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By Bill Francis
A familiar face from PBS’s popular show Antiques Roadshow for 14 years made a non-televised but nonetheless enlightening appearance at the 22nd annual Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture this week.
Leila “Lee” Dunbar can often be seen appraising sports memorabilia on the long-running television show – she has provided more than 2,000 verbal appraisals on more than 50 segments – but Thursday afternoon in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s Bullpen Theater she presented a talk titled “Stories in Hand – Baseball History Told Through its Memorabilia.” Before a full house, Dunbar talked of her life and the road she traveled to become a professional appraiser of pop culture memorabilia, including sports. Interspersed was the detective work often involved as well as stories of intriguing baseball items she has been involved with over the years.
“The Cooperstown Symposium is great because it gives a lot of different viewpoints, a lot of different nuances of history, a lot of stories that you don’t get to hear in the mainstream,” Dunbar said after her presentation. “One of the things about baseball is that no matter how much you know, there’s a lot more that you don’t know. And I’ve learned so much just in a day. It’s been just fantastic, and you meet a great group of people.
“People with different viewpoints is fantastic because in my world, normally, I’m either meeting people who have items, so they are what I would call ‘civilians,’ or I know other appraisers, and we discuss things from a slightly different point of view,” she added. “So the people that I meet here are not looking at this as a business, they’re looking at it as a purely historical exercise of deepening knowledge and understanding and I appreciate that, I appreciate that passion.”
Besides her work on TV, Dunbar’s company, Leila Dunbar LLC, provides all types of written appraisals for insurance, donation, estate tax, divorce, etc. Prior to opening her own business in July 2008, she served as senior vice president and director of Sotheby’s Collectibles department.
“One of the great things about the Symposium is that it has scholars, it has journalists, it has curators, and it has collectors. Me as an appraiser and having been in the business of actually buying and selling memorabilia, auctioning memorabilia, I look at objects in a variety of ways,” Dunbar said. “One, I look at is what’s the price, what’s the value? Be it a replacement value, be it value for estate tax or donation. So I have to think in that regard. But the only way you can get to that number is to do many of the same things that the others do, which is to do your research and then be able to think quantitatively about that research.”
According to Dunbar, she had very little choice when it came to her affection for the national pastime. While admitting to loving all sports, baseball’s her favorite because it’s what she grew up while being exposed to the most intense rivalry in the game.
“I was very lucky. I grew up with a love a baseball on both sides of my family,” she said. “My grandfather is an Episcopalian minister in New York who had tickets to Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium and idolized all the Yankees. And my mother, a big baseball fan, was actually a member of the knothole gang for the Boston Braves, and to this day I have all these aunts in their 70s, 80s and 90s who all watch, curse or cheer on the Red Sox depending on how well they’re doing.”
As for the institution that was hosting the Symposium, Dunbar had only high praise.
“I think the Baseball Hall of Fame is the ultimate repository of baseball memorabilia, and one that’s able to continually play a role in deepening the understanding of baseball and its history.”
Bill Francis is a library associate for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.