Carmel firm to determine Vonnegut's worth

April 7, 2008

Many readers would call the Indiana literary legend Kurt Vonnegut's legacy priceless. Not Mike Pellegrino. He expects it'll take about a month to assign it a value.

"Valuation is part art, part science," Pellegrino said. "At the end of the day, it is what it is. If it's $200 million or $2, I'll defend it equally."

Last month, Vonnegut's heirs hired Carmel-based Pellegrino & Associates LLC to appraise the late author's entire portfolio. It includes 14 novels, among them classics like "Slaughterhouse Five" and "Cat's Cradle." It also includes four short-story collections, five essay compilations and an assortment of speeches, drawings and lesser writings.

Pellegrino's job is to estimate future sales of Vonnegut's work so his estate can be fairly divided today. That means Pellegrino will have to determine whether the author's popularity is more likely to wax or to wane in the years to come. The accountant will also consider existing contracts that generate income for Vonnegut's beneficiaries and publishers.

Past sales will be one factor in Pellegrino's calculation. But the equation is decidedly more complex.

Pellegrino must estimate the chance Vonnegut's work will generate unexpected sources of income. Maybe there will be a sudden spike in demand for "Goodbye Blue Monday!" T-shirts. Perhaps Pall Mall will want to roll out a Kilgore Trout cigarette advertising campaign.

The job will involve measuring the "brand equity" in Vonnegut's image, quotes and reputation. It will require comparison to the established worth of other major literary works. It will demand an assessment of overall market risk in the publishing industry. In all, Pellegrino expects to research and include "literally thousands" of data points in his appraisal.

The better the data, the more accurate the final price tag.

It seems unlikely Vonnegut's iconic status will fade anytime soon.

Last year, the entire city of Indianapolis celebrated "The Year of Vonnegut." After he died April 11, his son Mark read Vonnegut's final speech before a packed house at Butler University. Indiana University's Lilly Library had a major Vonnegut exhibition last year and still holds his papers.

Although most of Vonnegut's best-known works were written decades ago, they remain popular thanks to his timeless subjects, universal themes and innovative approach. Indiana Historical Society Press Senior Editor Ray Boomhower said Vonnegut will always be remembered, particularly for "Slaughterhouse Five."

"It's something that speaks to the human condition, that talks about war and its impact on human society," Boomhower said. "It's a subject that will always be fresh, because we always seem to have wars going on and controversy about whether we should be involved."

Stating such influence in monetary terms might seem like a monumental task, but there are surely many accounting firms larger than Pelligrino's that would have loved the job. Vonnegut's longtime attorney called Pellegrino out of the blue in November. Donald Farber, counsel with New York-based Jacob Medinger & Finnegan LLP who represents the Vonnegut estate, declined to comment for this story.

Pellegrino said Farber was aware of his work. The 33-year-old local entrepreneur has been building a reputation in the intellectual property valuation niche since he founded his firm in 2003. Once the CFO of Fort Wayne-based software-maker Logikos Inc., he struck out on his own when he saw a demand for appraisals of early-stage, high-tech firms.

His fees start at $4,000, but--depending on the complexity of a valuation job--can rise to as high as $100,000. He wouldn't say what he's being paid to value Vonnegut's work.

Not all his jobs are so high-profile. Entrepreneurs use Pellegrino's evaluations as the basis of negotiations with investors. Others find them useful for tax purposes, or in litigation. His clients have included Uni-Systems LLC, the Minneapolis-based company whose patented technology will allow the roof on the new Lucas Oil Stadium to safely retract. Two years ago, Pellegrino helped information technology trade group TechPoint successfully lobby the Indiana General Assembly for a change in tax law that allows firms to more accurately write off their investments in software.

Valuation doesn't always establish a high price. Pellegrino said many business owners are disappointed to find their intellectual property isn't as unique or precious as they expected. There have even been times, he said, that his appraisal established a negative value for an asset. That means it would cost money just to unload it.

"We tell a lot of people they have ugly-looking babies," he said. "That's not emotionally easy."

But even bad news can have an upside. Pellegrino said his clients often use their valuations as a road map for what they should tweak to increase worth. And the results aren't as simple as a single dollar figure. Instead, Pellegrino creates thick reports, offering a range of potential values.

Not everyone is convinced it's possible to do the same with Vonnegut.

After considering whether Vonnegut's influence can be measured in dollars and cents, Joanna Wos, executive director of the Writers' Center of Indiana, quoted Ray Bradbury, another 20th century literary giant with science fiction roots:

"'So while our art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all.'

"That's how I look at Vonnegut's work, or any great literature," Wos said. "You can't put a price on that. That's the difference between art and money."

Barnes & Thornburg LLP Partner Donald Knebel disagrees. A value can be attached to anything, he said.

"You could say the same thing for the Mona Lisa. But I guarantee if somebody wanted to buy it, there would eventually be a price established," said Knebel, co-chairman of his firm's Intellectual Property department. "There can always be a price, if people want to buy and sell."

So it goes.

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