Gold Rush Dagger Punches Up Knife Sale

The gambler’s collectible makes the cut—along with other rare California blades.

The gambler’s collectible makes the cut—along with other rare California blades.
The gambler’s collectible makes the cut—along with other rare California blades.

The discovery of a gold nugget at German immigrant John Sutter’s mill heralded in the Gold Rush to California; another German helped arm the populace.

Julius Finck, who may have been among the nearly one million who immigrated to America in the decade after the revolutions of 1848 failed to establish democracy in Germany, certainly found his fresh start out in the goldfields. Yet he did so not by digging for placer gold, but by supplying miners and other citizens with weaponry.

The auction of the estate of schoolteacher Donald Littman, held by Greg Martin on February 25, featured 1,500 knives. Included in the sale was a San Francisco push dagger, a hideout weapon that first appeared during the Gold Rush era, that was the weapon par excellence of gamblers, with its short blade extending beyond the knuckles to allow for considerable force when thrust. Made by Will & Finck, it sold for a $30,000?bid.

The surname Finck suggests his land of birth may have been Germany, but the known accounts of Finck addressed him as “of San Francisco,” because it is there where he made his mark—or cutler’s mark, rather.

Less than two decades after Yerba Buena became San Francisco, Finck partnered up with cutler Frederick Will in 1864. The firm focused on the manufacture and sale of cutlery, but it expanded its business to include faro equipment in 1871. Collectors today will find the Will &?Finck mark on gambling wheels, card-hiding devices, corkscrews, bells and, of course, knives.

After Will died in 1883, Finck took on a new partner, Samuel W. Levy, and relocated to the city’s Market Street—and into the “largest bazaar on the Pacific Coast.” Then it was known as the Golden Rule Bazaar, but it would merge with the Emporium in 1897. (You can still see the Emporium’s domed roof at the San Francisco Centre shopping  mall.)

Then the earthquake hit, at 5:13 a.m. on April 18, 1906. Whatever didn’t turn into rubble from the San Andreas fault rupture was destroyed by fire. When San Francisco Examiner editor P. Barrett left work on Market Street that morning, he saw in the twisted warp of buildings and streetcars, men “on all fours, in the street, like crawling bugs.”

Although the earthquake was a major setback for the Will & Finck firm, the owners persevered and moved the establishment to another location on Market Street (the bazaar eventually reopened in 1908). The cutlery stayed in business in San Francisco until the early 1930s.

By then, the last of the original owners, Julius Finck, was long gone, having passed away in 1914. Today, his firm is counted as one of the most important North American cutlery retailers of the late 1800s by renowned knife collector and expert Bernard Levine.

The push dagger and other edged weapons brought in more than $1 million.  More knives from the Littman estate will be up for sale at a future auction.

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