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In 2000 however, Rogers made a $50,000 deal to buy the estate of a photographer named Don Wingfield, a freelancer who had shot for The Sporting News, Topps Baseball Cards, Life and Look Magazines, and the Washington Senators from the '40s to the '60s. The person handling his estate wanted to be rid of everything. Though Rogers tried to leave behind a box of negatives, the executor insisted. "The guy said, 'No, you have to take everything,' " Rogers said. "So I loaded up all the cool stuff, and there was an old box of dusty negatives that I knew nothing about."
Back in North Little Rock, Rogers stored the negatives and went on about his business.
"Months went by," he said, "and then we got a call from the Washington Times. They had contacted the family to get access to [Don Wingfield's] photos. They had called the guy I had bought them from, and that guy said call me. Basically they were running a story on Don and wanted to do a retrospective on his photography."
When the story eventually ran as a Sunday feature, Rogers and his shop were mentioned by name as the owner of the Wingfield negatives. On Monday morning, Rogers' phone rang. It was Upper Deck Trading Cards.
Upper Deck was one of the largest trading card companies in the world, specializing in high-end cards for the serious collector. They wanted to talk to Rogers about the Wingfield negatives. In the world of photos, owning the negatives usually means you own the rights to the photo and can do with it as you wish, but Rogers was a little cloudy on that concept at the time.
"They said, 'Hey, we read this story. Would you be interested in licensing those images to us?' " Rogers recalled. "I didn't even know what that meant. I knew what the word 'lease' meant, but how would you 'lease' memorabilia? So I said, 'I'll sell them to you!' I had no idea there was this huge industry where people pay for the one-time use of a photo. It was way over my head."
That was Monday. By Wednesday, four top execs from Upper Deck had flown to Little Rock from their offices in Carlsbad, Calif. "That quick, they ran out here," he said. "I told them they could dig through them, and they said: 'Where's your light table?' I said: 'Light table? What are you talking about?' They weren't getting it. I didn't know anything about this stuff, so they went and bought a light table."
Rogers said alarm bells should have been going off by then, but they weren't. The execs from Upper Deck kept asking over and over which of the negatives they could buy, as if they couldn't quite believe it. "I said, 'You can buy all of them!'," Rogers said. "They're looking at each other. We went to lunch, and they said: 'Just so we're clear, we can just BUY the negatives outright?' I said: 'Yeah, yeah.' They said: 'Do you have a price?' and I said, 'I don't know what they're worth... You guys make me an offer, and if it sounds decent and fair, I'll accept it.' "
In truth, Rogers did have a number in mind. After seeing how excited they were, he was hoping for $10,000. He'd already turned a handsome profit by selling off the "cool stuff" from Wingfield's collection, and figured anything he got from the negatives would be a bonus. "I'd paid $50,000 for everything, all these bats and gloves," he said. "I'd already made a profit on all that, so I'm thinking: 'Man, whatever.' "
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