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Brian Ojanpa, The Free Press of Mankato, Published January 02 2012

Stash of photos of famous said to be worth $250,000

NEW ULM, Minn. – Two file cabinets in a closet-size room at New Ulm City Hall contain a small gold mine of sorts – hundreds of autographed photos of the dead and famous.

Thomas Edison, Mark Twain, Orville Wright, Theodore Roosevelt, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, film legend Mary Pickford. On and on.

“It’s a neat, neat little niche thing,” City Manager Brian Gramentz said of the collection that came into the city’s possession decades ago and now stands to be sold piecemeal to the highest bidders.

Its potential value?

“In excess of $250,000,” said New Ulmite George Glotzbach, who has been representing the sole remaining heir to the collection.

The photos and autographs the late Fred Johnson collected from about 1890 to 1940 is a veritable who’s who of worldwide figures from that era.

Johnson garnered most of them by writing to the famous and requesting their signed photo portraits. He was clearly successful.

The total stash numbers about 3,000, though most of the pieces are of local interest only or are images of people obscured by time.

“Some of this stuff you couldn’t give away because nobody knows who they are,” Gramentz said.

But it’s a different story with the 300 autographed photos that have been deemed sellable to collectors.

At the city’s behest a representative from Swann Galleries, a New York firm specializing in the auction of documents, reviewed the collection in New Ulm and provided the estimate of its potential worth.

Gramentz said the fate of the collection and how its sale proceeds could be used have been discussed by the City Council six times.

The collection’s only heir is 80-year-old Joan Baeza of Arizona, who has waived her legal right to the collection, saying she believes it was the intent of Johnson, her grandfather, to give back to his community.

She has said she wants proceeds from the sale to go to the city’s public library, for which Johnson led a fund drive for new construction in the 1930s.