Charles M. Conlon is one of the most prolific sports photographers of all time, and now a collection of his life’s work — some 7,462 original negatives — is up for auction. Heritage Auctions, which is managing the lot, expects it could pull in more than $1 million by the close of bidding this weekend.
Conlon’s work spans from 1904 to 1942 and includes some of baseball’s most iconic images. In addition to detailed close-ups and portraits, he also shot some stunning action shots, a rare accomplishment in a time of single-shot, glass plate photography.
One advantage he did have, though, is that in those days, photographers could get right up on the field, just outside the baselines in foul territory. That’s where Conlon would be, with his massive Graflex camera set up on a tripod. This is how he captured his most famous photograph, taken in 1910, of Ty Cobb sliding into third base. The collection also includes portraits of other baseball greats, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio.
Even after decades of technological advancements, the photographs in the Conlon collection remain unique and inspiring. The lot’s description in Heritage Auctions reads: “We risk no hyperbole by filing his work under the heading of fine art, his deft eye and technological skill conspiring to create imagery that would strike no discordant note on a gallery wall beside Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier-Bresson.”
The story of how the collection came to auction is less glorified, however. Its current owner is sports memorabilia dealer and photo archivist John Rogers, who bought the collection from the Sporting News in 2010. Rogers now finds himself saddled with $50 million in debt. The Conlon collection is being auctioned to recover funds for his lienholders, according to a report in the New York Times.
The auction opened on Wednesday at $250,000 and stands at just $280,000 at the time of writing. The slow bidding is not uncommon, however. “Ninety percent of the action comes in the last 24 to 48 hours,” Heritage’s Chris Ivy told the Times. If you have at least a few hundred grand to spare and want to own a piece of history from the glory days of America’s pastime, you can place your bid online now.