History in Ink “Provenance” and “autograph” can equal a higher value for Old West photographs.

autograph Old West photographs history True West Magazine
Wild Bill” Hickok, “Texas Jack” Omohundro and “Buffalo Bill” Cody.

What a difference an autograph makes.

Last September, a collector successfully bid $6,500 at Cowan’s Auctions for a photograph from the Eric C. Caren Collection showing the starring actors, “Wild Bill” Hickok, “Texas Jack” Omohundro and “Buffalo Bill” Cody, of Scouts of the Plains, a theatrical production that premiered in 1873.

Hickok left after a few months. Omohundro left too and, in 1877, put together his own acting troupe. Cody went on to worldwide fame and glory after forming his Wild West show in 1883.

This June 22, another copy of this photo appeared on the Cowan’s auction block, yet this one was passed down in the family to Cody’s great-granddaughter Patsy Garlow.  Predictably, it sold for a higher bid: $13,000.

autographed Old West photographs history True West Magazine
Autographs separate these two provenance-strong photographs showing the stars of the 1873-74 play Scouts of the Plains — ”Wild Bill” Hickok, “Texas Jack” Omohundro and “Buffalo Bill” Cody. The photo at right, from Cody’s personal collection, bid at $13,000, while the left photo, from William F. “Doc” Carver’s family, bid at $15,200 because of Cody’s handwritten identifications.
— Right photo Courtesy Cowan’s Auctions, June 22, 2018; left photo courtesy Heritage Auctions, November 24, 2013 —

The Cody-owned photo, though, was missing attributes found on another copy, which Heritage Auctions sold five years ago, on November 24. That cabinet card was passed down through the family of dentist-turned-sharpshooter William F. “Doc” Carver, Cody’s partner that first season when he opened his Wild West show on May 19, 1883.

What makes Carver’s photo more special than Cody’s is that Cody signed Carver’s cabinet card. Buffalo Bill authority Paul Fees determined that the ink identifications for all three were written by the showman (the penciled notations beneath them were likely written by Carver or one of his descendants). The winning bid? $15,200.

To reinforce how much value collectors place on autographs, another Heritage lot featured an autograph book, without the photo, that included signatures by four principals from Scouts of the Plains among the hundreds of autographs. It hammered down for $29,000 on June 11, 2016.

autographed Old West photographs history True West Magazine
This photo of scout and “Buffalo Bill” Cody pal “Captain Jack” Crawford is autographed on verso, “Yours J.W. Crawford Capt. Jack,” but lack of provenance, as well as lightened image quality, meant collectors were willing to bid only as high as $200.
— Courtesy Cowan’s Auctions, June 22, 2018 —

Cody signed that autograph book on January 15, 1874, and included a note, “Once a scout and guide but now a thin actor.” Omohundro and Hickok also signed, with the latter autograph quite the coup, considering he was in the play for only a few months. The play’s director, Frank Mordaunt, rounded out the bunch. 

Two years before, a collector bid $55,000 at Heritage for a Pima County Bank in Arizona ledger that included signatures by participants in Tombstone’s O.K. Corral gunfight.

autographed Old West photographs history True West Magazine
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West sharpshooter Annie Oakley signed and identified this photo of herself: “Annie Oakley as Nance Barry in The Western Girl.” Hammering down for $14,000, the photo was passed down in the family to grand-niece Billie Butler, the granddaughter of William Butler, the youngest brother of Frank, Annie’s husband. The Model 1894 Winchester in her hand is part of the collections preserved at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming.
— Courtesy Heritage Auctions, June 10, 2012 —

Authenticity carries the weight for autographs. In the same June 22, 2018, auction, a signed photograph of “Captain Jack” Crawford went for only $200. The content is fantastic, showing the frontier scout armed with a Winchester Model 1886 rifle and a Colt Model 1878 double-action revolver. Taken by W.R. Cross of Hot Springs, South Dakota, the photo is signed on the back, “Yours J.W. Crawford Capt. Jack.”

The lower value can be attributed to the lightened image, but mainly to the unclear provenance. That doesn’t mean this wasn’t signed by Crawford; it just doesn’t have strong support that it was, which reduces the value by thousands.

autographed Old West photographs history True West Magazine
Autograph dealer Charles Hamilton featured this signed Kit Carson carte-de-visite in his 1979 standard The Signature of America, causing excitement among collectors and selling at $57,500. The majority of Carson autographs are signed “C. Carson,” while “Kit,” as used in this signature, was reserved for acquaintances.
— Courtesy Spink Shreves Galleries, January 27-29, 2010 —

Collecting historical photographs is a joy for many, whether they are autographed or not. But when a collector is determining the potential value of his photograph, remember, authenticity is key.

autographed Old West photographs history True West Magazine
Jesse James.
— Courtesy Leslie Hindman Auctioneers —

Top-Selling Signed Photo

This year, FinancesOnline.com reported the 10 most expensive autographs in the world. George Washington’s Acts of Congress topped the list at $9.8 million.

Only two photographs signed by the subject were included on the list. One shows Albert Einstein mischievously sticking out his tongue in a family-authenticated photo, $75,000. The other shows the headshot of an outlaw familiar to many of us: Jesse James.

Why did this autographed Jesse photo hammer down for a whopping $42,000 at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers on April 5, 2011?

Provenance! The photo was bequeathed to Ethel Rose James, Jesse’s granddaughter, by Jesse’s widow, Zee. The photograph remained in the family until Ethel’s husband, Calvin Tilden Owns, sold it in 1958 to Andrew MacKellar, captain of the Cunard Line of the RMS Queen Mary from 1954 to 1959.

That’s not to say private collectors don’t own some autographed photographs that could blow both those prices out of the water. This September 2018 issue features just one of these incredible photos, owned by our Publisher Emeritus Robert G. McCubbin.

Other Old West historical photograph lots from June 22, 2018, sale at Cowan’s Auctions

autographed Old West photographs history True West Magazine

Hammering down for $3,000, this half-plate ambrotype shows a large-scale California gold mining operation along the American River, circa 1859. Notice the long sluice running through the dry riverbed.

autographed Old West photographs history True West Magazine

This circa 1884-85 boudoir card by A.F. Randall depicts Chiricahua Apache Chief Mangas Coloradas’s son, with an 1879 Springfield trapdoor rifle; $1,900.

autographed Old West photographs history True West Magazine

This photograph, labeled ”Group of Apache Indian Scouts at San Carlos, Arizona, Commanded by Lieut. Weigel, 1893-94,” shows William Weigel, wearing his U.S. Army kepi, seated in the center. Two other photos of Weigel were also included: one showing Weigel in uniform and another showing Weigel with soldiers and women in the Philippines capital, Manila; $1,600.

autographed Old West photographs history True West Magazine

John Nelson poses in his Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show attire, holding a lever-action Winchester. He lived with Spotted Tail’s Brule Sioux, guided Mormon leader Brigham Young and was part of the burial party at the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre; $1,600.

Upcoming Auctions

September 14-15, 2018

Western Art

Jackson Hole Art Auction (Jackson, WY)

JacksonHoleArtAuction.com • 866-549-9278

September 20, 2018

Colt Firearms

Morphy Auctions (Las Vegas, NV)

MorphyAuctions.com • 877-968-8880

September 21, 2018

American Indian & Western Art

Cowan’s Auctions (Cincinnati, OH)

Cowans.com • 513-871-1670

Rare Images of the Old West

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Meghan Saar

Meghan Saar is the editor of True West, the world’s oldest, continuously published Western Americana magazine. She has worked in niche publication content development since 2002, and she has a B.S. in Journalism and Creative Writing from the University of Arizona—Tucson.