees and one of Professional Baseball Hall of Famers. Every professional baseball club returned the sheets with signatures from then-current players.
“This was a jaw-dropper for me. Some of those signatures, like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, are the Holy Grails of the baseball collector world. Unfortunately, the collection was broken up at auction. It would have been nice to see it kept together, or at least have been video catalogued before it was broken up.”
Kelbaugh said he is especially excited when people come in with objects to which they have a direct connection.
“One older fella – who was an engineer on the Apollo program in the 1960s – told me the story of how NASA discovered a telemetry problem a few days before a launch. He said that he and his team of computer programers worked around the clock to fix the problem. They got it done, and the mission went off without a hitch. He had photographs of his team, but he also had a thank you letter signed by Neil Armstong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins – thanking him and his team for their efforts in making the launch happen on time. His wife took me aside and said he was so proud that his team got that recognition. Everyone knows the three guys who made the flight, but there were thousands of people who made it possible. So it was neat for me to be able to put the spotlight on him.
“Unfortunately, he had taken these documents and laminated them onto a piece of wood. That’s the last thing you want to do. I tried not to make him feel too bad about that, but that’s part of what we do on Chesapeake Collectibles. We try to entertain while educating the public.”
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About Chesapeake Collectibles:
Taping for the new season will take place Sat. and Sun., Aug. 18 and 19, at Turf Valley Resort in Ellicott City. Registration is required by Mon. Aug. 13 to participate in the taping weekend. Anyone can have items assessed during taping weekend and may make an appearance on the show. Two registration options. Visit chesapeakecollectibles.com for more information and to register for a spot during taping weekend.
Anthony C. Hayes is an actor, author, raconteur, rapscallion and bon vivant. A one-time newsboy for the Evening Sun and professional presence at the Washington Herald, Tony’s poetry, photography, humor, and prose have also been featured in Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore!, Destination Maryland, Magic Octopus Magazine, Los Angeles Post-Examiner, Voice of Baltimore, SmartCEO, Alvarez Fiction, and Tales of Blood and Roses. If you notice that his work has been purloined, please let him know. As the Good Book says, “Thou shalt not steal.”