Original set of Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers contracts caught in legal dispute

NEW YORK — Just inside the entrance to the 19,380-square-foot Jackie Robinson Museum in lower Manhattan, a display case chronicles Robinson signing the professional contracts that opened the door for him to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier.

At arm’s length, visitors can see and read about the two moments when Robinson made history by putting ink to paper. First, he signed on Oct. 23, 1945, with the Montreal Royals, then the top farm club for the Brooklyn Dodgers, for $600 a month for the 1946 season — half in U.S. dollars and half Canadian, plus a $3,500 signing bonus. Then, on April 11, 1947, Robinson signed a one-year, $5,000 contract to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. His Dodgers deal, signed in duplicate, came with a page of regulations that Robinson also signed.

The museum display case is just steps from a jersey and bat Robinson used in his historic 1947 MLB rookie season. But the contracts inside aren’t actual pieces of paper that Robinson signed. The museum, which opened in 2022, labels these as reproductions. In fact, the public hasn’t been able to see a set of original, signed contracts for years because federal authorities declared them frozen assets and seized them in 2019 as part of a yearslong investigation into a multimillion-dollar investment fraud case.

Nearly five years ago, U.S. marshals took custody of a set of original, signed Robinson contracts in Las Vegas. And now, 77 years after Robinson broke baseball’s color line, and 51 years after he died, the documents marking that moment in history remain in legal limbo.

How the Robinson contracts landed anywhere other than in a display case as part of the 4,500 artifacts housed at the Jackie Robinson Museum, or in Cooperstown or the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is an unrivaled story about sports memorabilia and how investors have come to view rare collectibles as alternative investments.

According to federal authorities in court filings, Mykalai Kontilai, a broadcasting executive-turned-entrepreneur, bought the Robinson contracts for $2 million in 2013, then used them to launch a sports memorabilia/auction business. Authorities say Kontilai touted the contracts’ purported value to lure potential investors, raised more than $23 million and misappropriated $6.1 million to bankroll his own “lavish lifestyle,” manufactured evidence to mislead federal investigators, and “concealed the proceeds of his scheme” from the IRS.

Investors filed a lawsuit accusing Kontilai and his company of fraud. Court filings show the parties entered a “2017 Settlement Agreement.” The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission opened a civil investigation in 2017. The U.S. Department of Justice later opened a criminal probe.

According to a recent DOJ filing, Kontilai started searching the internet “in or around January 2018” for, among other things, “[U.S.] fugitives in Russia,” “countries with no [U.S.] extradition treaty” and “buying a real Bahamas passport on black market.” Court filings say he left the United States in mid-2019 amid SEC and DOJ investigations — acquiring an Italian passport, traveling to Mexico, Cuba and Canada, where he bought a one-way ticket to Ukraine — and unsuccessfully claimed asylum in Russia as a whistleblower of American corruption. He eventually arrived in Germany.

In 2020, U.S. District Courts in Colorado and Nevada indicted him on multiple criminal counts. The FBI issued a “Wanted by the FBI” notice, saying Kontilai “deviated from the stated business model by allegedly withdrawing large amounts of cash for purposes believed to have been personal in nature.”

This past December, after a seven-day trial, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York found Kontilai and his company liable for securities fraud in the SEC case. The SEC recommended in March that Kontilai and his company pay a combined total of nearly $50 million in civil penalties.

Collectors Coffee and Kontilai, its CEO, repeatedly lied to investors to raise money for the company — money which Kontilai routinely stole to fund his lavish lifestyle,” Gurbir S. Grewal, director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, said in a statement after the verdict. “Investors should be able to trust those to whom they give their hard-earned money, and not worry that those people will lie, cheat, and steal. From the outset of this case, when the Court entered emergency relief, to today’s jury verdict, the hard work of the SEC team has demonstrated our commitment to protecting investors and holding fraudsters to account.”

Kontilai, who was arrested and held in Germany in April 2023 on an Interpol red notice, or worldwide warrant, declined to attend the SEC proceedings while fighting extradition to the U.S. Last month, he was transferred to U.S. custody to stand trial on two dozen criminal charges. He remains detained in Nevada, with a July 15 trial date.

Amid the civil and criminal investigations, the status of the Robinson contracts has remained unchanged, still frozen and in federal custody. The Department of Justice, the SEC and the U.S. Marshals Office have all declined to comment on the current whereabouts of the contracts or any aspects of the cases.

What remains to be determined is the ownership of the contracts. The Jackie Robinson Foundation, which said it raised at least $38 million for the Jackie Robinson Museum, and “The Holders” — a group of investors who provided a since-defaulted-on loan to Kontilai with the contracts as collateral — have made claims. A judge is expected to hear the ownership matter in October.

David Robinson, son of the Hall of Famer, told ESPN in a recent phone interview from his home in Tanzania that he could not discuss the status of his father’s contracts because of ongoing litigation. He said that the Jackie Robinson Museum has a “huge amount of historical material that covered the life of Jackie Robinson and his impact on American society.”

Robinson did address his family‘s relationship with memorabilia and collectibles, in general, over the years — including requests made of his mother, Rachel Robinson, who is 101, to sign items.

“You get people who will say, ‘I’m a collector. Please, Mrs. Robinson, sign these — these baseball cards,'” Robinson said. “When somebody sends you 15 baseball cards to sign, you know it’s not their personal affiliation to sports and baseball. It’s somebody that tried to make some money. You just turn your head to that type of negative [activity]. It … doesn’t have to destroy your faith in human beings or whatnot. So, we try just to let it pass.”

MORE THAN 50 years after his death, Jackie Robinson endures for his impact on American sports and culture, unconfined to a playing field. His signature on those contracts forever altered segregationist America. It’s why, 27 years ago, Major League Baseball retired his No. 42 jersey and why all MLB players and managers wear No. 42 every April 15. His image is omnipresent in stadiums and museums across the country, on statues and awards — to recall, but also to not forget. His likeness and legacy are revered and — in the eyes of federal investigators in the fraud case — were exploited.

Despite the ubiquity of tributes, only a handful of Robinson items — such as game-worn jerseys, bats, letters — have surfaced in the sports memorabilia market. A Robinson rookie home jersey netted $2.6 million at auction in 2018. In 2022, Robinson’s 1949 All-Star Game bat pulled in $1.08 million and a ticket stub from his 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers debut drew $480,000.

“Robinson memorabilia is very scarce, even for the era,” Leila Dunbar, an “Antiques Roadshow” sports, memorabilia, collectibles and toys expert since 1996, who runs her own consulting and appraisal firm, said. “I can think of maybe a half dozen jerseys in private collections and the Hall of Fame, maybe six to 12 known bats, [which come to auction] very sporadically, highly desired.”

Chris Ivy, director of sports auctions at Heritage Auctions, told ESPN in 2021 that Robinson’s 1947 debut jersey, still unaccounted for, would be worth more than $10 million.

“A good argument could be made,” he said then, “that it’s the most significant [piece] of sports memorabilia.”

In 2012 — a year before Kontilai and his company bought the Robinson contracts — the record price for any sports memorabilia item was set with the purchase of the earliest known Babe Ruth Yankees uniform for $4.4 million. The previous record, $4.34 million for James Naismith’s original rules of basketball, had stood for two years. (Even today, the record sale price for sports memorabilia is $10.1 million for Michael Jordan’s “Last Dance” jersey.)

How the Robinson contracts made it to market is a journey that appears to have started in 1952, six years before then-Dodgers president Walter O’Malley moved the team to Los Angeles. Court filings cite local news coverage at the time, saying O’Malley provided the Dodgers contract and former Dodgers president Branch Rickey provided the Montreal contract to the James A. Kelly Institute for Local Historical Studies, housed at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, for an exhibition. Over the years, the Kelly institute’s basement became overrun with centuries of Brooklyn borough history — 4 million documents, including 7,000 maps and charts of Brooklyn’s evolution, the bill of sale for Coney Island in 1654 and Robinson’s first two professional contracts.

When the Kelly Institute closed in 1988, most of the records were turned over to the New York City Municipal Archives. (An official with the New York City Department of Records and Information Services said it wasn’t clear whether Robinson’s contracts ever made it there: “Jackie Robinson contracts in New York City — you’d remember something like that.”) According to an SEC filing, in testimony from Scott Konop, son of the institute’s former director, Arthur Konop, when his father died in 2009, he bequeathed a key to a safe deposit box along with a message to his children: “My kids will know what to do with this.”

In 2012, Konop’s estate sold the Robinson contracts to Gotta Have It Collectibles for $750,000. (Gotta Have It Collectibles has not responded to requests for comment.) Kontilai’s company, Collector’s Coffee Inc., (known in court records as “CCI” or “Collector’s Cafe,”) bought them for $2 million in 2013. According to court filings, Collector’s Coffee later acquired $6 million in loans with the contracts as collateral.

According to an SEC filing, after Kontilai and his company acquired the Robinson contracts, they touted the value of them as a major asset, telling prospective investors they had been appraised at $36 million.

From 2014 to 2018, Kontilai and his company raised $21 million in shares and an additional $2 million in notes, according to the SEC. Federal authorities say Kontilai raised funds by misleading investors about the value of the Robinson contracts and about his ownership stake in them.

At least two investors were told their money was secured by the valuation of the Robinson contracts. But court records show that Kontilai knew the contracts were worth less than a third of that: $10 million, which would still have been the most expensive piece of sports memorabilia sold at the time.

According to the SEC’s original complaint, Kontilai had received an “Insurance Appraisal Report” in January 2016 that a confidential broker, authenticator and appraiser “disclosed to Kontilai that he was receiving pushback for even a $10 million valuation.” Ownership of the contracts was murky, too; Kontilai promised significant percentages of an eventual sale to certain people.

In a deposition, appraiser Seth Kaller said that Kontilai and Collector’s Coffee failed to mention to investors that Kaller had helped market the contracts and had a 5% financial stake in the potential sale and that Kontilai instructed him to “value the contracts at no less than $36 million.”

An appraisal is performed using research to determine what the market would be for an object. Appraisers generally follow uniform standards of professional appraisal practice and are encouraged to be impartial, objective and independent.

Kontilai also reportedly touted to investors a $25 million valuation from Christie’s, based on a purported endorsement from the Jackie Robinson Foundation and Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s widow. According to Kaller’s deposition, that $25 million figure was a suggested “private-sale asking price” written in a letter — not an “appraisal.” A spokesperson from Christie’s declined to comment.

Kontilai claimed to have letters from Rachel Robinson and the Jackie Robinson Foundation supporting a sale. But the foundation told ESPN in 2016 that it hadn’t seen the letters and wouldn’t vouch for them.

Regardless, Kontilai showed them off, taking them to Montreal, Philadelphia, New York and Chicago’s Wrigley Field. He even displayed the contracts in Times Square, and reports at the time said Collector’s Coffee pledged to donate 10% of the net sale proceeds to the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

At the time, some followers of the sports memorabilia market suggested that the Robinson contracts more appropriately belonged at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, or with the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

Efforts by Kontilai and his company to sell the Robinson contracts failed. In 2017, they were consigned to Goldin Auctions with a reserve price of $15 million but went unsold. A “CBS This Morning” segment mentioned that the auction was “postponed” when an anonymous party approached Ken Goldin, founder and executive chairman, about buying the contracts outright to be displayed publicly. Goldin declined to comment.

In April 2018, the Dodgers asked the auction house to provide “all available information relating to the provenance of the contracts.”

In January 2019, according to court records, the Dodgers sent a letter to Collector’s Coffee claiming ownership of the contracts and demanding possession. In November that year, the Dodgers assigned their interest in the contracts to the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

In December 2020, during a videoconference hearing related to the case, SEC investigators asked Kontilai whether he had asked his mother-in-law to turn in the contracts to the U.S. Marshals Service in Las Vegas. Kontilai, who testified from Belarus during the hearing, said that he didn’t recall who ended up taking them to the marshals but that his attorney advised him to cooperate and return the contracts.

AS MUCH AS the contracts mean to Robinson’s family, to baseball and to the historical record of integration in America, their ultimate home is not the primary focus of federal investigators.

Their attention is on the prosecution of Kontilai. He and his company are accused of misappropriating more than $6.1 million — $1.9 million to personal bank accounts and withdrawing another $4.2 million in cash — for, among other things, Chanel, Saks Fifth Avenue, Louis Vuitton, Rolex and Cartier shopping sprees, gambling expenses, a “$16,000 per month” oceanside condo in Miami, a Cadillac convertible, private school tuition in Las Vegas, expenses at gentleman’s clubs and StubHub, a stay at a luxury Miami resort one New Year’s Eve and a Match.com subscription.

Investors say Kontilai had told them that he wasn’t taking a salary. In 2012, Kontilai tasked an associate to open a bank account in her name. He asked the woman — a former cosmetics artist and actress — to transfer money into the account and withdraw cash for him. She later testified that Kontilai instructed her to tell bank employees that she was a company consultant and that the money was being used to purchase collectibles. Between April 1, 2014, and Dec. 20, 2018, according to SEC filings, she funneled roughly $2.1 million to Kontilai.

At Kontilai’s request, federal filings say, the woman said she purchased gold and silver bars to later be converted to cash. In 2016, the associate agreed to pretend she was selling Kontilai a sports memorabilia ring for $770,000. She deposited a $770,000 check made out to “cash” into an account she controlled. Later, she testified, she withdrew that sum in small bills from Las Vegas bank branches and lugged a trash bag overflowing with cash through a Las Vegas hotel to Kontilai’s room. She said Kontilai asked her, at one point, to return to a bank and exchange $60,000 in marked bills for unmarked bills and meet him at a Red Lobster.

Before leaving the country, Kontilai told SEC investigators that he had lent Collector’s Coffee $5 million of his own money when the company was founded in 2007 and that he didn’t have a personal record of how much money the company owed him. “I’m owed millions of dollars more tha[n] I’ve taken out,” he told the SEC in 2018.

KONTILAI HAS DISPUTED the SEC’s claims and methods of inquiry. In court testimony, he has said he was targeted by the “cancer growing at the SEC” and has compared the SEC’s pursuit of him as if he were “Osama Bin Laden,” and “treated like worse than Bernie Madoff.” In court filings, in response to the SEC, he has argued that he has been wrongfully accused and that the case — which he described as “relatively minor” — is not “true.” Kontilai has argued that the SEC didn’t account for business expenses, and that he wasn’t allowed to present evidence or testimony from his forensic accountant. He has said the remedies are “inappropriately overbroad,” and that he has been denied his Seventh and Eighth Amendment rights.

The SEC has responded, writing that Kontilai and Collector’s Coffee’s yearslong fraud was “egregious” and “recurrent.” The SEC also noted that both Kontilai and Collector’s Coffee could have faced tougher penalties: “Applying the maximum third-tier penalty to each violation leads to a maximum penalty of, at least, $49 million for Kontilai and $244 million for [Collector’s Coffee].”

After a year in German custody fighting extradition, Kontilai recently was returned to the United States to face criminal trial, which couldn’t proceed without him present. In Nevada and Colorado, he faces a combined 24 counts, including: conspiracy to obstruct proceedings, obstruction of proceedings, tampering with documents, false statements, securities fraud, multiple counts of wire fraud and laundering of money instruments, money transaction in a property derived from specified unlawful activity, and multiple counts of willful failure to file tax returns.

He faces a maximum imprisonment of 90 years in Colorado and 274 years in Nevada.

A recent DOJ filing on pretrial detention noted that Kontilai is a flight risk and that, aside from millions he diverted from his company, he also has been using insurance policies “for his personal benefit” and “has ample financial means to flee.” Last week, a judge granted the government‘s request for him to remain in custody, detained pending trial. A lawyer for Kontilai declined to comment.

Although it might not be the primary focus of the investigation, some Collector’s Coffee investors bought in because of the Robinson contracts and what they represent. For years, some of those investors have unsuccessfully tried to get the contracts sold.

In a letter dated Feb. 9, 2024, to Judge Victor Marrero of the Southern District of New York — the same judge who presided over the SEC fraud trial in December — “The Holders,” a group of plaintiffs who lent Kontilai $6 million with the Robinson contracts as collateral, asked for a determination on who owns the documents. Arguments could hinge on a court proceeding 13 years ago; Collector’s Coffee argues that the Los Angeles Dodgers — and, by association, the Jackie Robinson Foundation — have no claim to the contracts because they weren’t listed as assets or “missing assets” when the Dodgers filed for bankruptcy in 2011.

The plaintiffs requested a trial to begin Oct. 21, 2024.

Arnold Rampersad, an author and MacArthur Fellow who wrote an in-depth biography of Robinson at Rachel Robinson’s request, told ESPN that he has strong feelings about where the original contracts belong — or don’t.

“They’re certainly not for private hands,” he said.

Dunbar, the antiques expert, said that, given the rarity of the contracts, she also knew where they belonged.

“I’d love to see them either at the Jackie Robinson Museum, because I think that it’s fitting for them to be there, or an institution like the Smithsonian. Or the Baseball Hall of Fame,” she said. “Somewhere where they are able to be exhibited and seen by the public that can appreciate them, or the African American Museum. Any one of those would be great.”

ESPN producer William Weinbaum contributed to this report.

Source link

Scroll to Top