Lelands.com and the $1-million photo find

40863_intro.jpgThere traditionally comes a time virtually every summer when I hit a streak of travel that almost always produces a lot of good copy but invariably leaves me a bit pooped. If that sounds like complaining, it isn’t, because I like to travel and figure it’s vitally important for an editor who works in such a rural area.

This year, it meant a couple of back-to-back sorties to Baltimore and New York, to Geppi’s Memorabilia Road Show and Lelands.com, respectively, penciled in a about a week or so before my week-long trek to California and this year’s National Convention in Anaheim. Still, I am not whining, just explaining.

In Baltimore, we got a look at some of the cool stuff that the auction company has lined up from the personal collections of Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto and Rusty Staub for their upcominng auction. We’ll have more on that as we approach the Sept. 13 auction date, which also marks the opening of Geppi’s Entertainment Museum in the renovated warehouse adjacent to Orioles Park at Camden Yards.

But even before that, Josh Evans, Mike Heffner and the gang at Lelands.com figure to be grabbing a lot of attention with a $1 million-plus pile of photos from the archives of the San Francisco Examiner.

Lelands.com officials recently announced that the Seaford, N.Y.-based auction house has purchased nearly 1 million photos from the archives of The San Francisco Examiner, ponying up more than $1 million for the images that touch every area of life in the United States from the late 19th century to modern times.

image002.jpgJosh Evans, Lelands.com founder and CEO, spent nearly two months at the Examiner’s offices in San Francisco, poring over thousands of photos from the pages of the famed newspaper that was originally owned by William Randolph Hearst, as depicted in the 1941 Orson Welles film “Citizen Kane.”

“This is the greatest experience of my life,” Evans told me in an interview at the Lelands.com offices in mid-July, referring to the initial process of looking at the photos in San Francisco and the ongoing examination and initial lotting of the first images to be included in the company’s Aug. 25 auction.

Lelands.com will offer an estimated 1,000 photos in that sale, and Evans said they expect to offer signficant arrays of the photos – with individual catalog sections – in their auctions over the coming years. In addition, Lelands.com will be offering thousands of the photos for sale at the National Convention in Anaheim this week.

When I got to the Lelands.com offices in Seaford, N.Y., it didn’t take long to see what Evans was so enthused about. In the basement of the offices, already well stocked with material being prepped for the company’s  Aug. 25 auction, was a separate area surrounded by a chainlink fence and one of those bulletproof padlocks. Inside was/is an estimated 500 legal-sized boxes crammed full of photos from the Examiner’s archives. I spent the better part of the day there and only got to glance briefly at a hundred or more photos, so it’s easy to understand the kind of wonderful bewilderment that the whole enterprise represented for Josh and staff as they try to begin the epic task of handling all of this for auction or direct sale.

Even now – the sale was finalized in late spring – Evans figures he’s only seen a fraction of the total inventory, but he’s looking forward to the rest of the process over the coming years. Yeah, I said years, not months.

I am only introducing the subject matter in this column; the plan is (sometimes events force changes with weekly magazines) that the Lelands.com photo find will be featured in the Aug. 25 issue of SCD, with lengthy interviews with Evans and Mike Heffner, and will include a first look at a sampling of the incredible images, including many spectacular Wire photos, which has become a significant collecting niche all unto itself.

I emphasize “sampling,” because the scope of the find means that everybody is going to have to wait a bit to get a look at so many vintage images. Evans himself concedes that the unusual circumstances meant he had to make the decision about whether or not to pull the trigger on the deal after viewing a nominal number of photos.

“I bought a quantity of photos and then I got to choose what I wanted,” Evans explained. In addition to his six weeks spent examining photos, a number of Lelands.com staffers, including company president Mike Heffner, helped out at various points this spring. “There was no way to go through every single photo, so I learned what to look for and what to avoid,” Evans added.

The entire archive was thought to total nearly 2 million images, and the balance of images – roughly half the total – that were not shipped back to Long Island were donated to the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

Mike Heffner named full partner: Only a few days before I headed out to New York, Evans also announced that that Lelands.com President Mike Heffner had been named a full partner in the Long Island-based auction house, highlighting a 15-year career that started officially for the auction expert with his graduation from college in 1991. Heffner’s first experience with Evans dated several years before that as he impressed the veteran dealer while just an eager collector and budding dealer at age 17.

“Josh came to me and offered this to me, and it was an incredible gesture on his part,” said Heffner. “We’ve worked together very well over the past 15 years and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

Evans confirmed that the impetus for the decision had come without any overture from his new partner. “Mike never asked for this,” said Evans. “I just felt that due to his loyalty, devotion and work ethic it was deserved. I trust him like a brother and I did it because he earned it.”

As noted earlier, the complete interviews with Evans and Heffner and photos from the archive will be featured in the Aug. 25 issue of Sports Collectors Digest. I’m planning to include a picture page as well to show a good number of the images.    

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