Ebony photo archives auction resumes Monday after producing 'multiple bidders' but no clear winner

Robert Channick, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

CHICAGO -- An auction to sell bankrupt Johnson Publishing's historic Ebony photo archives has been continued until Monday after producing "multiple bidders" but no clear winner.

The bidding Wednesday at a Chicago law office featured "robust action" throughout the day, according to a news release from Hilco Streambank, which is conducting the auction on behalf of the Johnson Publishing bankruptcy trustee. The participating bidders, all of whom had to offer a qualifying bid of at least $12.5 million, were not disclosed.

Johnson Publishing filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in April. The auction is seeking to recover at least $13.6 million owed to secured creditors George Lucas and Mellody Hobson, whose company, Capital V Holdings, issued a $12 million loan to a struggling Johnson Publishing in 2015.

The court-approved auction was adjourned until Monday at 2 p.m. to give the bankruptcy trustee and Capital V Holdings time "to consider pending and any additional offers" for the archives, according to a news release. Hilco also is openly soliciting "any interested parties who wish to participate in the continued auction" to step up.

The Ebony photo archives chronicle 70 years of the African American experience, spanning everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Sammy Davis Jr. The collection of more than 4 million original images includes a 1969 Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of King's widow and child, taken at his funeral, as well as iconic photos of Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, among others.

Chicago-based Johnson Publishing, which sold its magazine portfolio -- Ebony and Jet -- three years ago, has been trying to sell its photo archives since 2015, when the collection was appraised at $46 million. The auction represents both the end of its publishing legacy and a chance to pay off creditors by liquidating its most valuable remaining asset.

The Ebony photo archives auction comes as the magazine itself struggles under new owners, with the print edition temporarily discontinued this spring.


Launched by Johnson Publishing in 1945 as a monthly African American lifestyle magazine, Ebony was sold for an undisclosed price in 2016 to Clear View Group, an Austin, Texas-based private equity firm. In 2018, Ebony agreed to pay dozens of freelancers nearly $80,000 to settle a lawsuit over unpaid work stretching back more than two years.

In an emailed statement, Michael Gibson, co-founder and chairman of African American-owned Clear View Group, blamed the "tumultuous" climate and culture of the media industry for the decision to stop print production of Ebony magazine.

"Though print operations are currently on hiatus, continues to thrive and our focus on delivering quality content in digital format," Gibson said.

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