The Emperor’s Old Guns

Collector Arnie Chernoff outshines even the infamous James brothers.
Collector Arnie Chernoff outshines even the infamous James brothers.

Imagine the elevator of a posh Vegas hotel opening its doors, revealing a man holding a toilet paper torch, wearing a king-sized sheet clad around his body, as he runs out into the lobby, yelling, “Let the games begin.”

Imagine that man to be approximately 750 pounds, and you have a clear vision of antique gun and Indian relic collector Arnold Chernoff of Chicago, who passed away during his late 40s in the late 1980s.

Sometimes the collectors outshine the collectibles at an auction, even in the case of guns linked to the infamous James brothers, which were sold by Rock Island Auction on May 3-5, 2008.

Guns & Ammo and True West Field Editor Phil Spangenberger remembers Chernoff and his gun show retinue. One of his assistants sat by his side, doing nothing but unwrapping Hershey bars from cartons of 36 and handing them to Chernoff to eat.

“He sat like an emperor behind his table and conducted court at the gun shows, with all his assistants surrounding him,”?says Greg Martin, president of firearm auction house Greg Martin Auctions.

“Some friends of mine went out to dinner with him at a Chinese Restaurant,” Spangen-berger recalls. “When he entered, the host asked him, ‘Are you having your usual tonight, Mr. Chernoff?’ He replied, ‘Not very hungry tonight. Just bring me page one.’”

Even comedian Don Rickles was disarmed by what was then a 475-pound Chernoff. John Romero worked as marketing director for Vegas’s Sahara Casbar Lounge during the 1970s; one night, he had his pal Chernoff sit front row center. “Arnold had a ferocious wit,” Romero recalls in his blog, “so when Don sauntered out and saw Chernoff, he yelled, ‘What the hell do you do?’ and Chernoff fired back, ‘I’m a jockey.’ The audience went crazy, and all Don could do was fake that smile he had perfected to buy a few seconds before answering.”

Greg Martin accompanied “Arnie” that night and remembers it pretty much the same way, except “Rickles asked, ‘What do you do, little boy,’ because he would cut down his audience in that way.”

His infamous “Arnie”?story is one that Greg thinks may have even gotten printed in Penthouse. Greg was lecturing with Arnie at a conference, and during a break, he asked Arnie, “Can I?get ya a drink?” Arnie replied, “I?don’t drink. Want to know why I don’t drink?”

Arnie then preceded to tell him about a time he was trying to lose weight at a fat farm in South Carolina. He asked a man to bring him a girl, some ribs, some red sauce and some martinis. He devoured the ribs, red sauce and martinis. By the time the girl got there, she found him passed out on the bed, so she left. When he woke up, he saw bones all over his bed. He looked in the mirror; he saw red all around his face, and he screamed, “Oh no, I?ate her!” He told Greg that after that night, he never touched a drop of alcohol again.

Chernoff was quite the individual. Jesse James, too, needs no embellishment to tell a compelling story about him. That Chernoff bought a rifle owned by Jesse’s assassin and a derringer owned by Jesse’s older brother Frank may have been nothing more than a wealthy man’s whimsy, yet both were such characters that no one has forgotten them.

Jesse James biographer Ted Yeatman says both guns seem to have pretty good provenance. “I know that [Frank’s son] Robert sold at least two of his father’s guns during the Depression, in the 1930s,”?notes Yeatman, adding, “I?didn’t know about the Ford rifle. I?wonder if that isn’t something he picked up after he killed Jesse and was leaving town.”

Both weapons are linked to the Winchester Gun Museum, which was thinning out its collection during the early 1970s. The remainder of the collection moved from New Haven, Connecticut, to Cody, Wyoming, to be housed at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.

Chernoff’s collectibles and other notable arms brought in nearly $9 million in bids.

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