DIXON – A treasure trove of priceless moments across more than 60 years of Chicago's history came to Dixon collector Leo Bauby in a large moving truck.
"It was like eating an elephant: Where do you begin?" said Bauby, 54, a longtime collector of Chicago White Sox photos.
Inside were more than 200 boxes containing around 5 million photo negatives from the Chicago Sun-Times, as well as hard drives of digitized photos.
Bauby, who turned his collecting hobby into an eBay business called Sox Photos about 2 decades ago and works out an office in Dixon, acquired the collection from the founder of Historic Images, a Memphis-based photo-selling company.
He was mainly looking for White Sox photos. When he saw what he had, he realized the collection belonged somewhere where anyone could view it.
"I could see that it wasn't the type of material for eBay; it was more of Chicago history that really belonged to a museum," Bauby said.
Bauby didn't have time to focus on the massive collection – his wife and business partner Delia was undergoing treatments for ovarian cancer, an illness that took her life in July 2018 at the age of 42.
He was put in contact with the Chicago History Museum and received a visit in late 2017 from John Russick, the museum's vice president of interpretation and education. He went through the collection, which Bauby had placed in a secure, climate-controlled storage unit at All-Safe Storage in Dixon.
"I took a look and was just blown away with what I saw," Russick said. "It was box after box after box of negatives, upward of 5 million."
In 2009, the Sun-Times sold its archive to Arkansas sports memorabilia collector John Rogers with the agreement that Rogers would digitize the photos and the newspaper would keep the copyrights.
It turned out to be a scheme that Rogers repeated at several large newspapers. In December 2017, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison for a $23 million sports memorabilia fraud.
The collections were sold off, and many newspapers didn't have the chance to buy them back, Russick said.
"An archive like the Sun-Times is a real treasure and a real rarity in the pantheon of material a museum could collect," he said. "A lot of people thought it was lost or gone forever."
In 2018, the museum bought the collection from Bauby for $125,000, and now 150 iconic photos are on display in the recently opened exhibit "Millions of Moments: The Chicago Sun-Times Photo Collection."
Digitized photos also can be viewed online at images.chicagohistory.org
A massive effort is under way to digitize the collection; it will take years, Russick said.
It's one of the largest newspaper photograph collections ever acquired by an American museum. Before the purchase, the museum's photo collection was somewhere around 1 million to 1.5 million pieces.
The photos span from the 1940s to 2004, when the newspaper switched to all-digital photography.
Notable photographed figures include Michael Jordan, Elvis, The Beatles, Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali, as well as former President Barack Obama early in his political career.
There's also historic photos of construction on Lake Shore Drive, people on the beach, national elections, parades, protests and examples of everyday life in the city.
"It's a highlight reel of Chicago's greatest moments," Russick said.
It's the capture of day-to-day reality that Russick enjoys most.
"I think it's just a beautiful place," he said. "It paints a really fantastic and complicated image of life in America."
Bauby, an engineer at Woods Equipment, is a Steward native who worked in Chicago for many years and moved to Dixon about 6 years ago.
He's glad that the collection has found a home where the public can view them.
"I think this is the best way that all of these images can be shared, and it looks like they've done a great job," he said.
Go to chicagohistory.org for more information about the exhibit.