If there’s a single deal that captures the fast-and-loose dealings of John Rogers, it is his purported purchase of The Oklahoman newspaper photo archives for $2.5 million in July 2011.
The acquisition that never happened (as Arkansas Business first reported in December) was a masterpiece of commercial mayhem by the now-embattled newspaper and sports memorabilia dealer.
It included the signature moves of inflated valuations on a mix of genuine and questionable assets used as collateral to borrow money that wasn’t used for the stated purpose.
Among the compromised collateral that Rogers used to secure funding for The Oklahoman was the famed Honus Wagner baseball card that signaled his arrival as a big-time memorabilia dealer in 2008.
But Rogers no longer owned the vintage Wagner in 2011. He had sold it two years earlier, at a huge loss if he actually paid $1.6 million for it.
The vintage card is nonetheless listed among four valuable baseball cards that included another, questionable Wagner and two Mickey Mantles, all pledged by Rogers as collateral in The Oklahoman deal.
The cards helped secure the personal guaranty of Rogers and his then-wife, Angelica, to William “Mac” Hogan, who contributed $2 million to what he thought was a legitimate purchase of photos belonging to The Oklahoman.
The July 2011 transaction is memorialized in a series of documents filed in Pulaski County Circuit Court in January as part of Hogan’s $12.3 million fraud suit against Rogers.
Copies of the photo archive acquisition and digital library services agreement bear the signatures of John Rogers, owner of Rogers Photo Archive, and Pat Kennedy, business manager of The Oklahoman.
Or did they?
“We’ve never had anybody working here by that name with that title that I’m aware of in my 14 years with the company,” said Dan Barth, chief information officer for OPUBCO Communications Group, which owns the statewide newspaper published in Oklahoma City.
The agreement with Rogers promised Hogan a 15 percent return on his $2 million investment with a guaranteed payback within five years. The deal included a 50 percent ownership in The Oklahoman photo archive.
The phantom acquisition was further secured by The Seattle Times photo archives and a personal collection of baseball cards assembled by Rogers and valued at $2.5 million-$3 million that Hogan could hold in his safety deposit box until repaid in full.
On paper, Hogan’s $2 million investment was secured by these assets and more. The purported worth of all the assets: something north of $13 million.
Hogan believes The Oklahoman is one deal on a conveyor belt of bogus deals that Rogers created to lure him into continuing investments. Money collected from Hogan for later deals was used to repay him for earlier deals as part of a Ponzi-style scheme, according to the complaint.
Financial claims against Rogers have climbed toward $50 million in the months following an FBI raid of his North Little Rock business in January 2014. Requests for punitive damages from Hogan and other aggrieved parties push the tally toward $100 million.
The Wagner card that Rogers resold before using it as collateral in the Oklahoman deal was not just any old Wagner card.
It was the crowned king of all Honus Wagner cards, known in collector circles as the Jumbo Wagner.
The individual card, originally packaged with Sweet Caporal Cigarettes in 1909, was nicknamed for its distinct, large white border surrounding the portrait of the Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop. Wagner entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in its inaugural class of inductees in 1936.
This was the very card that brought national acclaim to Rogers in August 2008, when he emerged from a bidding war as the owner of the most valuable baseball card ever.
The publicity gained from the reported $1.6 million buy put Rogers in a new league. Possession of the Jumbo Wagner elevated his name in the world of sports memorabilia dealers and collectors. Just as importantly, it opened new doors of financial opportunity and gave Rogers access to a more lucrative playing field to ply his sales and marketing schemes.
Although he was still borrowing against it three years later, he actually attempted to flip it almost immediately.
According to sources familiar with the card and its sales history, Rogers was trying to resell the Jumbo Wagner for $2 million within weeks of buying it. By the end of 2008, Rogers was trying to sell it on eBay with a list price of $2.5 million with an equal lack of success.
He ultimately sold it in February 2009, and instead of a hefty profit, he took a $600,000 loss, according to sources familiar with the transaction.
Unlike the public splash of his $1.6 million auction purchase in August 2008, his $1 million sale barely six months later in a private transaction largely flew under the radar. Insiders in the sports memorabilia business knew Rogers sold the card, but few knew what an apparent bath he took.
The Jumbo Wagner resurfaced at an April 2013 auction that resulted in a new record-setting price: $2.1 million.
About that other Wagner listed in The Oklahoman deal: Its certified verification number doesn’t match. The eight-digit number does correspond with a Vic Willis card issued in 1910 by Drum Cigarettes.
Oddly enough, the image of a Wagner card bearing the same Willis certified verification number cropped up for sale on eBay in 2013. The dubious card drew an alleged high bid offer of $450,000.
The genuine Willis was part of a trove of vintage cards dubbed the “St. Louis Find,” which surfaced in 2009. The Willis batting card sold for $7,200 that year.