Not every item offered for sale attracts prospective buyers. Sometimes, a notice of sale awakens the sleuth in people.
Richard Johnston, a photographer for the Nevada Department of Transportation in Carson City, happened upon such a notice for a Utah document connected to the Wild Bunch, led by Butch Cassidy.
Johnston was positive he had seen the same document while conducting research on outlaws at the Utah State Archives in 1976. Doubting that archivists had sold the letter, he called up officials in Salt Lake City and confirmed that the letter was missing from the archival files.
A microfiche copy of the letter, dated 1981, was in the file, as well as other documentation confirming ownership. When Las Vegas, Nevada-based Gallery of History was contacted about the letter, on sale last spring for $5,999, the auction house immediately returned it to the Utah Archives and took the financial loss. Senior Vice President Garrett Williams says the company acquired the letter in 1985 from a now-defunct Connecticut company.
The stolen letter was written by Wild Bunch member Willard E. Christiansen (a.k.a. Matt Warner) to Gov. Heber M. Wells on March 1, 1900. The governor had written to Christiansen for assistance in tracking down outlaws. This two-page letter was Christiansen’s response that he was ready to help out. The correspon-dence helps document a turning point for the former outlaw who would eventually become a justice of peace and hold several positions in law enforcement.
Daniel Buck, an expert on Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, heard about the document’s return to its rightful place and praised Johnston. “The hero of this story is Nevada history buff Rich Johnston—a man with a superior memory—who spotted the letter in an auction catalogue and remembered having seen it in the Utah state archives 30 years earlier.” Buck adds that the story is “a cautionary tale for state archivists. Please watch your treasures more carefully.”
Yet, most sales at auction are on the up-and-up. And 2005 was quite a year for auction houses selling Western-related collectibles. What follows are some of the top lots of 2005 from various auction houses … including quite a few record-breaking sales.
1851 NAVY COLT Selling for a $58,000 bid at Greg Martin’s November 15 auction, this cased 1851 Navy Colt has a six-shot cylinder engraved with a naval engagement scene. The .36 caliber Colt has the serial No. 51942.
BLOODY KNIFE’S DISCHARGE PAPERS
CHEYENNE CRADLEBOARD Crafted around 1911, this Cheyenne tack-decorated cradleboard with hide doll sold for a $16,000 bid at Cowan’s March 10-11 auction. The cover is decorated with 26 drops and a mescal or “red bean.” Use of the mescal is generally restricted to men, which suggests the doll is meant to be a boy.
COW REGALIA Brian Lebel’s Cody Old West Show & Auction is known for offering quality spurs, belts, saddles and other cowboy and cowgirl regalia. Some top sellers at Lebel’s 2005 auction during June 23-25 included: “21” Club belt buckle by Ed Bohlin, selling for the auction high of $23,000; Bohlin’s personal belt buckle, selling for $18,000; and Qualey Bros. Spurs, selling for a $20,000 bid.
CUSTER’S CAMP CHAIR This camp chair, seen used by Custer in the Indian War photo by David Barry, was given to the frontier photographer by the postmaster at Fort Abraham Lincoln in North Dakota. The Wisconsin Historical Society purchased the chair upon Barry’s death in 1934. His ownership is further established by newspaper articles from the Superior Evening Telegram during 1897-1934, with one article discussing Barry’s studio and touting, “Another highly prized curiosity is the camp stool used by Gen. Custer during that martyr’s campaign in 1876.” Accompanying the lot was a copy of Barry’s handwritten catalogue of his collection of relics, and altogether, the items sold for a $49,000 bid at Cowan’s during November 16-18.
HAM BELLS’S PHOTOGRAPH OF DODGE CITY COMMISSION Hamilton Bell held the office of Ford County Sheriff in 1887 and 1889. He owned the above photograph of the June 1883 Dodge City Peace Commission, which sold at Cowan’s June 9-10 auction for a $17,000 bid. This version differs from the original in that W.F. Petillon does not appear in the back row.(From left, standing): W.H. Harris, Luke Short and Bat Masterson. (Seated) Charlie Bassett, Wyatt Earp, Frank McLain and Neal Brown.
EARPANIA After the murder attempt on Virgil Earp following the O.K. Corral street fight, Virgil became the law in Colton, California. In this letter, dated August 30, 1887, he writes to the chief of police in San Francisco concerning a “Wm. Sternberg, German barber by trade.” The letter sold at Johns’ Western Gallery on September 30 for an $18,000 bid.
ENGRAVED HENRY Marked October 16, 1860, this Henry rifle features typical Hodgson engraving with vine and leaf scroll. It sold for a $55,000 bid at Rock Island Auction’s August 27-29 sale.
FRANCOLINI STATUE OF LIBERTY COLT Leonard Francolini celebrated the centennial of the Statue of Liberty by incorporating into this .44-40 Buntline Special pieces of steel, copper and wood that was removed from the statue during its 1986 renovation. The Colt sold for an $85,000 bid at Rock Island Auction’s April 30-May 2 sale. The Colt Single Action Army bears the serial No. Liberty 100.
GERONIMO AND BRAVES This C.S. Fly photo of Geronimo and his braves sold at Cowan’s during June 9-10 for a $4,250 bid. The image is identified as Geronimo, Son and Two Picked Braves, and features Fly’s handstamp and copyright of 1886, the year of Geronimo’s final surrender.
GOLD MINING SCENE This half-plate daguerreotype features a group of 13 miners, including three Chinese miners, a rarity in gold mining photographs. The photo sold at Cowan’s during June 9-10 for a $16,000 bid.
JAMES’ LAST LETTER About a month before he was shot to death, Jesse James was apparently thinking about getting out of the crime business and becoming … a farmer? That’s according to a letter auctioned off by R&R Enterprises in December 2005 for a $90,000 bid. On March 2, 1882, Jesse mailed a letter from his St. Joseph, Missouri, home inquiring about some farm land for sale in Franklin County, Nebraska. Writing his hopes that “your land can be made a good farm for stock & grain,” Jesse signed the letter with his alias “Tho. Howard.” This letter is also reproduced in full in the 1883 book, Outlaws of the Border by Jay Donald.
JOSEPH HENRY SHARP Another Joseph Henry lot got high marks at auction in 2005, Chant to the Rain Gods, which sold at Altermann Galleries’ October 22 auction for a $200,000 bid.
AUCTION RECORD Frank Tenney Johnson’s 1926 oil on canvas, Journey’s End, reached a new high for the artist, selling for a $350,000 bid at Coeur d’Alene’s auction on July 30, 2005.
AUCTION RECORD Selling for a cool $375,000 bid at Greg Martin’s April 25-27, 2005, auction, this U.S. Martial Colt Walker features a Gold Rush hand-tooled leather holster and set a world record for an historic Colt Walker. Bearing the serial No. E Co. 23, the gun has been documented as “the best Walker in existence in the category of ‘no finish’ Walkers … with that valuable rarity—its original holster” by antique firearms consultant Herb Glass in 1976.
A letter written by Wild Bunch member Matt Warner is back where it belongs.
– True West Archives –
AUCTION RECORD The 20-volume set of Edward Curtis’ The North American Indian sold at Christie’s for a record-breaking $1.25 million bid on October 12, 2005. The portfolio of some 1,500 works with a signed foreword by Theodore Roosevelt broke the world record for a photographic lot.
NORTHWEST COAST CEDAR MASK A Tsimshian mask from the second half of the 19th century sold at Skinner’s September 10 auction for a $230,000 bid. The mask has mobile eyes that rotate to red, which may signify a transition from life to death, says Douglas Diehl, director of Skinner’s American Indian and Ethnographic Department. Northwest tribal material is rare for collectors because most items are housed in museums, which began collecting these artifacts in the late 19th-early 20th centuries.
AUCTION RECORD At its December 5, 2005, auction, Bonhams & Butterfields sold this Paiute Polychrome Basket for a $300,000 bid, setting a new world record for a Native American basket sold at auction. Coming from the Ella Cain Collection, this 1929 basket of degikup form was woven by Tina Charlie. Over 20 inches in diameter, this basket is one of perhaps 10 of its size produced in California’s Yosemite-Mono Lake region.
RARE IRON FRAME HENRY This forerunner of Winchester lever actions, a rare Henry lever-action rifle, sold for a $92,500 bid at Rock Island Auction’s August 27-29 sale. Greg Martin also included an iron frame Henry on its Top 10 auction lots for 2005, but that Henry sold for only a $52,500 bid at the November 15 auction. Only 200 of these rifles were made; just a handful has survived their use during the Civil War.
AUCTION RECORDS Charles M. Russell’s 1918 oil painting, Piegans, set a world record for the artist at the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction on July 30, 2005, when it sold for a $5 million bid. The previous record for a Russell painting was $2.3 million for the watercolor, A Disputed Trail, which also sold at Coeur d’Alene, but in July 2001. (Right) William Hahn’s 1878 painting, Going Home (Pioneers Braving a Storm) set a world record for the artist when it sold for a $110,000 bid at Bonhams & Butterfields’ August 8, 2005, sale.
ONLY KNOWN TINTYPE OF SAM HOUSTON This tintype of Texas Sen. Sam Houston sold at Cowan’s Auctions held during November 16-18 for a $39,000 bid.
JOSEPH HENRY SHARP Joseph Henry Sharp’s oil on canvas, October/November Evening, Crow Reservation, Montana, sold for a $775,000 bid at Bonhams & Butterfields’ August 8 auction. The work is dated around the early 1920s, according to a note by the artist, which accompanied the lot.
SITTING BULL’S REVOLVER This Second Model Whitney Navy revolver owned by Sitting Bull sold for a $105,000 bid at Cowan’s during November 16-18. The handmade leather-fringed holster and right side of the two-piece walnut grips are both inscribed with “Die 1890 Sitting Bull.” No-Two Horns, a Hunkpapa chief and cousin of Sitting Bull, gifted the revolver to Col. Alfred Burton Welch of Mandan, North Dakota, in April 1920.
SPONTOON TOMAHAWK PIPE Used as both a weapon and a ceremonial object, this Spontoon Tomahawk sold for a $14,000 bid at Greg Martin’s November 14-16 auction. It was accompanied by a faceted bowl. The shaft features five bands of brass tacks, with each band burned by a heated file.
AUCTION RECORD Contemporary artist Howard Terpning has had quite a year at auction. His painting, Offerings to the Sun, gave him a record-selling bid of $320,000 at Coeur d’Alene’s July 30, 2005, auction. Altermann Galleries held the distinction first when it sold Terpning’s painting He Rode Over His Enemy for a $320,000 bid at its July 9, 2005, auction. The total sales price with the premium has Coeur d’Alene coming in $3,900 higher than the painting sold at Altermann.
WILL SOULE PHOTOGRAPH ALBUM This photo album contains 41 photographs of Southern Plains Indians, taken during 1867-73. The photographer gave the album to his sister, Salucia Abbott Soule, and it descended among family members. The album sold at Skinner Auction on September 10 for a $60,000 bid.
WINCHESTER 1866 Auctioned off by Greg Martin Auctions on November 15, this Winchester Model 1866 Lever Action Rifle sold for a $160,000 bid. Documented as a deluxe rifle with serial No. 107209 in an 1878 factory inventory, the gold-plated and engraved rifle (done by master engraver Conrad Ulrich) was owned by Gen. Fidencio Hernandez, who was chief of staff under Mexican President Porfirio Diaz.
ZUNI POTTERY Two examples of Zuni Pottery were the top-selling lots of 2005 for Allard Auctions. An Olla, dating to the late 1800s, that is fully covered with polychrome designs, including heartline deer and fylfots. Large Olla, circa 1880, with no cracks or restoration work. Both sold for $16,000 bids each at the August 13 sale.