Late one night last November, Doug Kelley sat in his family room in Bloomington, sifting through a stack of the day's legal work. Kelley is the court-appointed receiver in the Tom Petters case, a surrogate CEO running what's left of the jailed businessman's companies and squeezing out cash for the investors Petters allegedly bilked of $3.5 billion.

In the stack of legal papers was a bid for the assets of Polaroid, which Petters had bought four years earlier for $426 million and moved to Minnetonka. A small line item in the bid caught his eye: The Polaroid Art collection. $10 million.

"I said, 'Well, what's this?'" Kelley recalled in an interview.

Kelley had come upon Polaroid's historic collection of one-of-a-kind photography, a treasure ensnared in the Ponzi scheme authorities accuse Petters of running. Petters denies the charges and is preparing for a September trial. Meanwhile, the art collection is now all but orphaned by Polaroid's sale to a group of private equity investors who took nearly everything but the artwork.

The work is irreplaceable. Remember, this is Polaroid, the inventor of instant photography, which leaves no negatives for copies. Many pieces are signed, said Linda Benedict-Jones, curator of the Polaroid Collection from 1984 to 1989. New York auction house Sotheby's valued the collection at anywhere from $7.3 million to just north of $11 million, according to testimony in bankruptcy court.

"It's absolutely incredible," Kelley said.

And its fate is even less certain than Polaroid's.

The joint venture of Hilco Consumer Capital of Toronto and Gordon Brothers Brands in Boston, which won the company for $85.9 million in a St. Paul fire-sale auction last week, excluded the collection from its purchase. Patriarch Partners, a New York private equity firm, had submitted a higher bid that included the collection, but a St. Paul bankruptcy judge selected Hilco's bid as the best overall offer. The judge denied Patriarch's and another creditor's motions to stay the sale while they appeal.

So, what happens now to The Polaroid Art Collection?

"That's a very big question," Kelley said.

Though not widely known, Polaroid's collection has some 16,000 photographs, including more than 600 works by nature photography legend Ansel Adams, 13 large self-portraits by pop artist Andy Warhol and photos by craftsmen such as Dorothea Lange, Olivia Parker, William Wegman, Rosamond Purcell and Dawoud Bey. Most of the collection resides in an office building in Somerville, Mass., just north of Boston. Thousands of pieces are currently on loan to the Musee de L'Elysee, according to court documents.

Kelley said he's had his eye on the collection from the start. There was talk that Petters -- known for his philanthropy -- had promised the collection to Harvard University, but Kelley said no such deal exists. No buyers have emerged for the collection, he said, but neither has it been actively shopped.

The dour economy makes it a terrible time to market a world-class art collection. Kelley says he might be able to delay the sale until the market rebounds, but it costs several thousand dollars a month to maintain the collection in its environmentally controlled repository.

Another complicating factor: Polaroid failed to obtain copyrights to the work it meticulously collected over the years by lending photographers film and equipment in exchange for a few sample works in return.

"It will take an intellectual property genius to tell us whether the rights go along [with a sale]," Kelley said. "I don't know if any of those restrictions would travel with the property or not."

Kelley himself owns three signed 8-by-10 Ansel Adams prints, gifts from his fiance, Mary Pohlad. One of them is a shot of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, which Kelley, a rock climber, has scaled. Kelley said he was so curious about the collection that on a trip to Boston for another client he spent five hours with Polaroid curator Barbara Hitchcock, taking it in. The Ansel Adams works thrilled him.

The task now, Kelley said, is to juggle his interest in doing right by the collection with his fiduciary duty to creditors of Petters and Polaroid, who are eager to be repaid.

The collection is something akin to Polaroid's heart and soul -- the creative center of the once-mighty instant photo pioneer now reduced largely to a nameplate.

Many corporations collect art. Target Corporation's 700-piece collection includes a glistening, cherry red 20-foot glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly gracing its Minneapolis headquarters entrance. General Mills has 1,400 pieces distributed around its Golden Valley campus. And Regis Corp., the hair salon company, has leased an impressive collection from retired vice chairman Myron Kunin.

But none has a stash as intimately connected to the company as Polaroid.

After all, Polaroid founder and inventor Edwin Land was close friends with photographer Ansel Adams, the inventor of the Zone System photographic exposure method. Land essentially used the artist as a test lab for his cameras and ground-breaking film, according to Benedict-Jones, the former curator. In 1954, Adams sent more than 500 multi-page, single-spaced typewritten memos to Polaroid offering critical feedback. Those memos are part of the art collection.

"You wonder when he had time to do photography," said Benedict-Jones.

Polaroid's current curator, Barbara Hitchcock, declined to be interviewed.

Benedict-Jones, now curator of photography at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, said she's saddened by the collection's uncertain status. She recalls fighting for her annual art budget at Polaroid -- a figure matched by the bill for flying a few executives to the Super Bowl. Ironically, she said, Polaroid's under-appreciated art collection is finally getting its due as one of the company's primary assets: "There is some sweet victory, I think."

Elsa Dorfman, the celebrated portrait photographer in Cambridge, Mass., is devoted to Polaroid film and shoots with one of the few remaining 20-by-24-inch Polaroid cameras. Dorfman, 72, described the contraption as being the size of a refrigerator sitting on grocery cart wheels.

"Part of the magic of polaroid comes from the subject seeing the image right away and participating in the outcome of the NEXT image," Dorfman said in an e-mail. She said she knows digital cameras approximate that, but the small screens on the back of the cameras "don't have the authority that polaroid prints had."

"The story of Polaroid, the denouement of Polaroid, is so much the story of our time," she wrote, "... even the ponzi scheme saga is alas part of our time."

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683