A $59 million offer to buy the photo archives and sports memorabilia collected by John Rogers has proven as ethereal as the wondrous asset valuations the embattled businessman once proclaimed.
The sight-unseen proposal by Red Alert Media Matrix Inc. of Atlanta to acquire the North Little Rock enterprise Rogers had valued at $300 million evaporated less than 30 days after materializing. (See Red Alert's $59 Million Offer Not Backed by Cash.)
The letter of intent without supporting funds by Red Alert is much like the appraised value of assets without supporting sales by Rogers. He remains under the cloud of a criminal investigation after being removed from both operations and ownership, and creditor lawsuits seek more than $45 million.
Even the famed Conlon Collection, which has elicited five offers, has drawn wide-ranging valuations: $18 million by Rogers’ most stellar reckoning or as low as $1.4 million based on investor transactions.
To date, six individuals or entities, and two creditors, have staked ownership claims to the historic sports images captured between 1904 and 1942 by the camera of Charles Conlon, a New York newspaper proofreader turned sports photographer.
The physical location of the collection adds another layer of complication. The vast majority of the collection is in North Little Rock, but some of the most valuable pieces are in Illinois.
Just as convoluted is trying to divine even a ballpark idea of the value of the collection, for which Rogers paid $1 million in 2010 as part of a $2 million deal he struck with The Sporting News.
In 2012, Rogers cited an appraised value of $18 million for the Conlon Collection. In a 2013 email that became part of the court records, Rogers put the appraised value at $17 million.
“That’s a very interesting number,” said Michael McAfee, court-appointed receiver of the Rogers assets. “I’d be happy if that were true. We have lots of appraisals. I’d like for them to be right, but I don’t know if they are.”
What is known is that the prices Rogers’ investors paid for part ownership were all over the board — and always much lower.
Mark Roberts of San Francisco paid Rogers $1.1 million for a 25 percent interest on Oct. 21, 2010, suggesting the Conlon Collection was worth $4.4 million and a hefty return on Rogers’ $1 million investment.
Six months later, however, Rogers sold a 40 percent stake in the collection to Legendary Auctions LLC of Lansing, Illinois, for $400,000. Legendary Auctions had loaned Rogers $400,000 — 40 percent of the $1 million purchase price. The debt-for-equity deal was memorialized in a three-page purchase agreement between Rogers and Legendary’s CEO, Doug Allen, dated March 15, 2011.
The agreement notes that Legendary Auctions would take possession of 67 glass plate negatives from the 8,354-frame Conlon Collection to reflect its 40 percent stake.
How could less than 1 percent of the total collection account for so much perceived market value? Legendary Auctions cherry-picked its share from images of baseball greats such as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Joe Jackson and Walter Johnson.
The auction house placed the “low retail” value of its 40 percent piece of the Conlon Collection at $667,000. That suggests a “low retail” value of less than $1.7 million for the entire collection and contrasts sharply with the $1.1 million Roberts paid for his 25 percent stake.
The purported sale of another 25 percent share of the Conlon Collection in 2012 added to the topsy-turvy valuations.
In this transaction, Rogers sold a 25 percent stake for $350,000. That translates into an overall collection valuation of $1.4 million.
The investors in this Dec. 4, 2012, deal were two individuals connected with Legendary Auctions: Dale Huizenga and Amy Allen. Their ownership claim is secured by 125 images of more top-shelf players such as Rogers Hornsby, Lefty Gomez, Jimmie Foxx and Mickey Cochrane.
First Arkansas Bank & Trust of Jacksonville believes it has a secured claim to a sizable portion of the Conlon Collection. The bank is disputing both Conlon transactions between Rogers and Legendary Auctions, which appear to have conflicting details and other alleged legal issues.
In its court filings, First Arkansas describes the 67 Conlon pieces allegedly held by Legendary Auctions as the crown jewels of the collection, worth $1 million to $1.5 million.
Rogers and Legendary Auctions tried to monetize the Conlon images through online sales in hopes of attracting interest at different price points.
The budget-priced offerings ranged from $8.95 for greeting card prints to $69 for framed prints. At the top end were 11x14 premium prints of some of the collection’s best-known images at $999 a pop. Envisioned as a 150-print series, the complete collection of this premium set would’ve cost $149,850.
That kind of number can go a long way toward generating overblown valuations without sufficient sales to support it.
The historical value is undeniable even if the retail value is questionable.
“It’s the best collection he has,” said a former business associate of Rogers. “The problem is it’s all ugly, glass-plate negatives. But it’s Conlon’s work, and the images from the ugly, glass-plate negatives are what make it valuable.”
The collection’s most famous image, one of the best early action photos of major league baseball, has something in common with another American artifact: the Liberty Bell.
The glass plate negative of Ty Cobb stealing third on Saturday, July 23, 1910, is cracked. The crack, described as corner-to-corner, happened before Rogers bought the collection.