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"Other people started seeing that, and they said: 'Wow! How'd you do that? We don't have the money to digitize.' [The Detroit News owners] said: 'Man, there's this nut down in Arkansas, and if you'll give him the photos, he'll give you a bunch of cash and digitize them for free!' They started lining up at the door." Over the next few years as word of his purchases spread, Rogers would wind up buying the archives of a host of great newspapers, including the St. Petersburg Times, The Chicago Daily News, The Denver Post, The Boston Herald and The Sporting News.
One thing Rogers learned early on would seem to be the most obvious: valuable original photos of famous people and historic events make up only a tiny percentage of each newspaper's archive. Though they were making good money selling "the gold," Rogers said, the regular news photos that it seemed nobody would ever care to own had started to stack up in a warehouse.
"One day, I just told my guys: I know it's not fun, but we've got to figure out if this other stuff sells," Rogers said. "We started putting it on eBay, and we were just thrilled. We found out that people want the photos of places from their youth. They want the photos of a park they grew up playing in. They're not going to pay thousands of dollars, but they want them."
That discovery led The Rogers Photo Archive to become what Rogers called "The Walmart of Photography." He said that these days, online sales of seemingly insignificant places and people "dwarf" the amount of money they make on "the big stuff" — photos of Babe Ruth, Marilyn Monroe, The Beatles and other famous figures.
"If there's a million photos [in an archive], about 40 percent of them will be staff [photographed] and we'll do the revenue share," he said. "There's another 40 percent that are clearly off-limits to us to license because they'll be from AP or a private photographer, and there are about 20 percent that are always a mystery. There's no stamping, nothing on the back." They can sell the original prints no matter who shot them, but they can't license anything they don't own the rights to.
Though Rogers' fortune has grown, he still works up to 75 hours a week, often sorting 30,000-image batches of photos at home in the evenings. He plows money back into the business, he said, and doesn't golf, hunt, fish or ski. That said, he clearly still delights in hunting the elephants of sports memorabilia. Since 2008, he's bought and sold three copies of the legendary 1909 Honus Wagner T206 baseball card, and helped broker deals for two more. In 2011, he paid $17,233 for the only known nude photo of Joe DiMaggio, a 1930s snap of DiMaggio in the showers at Yankee Stadium. He buys unfathomably rare game-used baseball jerseys, then uses photos from the archives — CSI-style — to authenticate them down to the last button. He owns, for instance, the jersey Mickey Mantle wore at every home game through most of his 1956 season, the year he won the Triple Crown. Though it was sold as a 1955 jersey, Rogers was able to prove it was a '56 by matching it to over 60 photos in the archive. Because that's Mantle's signature year, a jersey Rogers bought for $210,000 was suddenly worth over a million.
Then there's his rediscovery and purchase of over 8,000 glass negatives by the famed early sports photographer Charles Conlon, who shot some of the first "action" sports photography between 1909 and 1930, capturing some of the most iconic images in history. Rogers, who calls Conlon "the Matthew Brady of baseball," had been a collector of Conlon prints for years, and set out to find the negatives in the late 2000s. They'd been used to create a book on Conlon by The Sporting News in 1993, but after that, they'd disappeared and nobody seemed to know where they were. "They thought maybe they were in a warehouse in North Carolina, or maybe in St. Louis," Rogers said.