Billy the Kid Still Dominates

Bonhams sets a record with the sale of Pat Garrett’s Colt used to kill the notorious outlaw.

As Billy the Kid returned to his room at the Maxwell Ranch, holding a butcher knife with which he had just eaten a snack, Pat Garrett shot him with this revolver. It fetched over $6 million at the Bonhams auction, a sale reinforced by a notarized letter from Garrett himself.
Bat Masterson’s Colt Single Action Army Revolver, with authentication from Colt Firearms, including a copy of his letter ordering the pistol, sold for $375,312.

Outlaws and lawmen got away with the big money at Bonhams’ auction of the Jim and Theresa Earle Collection on August 27. There were items from Wild Bill Hickok, Bat Masterson and others, but the highest prices at the Bonhams auction confirmed that Billy the Kid rules in both the true and legendary West.

Back in 2011, the only definitively proven Billy the Kid photograph in existence sold for a record-breaking $2.3 million. Then in 2019 the butcher knife he was holding when Pat Garrett shot him sold for $110,000. This year the world record for sale of a firearm was established at the Bonhams auction, when the well-documented revolver with which Garrett shot the Kid sold for $6,030,312. 

Even documents associated with the Kid made a strong showing at the auction. Pat Garrett’s signed contract for his 1881 book Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, sold for $21,562, and a set of documents associated with the Lincoln County Wars went for $22,812, twice the estimated price.

But wait, there’s more. In addition to Garrett’s revolver, the auction included other artifacts associated with Billy the Kid. After killing Robert Olinger with his own shotgun during his escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse on April 28, 1881, the Kid threw it down at his body. That shotgun sold for $978,312. The provenance for this gun came from Pat Garrett himself, who wrote down the firearm’s serial number when he acted as executor of Olinger’s estate. As he left the courthouse, Billy also grabbed an 1873 Winchester which he kept until Pat Garrett shot him at the Maxwell Ranch. The Winchester was retrieved by Garrett and given to his friend Pat Lea, who signed a letter to this effect in 1897. That letter accompanied the Winchester, which fetched $300,000.

Notorious gunfighter John Wesley Hardin was carrying this Smith and Wesson revolver when John Selman shot him in the back of the head on August 19, 1895. It was later remarked that was the only way Selman or any other man could have taken Hardin out. This revolver took $625,312 at the auction.

The Bonhams auction offered a total of 265 lots from the Earles, including rare photographs of George Armstrong Custer, Sitting Bull and Calamity Jane, all of which exceeded estimates. But the day belonged to the firearms, including John Selman’s Single Action Army revolver, used to kill John Wesley Hardin on August 19, 1895. That went for $858,312. The Smith and Wesson revolver that Hardin was carrying when he was killed by Selman sold for $625,312. 

The record-breaking sale of the Pat Garrett revolver and other firearms drew some of the attention away from other outstanding artifacts in the auction. Hanging Judge Isaac Parker’s gavel hammered down at $8,287, while Samuel Colt’s gold-handled walking cane brought $10,200.

The Bonhams sale reaffirmed the importance of provenance to the value of artifacts. Relatively nondescript firearms assumed stellar values because of their links to famous Western figures like Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. Jim and Theresa Earle were careful collectors, ensuring that what they acquired came with proper documentation.  Good provenance ensured that these true West artifacts would become as legendary as the characters who once used them. 

All Images Courtesy Bonhams.

John Selman spent most of his life on both sides of the law. During one brief period as a lawman, he became famous for killing John Wesley Hardin with this revolver, which sold at the Bonhams auction for $858,312. Less than a year later, Selman himself was killed in a shootout.

UPCOMING AUCTIONS

November 17-18, 2021

Extraordinary Firearms & Early Arms

Morphy Auctions (Denver, PA)

MorphyAuctions.com • (877) 968-8880

December 3, 2021

Premier Firearms Auction #84

Rock Island Auction Company (Rock Island, IL)

RockIslandAuction.com • (800) 238-8022

February 26, 2022

Western Art

Bonhams (Los Angeles, CA)

Bonhams.com • (323) 850 7500

The story goes that Lincoln County jailer Robert Olinger taunted Billy the Kid as he loaded this shotgun, saying, “The man who gets one of these loads will feel it.” He felt both loads when the Kid shot him, after which he broke the shotgun and threw it onto Olinger’s body, saying, “Take it, damn you. You won’t follow me anymore with that gun.” The shotgun sold for $978,312.
Wild Bill Hickok’s Springfield Trapdoor, ca. 1870, sold for $475,312. The rifle was buried with him in 1876, then removed from his coffin three years later when he was moved to Deadwood’s Mt. Moriah Cemetery. Documentation included a clear provenance of ownership plus a letter from world-renowned Hickok scholar Joseph Rosa.

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