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The Harrisburg Auction

Karl H. Pass | July 15th, 2013


One of the last lots on day six was this small, cased pocket pistol believed to have been owned by Doc Holliday. It is thought that the pearl grip broke off during a brawl he had with his common-law wife. It sold for $62,500. Pass photo.


An odd lot was this six-point framed $20 gold coin dated “1883” with the frame marked 10k. The banner reads “SHERIFF J. BEHAN.” It sold for $34,375. John Harris Behan was appointed as the first sheriff of Cochise County in early 1881. Tombstone was the county seat.


The detective badge of Allan Pinkerton sold for $46,875. It reads, “Pinkerton’s/ National/ We never sleep/ Detective/ Agency.” A letter came with the badge from Allan Pinkerton to his lawyer Aaron Jeffries, which read: “In the event of my demise, it is my request that my gold shield be bequeathed to my nephew, Philip Pinkerton. Thanks, Allan Pinkerton.” Pinkerton (1819-1884) served in the Union Army during the Civil War and is best known for his investigative work and for creating the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Badges were strong performers in the sale.

John “Doc” Holliday’s frock coat, displayed under glass and one of the auction’s stars, sold on day six for $68,750 to an Internet bidder and came with a letter describing its history of ownership. Pass photo.


Dr. John “Doc” Holliday’s dentist chair sold for $50,000 to an Internet bidder. The oak and leather reclining dentist chair was used during the years Holliday practiced in Las Vegas.


“I think it is a great thing,” is how Arlan Ettinger explained this gun. This custom drilling in a presentation case was given to Theodore Roosevelt on July 4, 1916, by the United Spanish War Veterans, Camp Number Three, Pueblo, Colorado. It sold to a private collector bidding by phone for $115,900. The gun was one of about 20 things Arlan Ettinger took to New York City for presale publicity purposes, a savvy marketing decision.


This signed mortgage document with the signatures of Wyatt and Mattie Earp, dated February 13, 1882, for the sale of their residence in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, sold late on day six for $68,750.


This framed oil on canvas for “Savage Ale,” signed on bottom left, “W.M. Kessler, 1875,” sold for $18,750. It was from Saloon #10 in Deadwood, South Dakota. The establishment is a museum today but still operates as a bar. A bullet hole in the painting is believed to have been from a shot fired by Calamity Jane on March 13, 1879.


This letter signed by W. H. Bonney, a.k.a. “Billy the Kid,” from Santa Fe, New Mexico, sold as one of the final lots, going for $41,480. The lot was accompanied by a letter outlining its history of ownership.


This boot knife is thought to have belonged to Wild Bill Hickok. In the display is a note that says it was won July 23, 1876, by Capt. Bill Massie in a card game. A buyer paid $40,000 for the lot.

This oak-cased “The Owl” slot machine with a patent date of Nov. 1898, standing 58" high, sold for $15,000. The side door opens to empty the money bag. Pass photo.

Guernsey’s, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Photos courtesy Guernsey’s

“This will be an auction odyssey,” said Arlan Ettinger, founder and president of Guernsey’s, just prior to the start of the weeklong series of sales conducted July 15 through 21 on behalf of the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

You may be familiar with the vast collections pertaining to the American West owned by the city of Harrisburg. The sale garnered extensive media coverage. Reporting on the story of the collection and the sale of it had been in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and the capitol city’s paper, the Patriot-News, among many other publications. A story about the sale also ran on CNBC and the Al Jazeera English Language channel.

Primarily throughout the 1990’s, Stephen R. Reed, then the city’s mayor, amassed extensive holdings, the majority of which related to (or otherwise were associated with) the history of the West. He reportedly spent between $7.9 million and $8.3 million on “Wild West” material, as reported by the Patriot-News. A complete inventory or invoice will likely never be known because of a lack of accounting resources. According to Roxbury News, however, as of 2003 there was a 611-page inventory containing 38,000 Wild West objects that the city owned.

One of Reed’s grand plans had long included increasing the city’s role in regional tourism as an economic engine. His goal was to create five museums. Two were made: the National Civil War Museum and the Pennsylvania National Fire Museum. The National Museum of the Old West was not built. Its purpose was to have been to tell the story of westward expansion, along with the region’s rich transportation history.

“The West started here,” Reed had explained. Harrisburg was a supply point and river-crossing point for people headed to the western territories. Reed was reimbursed through a “special projects reserve fund” administered by the Harrisburg Authority, where non-tax funds tied into bond money were used, according to the New York Times. By all accounts, the former mayor was fascinated by the Old West and, for a period of roughly 15 years, was a serious buyer. In 2006, under pressure from the city council, the mayor dropped his plans for the proposed museum. There was a resolution passed to disperse the collection and earmark the proceeds toward reducing budget deficits, namely to pay down a bridge loan that Reed had taken out.

Suspicions abounded publicly that Reed had overpaid and had acquired material with dubious authenticity. To the auction company’s credit, there was wisely no acknowledgment by Guernsey’s that every object came with a complete provenance.

In Dallas, Texas, on November 10 and 11, 2007, Heritage Auction Company sold 816 lots from the collection (see M.A.D., February 2008, p. 24-D). Harrisburg’s portion of the Heritage sale earned $1.35 million. A portion of the items sold were considered to have been among the strongest material in the holdings, and some were historically significant.

Fast forward to 2012. The city, under state-administered receivership, contracted Guernsey’s to sell everything remaining. “We were initially contacted by the city as one of thirty companies about two years ago,” stated Ettinger. “We eventually became a finalist [one of three] and after we won, met with [current] Mayor Linda Thompson for a press conference. Our proposal was to have the sale here in Harrisburg.”

“Arlan and his staff have been brilliant,” remarked Robert Philbin, the present mayor’s chief operating officer. “Two things: they have marketing expertise, and bidding has been global. I’ve been told this auction has possibly had the most bidders achieved of any auction ever,” he continued.

There were in fact registered bidders from 36 nations. Whether this individual sale had more registered bidders than any other before is difficult to determine, according to Guernsey’s principal auctioneer, Joanne Grant. “We did have over 11,000 through LiveAuctioneers alone,” she said. There were another 9700 through Proxibid and 445 in-house bidders. The total gross including buyers’ premiums for all seven days of sales was $3,937,000. 

“This has been a hell of an event to get ready for,” stated Ettinger from the podium during his opening remarks on day one. “We are honored to be here,” he continued. What followed were seven days of unreserved selling that took place in the carousel pavilion attached to Metro Bank Park on City Island. Located on the Susquehanna River, City Island is owned by the city of Harrisburg.

Previewing the eclectic material could be done in the nearby Public Works Complex D & D Building on South 19th Street. “We felt the collection had become identified with Harrisburg and that the area is anchored in a great antiquing area. We got our start going to Adamstown and Shupp’s Grove way back when,” said Ettinger. The proposal to not move the collection was a wise one for, if nothing else, logistical reasons. He was not alone. Thomas Taylor, a local collector, volunteered, “I think these guys [Guernsey’s] did a much better job than Heritage did. These things should be sold here.”

Among the roughly 8000 objects sold during the week, the Wild West material received the most press. That category ranged from items relating to specific historic figures such as Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, Annie Oakley, George Custer, Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill, and Doc Holliday to items such as period horse-drawn wagons, frontier clothing, and saloon and gaming paraphernalia. There was a 22% buyer’s premium for on-site buyers with cash or check and 25% for on-line buyers. No sales tax was charged.

Day one consisted of mostly relatively ordinary mercantile objects. Common things that sold included items from western country stores, such as various primitives, advertising, lighting, clothing, and furniture. Jim Refi, a shop dealer from Lancaster County, came for the primitives. “I bought a post office counter, a stepback cupboard, and a shoe rack from a country store,” explained Refi. A large grouping of African artifacts was also sold. About 75 to 100 people were in the salesroom. That was the case each day, except for Sunday, when it was packed. Sunday was the uncataloged portion, and bidding was in-person only.

Roughly 100 lots per hour were sold, and the majority of winning bidders were on line. Proxibid.com and LiveAuctioneers.com were the on-line bidding platforms used. The company LiveAuctioneers is able to analytically gauge the popularity of particular items from its featured auctions, and 17 out of the 20 most popular things were items in this sale, as explained by Ettinger leading up to the sale. The Guernsey’s team not only advertised well before the fact but utilized on-line bidding very well.

Day two consisted largely of military history items, weaponry, books, maps, and historical documents. A lot of Spanish Colonial items were sold. A 17th-century rapier brought $1586 early in the day from historian Jeff Hengesbaugh in the salesroom. Hengesbaugh and his wife drove to the sale from Glorieta, New Mexico. They ended up needing to rent a truck to take back all of their purchases.

“It was an epic journey,” remarked Hengesbaugh after the sale. “It was an adventure all the way out and all the way back. The mayor bought a lot from me, and I went there to get some things back. The whole thing was a phenomenon,” he continued.

Hengesbaugh specializes in a unique sector of American history referred to as Borderlands history or simply Spanish Colonial, but his collecting is not strictly limited to that time period. He bought a rare hide-covered canoe used for hauling fur trade freight in the Upper Great Lakes region on day four for about $750. “It is a very unusual craft,” mentioned Hengesbaugh.

So many things that very rarely enter the open market were in this sale. A pair of “Lilly Irons” sold to an Internet bidder for $1125. “They are very rare, and it was a fair price,” stated the underbidder in the salesroom, a private collector from Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. “They should have been cataloged as Civil War era instead of as Colonial manacles, but that is an easy mistake,” he continued. “Lilly Irons are iron handcuffs invented by a Dr. Lilly for the criminally insane for protection from themselves,” explained the advanced collector. “I’ve only ever seen four pairs, and two were in museums.”

A cased shotgun that once belonged to President Theodore Roosevelt sold for $115,900 (est. $10,000/15,000) to a private collector, bidding by phone. It was underbid by a bidder on Proxibid.com. “It is a great thing,” said Arlan Ettinger. The gun was one of about 20 things Ettinger had taken to New York City for presale publicity purposes, which included news coverage on CNBC. “We got the word out,” he said.

Day three was dedicated to firearms and American Indian items. Indian items made up all of day four. Days five and six were dedicated to Wild West material. Five truckloads of material were brought to the pavilion on City Island that were deemed of no major associational value and would likely have been used as props in the proposed museum. A portion of it was decorative and not period.

“The Sunday auction is really an incredible opportunity for folks,” said Joanne Grant. Grant possibly had the hardest job of the week. She was the lead auctioneer in sweltering, record hot temperatures. She also oversaw the cataloging of the collection in the few short months that Guernsey’s
had to prepare.

Over 600 antique firearms were sold on day three. A pistol thought to have been owned by Wyatt Earp (1848-1929) sold for $43,750 to an Internet bidder, underbid by a private collector from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the salesroom. Several lots later, that private collector successfully bought an 1866 Winchester rifle for $9760. The Wyatt Earp pistol had been presented to the famous lawman in Alaska, where, in the years after leaving Tombstone, he moved to open a saloon. A label on the grip read, “To Wyatt Earp Welcome from the Citizens of Nome.”

A Colt revolver in a fitted case sold for $20,000 to an Internet bidder, and a rare Spencer rifle with engraving sold to a phone bidder for $23,180. It was underbid by a local private collector in the salesroom. “The engraving is by Nimschke and desirable,” commented the underbidder. “The market is fairly strong, and that was a pretty good price.” As with many of the things sold, some of the firearms came with authentication papers, and some did not. A Colt Paterson revolver sold for $17,500 with paperwork from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Some of the guns by regulation had to be taken elsewhere for background checks to be conducted.  This did not apply to all guns.

“No one has ever seen the number of bids that we have for today,” said Ettinger concerning the firearms. The majority were on line. “In the summer of eighty-three we held an on-site sale in Lancaster [Pennsylvania] at the Rocky Springs Amusement Park, which had closed. It was also a multiday event like this. That auction struck a chord with the local audience. When we sold the carousel figures, there was tremendous excitement and energy in the crowd. Selling on line takes some of that away, but that is the way of the future,” said Ettinger.

The American Indian material was mixed in with the firearms collection and other weaponry. Most of it sold on day four. An unearthed revolver/relic, found in 1959 at el Cañon de Los Embudos in Mexico at the site of Geronimo’s encampment, sold for $7500. It was believed to have been buried to avoid confiscation, a common practice by Apaches. Two Cheyenne storage bags with beadwork sold for $1125 and $1625.

The most exciting day was the fifth, when the Wild West material sold. Among the highlights were items thought to have once belonged to John “Doc” Holliday (1851-1887). He is known for his association with Wyatt Earp and role in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Besides being a gambler and gunfighter, Holliday held a D.D.S. and practiced dentistry. Doc Holliday’s dentist chair, used during the years he practiced in Las Vegas, was one the stars of the sale. The oak and leather reclining dentist chair sold for $50,000 to an Internet bidder, underbid by a phone bidder. It was accompanied by a letter of donation, dated 1908, reading, “When I rented my office above the apothecary on the Plaza I removed a dental chair to make room for my own furnishings. I later noticed the name John Holliday on this chair. Since the landlord had told me he had no use for such equipment, I placed it in storage. I now have learned that this is the same John Holliday, the famous shooter of a few years prior. I have also been informed that this was the last location where he practiced dentistry. I give this chair to the city free of charge in hope that a display of archives or a museum may use this infamous artifact. To this I affix my signature and seal.” The chair never became property of the city of Las Vegas and is believed to have been sold in 1926 for $50.

Doc Holliday’s dental kit sold a few lots later to an Internet bidder for $21,250. A tintype of Doc sold for $10,000, and a walnut one-drawer shaving stand with mirror, believed to have been his, sold for the same amount. His frock coat sold for $68,750. A cased pistol with original pearl grip, believed to have been broken by Doc during a brawl with Big Nose Kate, sold for $62,500. Mary Katherine Horony Cummings (1850-1940) (a.k.a. Big Nose Kate) was a common-law wife of Holliday.

John Clum (1851-1932) was an Indian agent in the Arizona Territory. He later became the first mayor of Tombstone in the Arizona Territory, when it was incorporated in 1881. His walking stick sold for $1000; his mayor’s badge brought $4062.50; and a shaving mug and razor brought $437.50. David J. Cook (c. 1841-1907) was city marshal of Denver, Colorado, and his marshal badge sold for $5312.50. A badge encasing a $20 gold coin cataloged as the “Sheriff J. Behan badge” sold to an Internet bidder for a strong $34,375. John Harris Behan (1844-1912) was appointed as the first sheriff of Cochise County in early 1881. Tombstone was the county seat. He was sheriff during the events leading up to the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

An old tin sign with a large wooden post from the Birdcage Theatre sold for $2125, and another sign from the theater sold on the last day for $671. That business was a combination saloon, brothel, gambling parlor, and actual theater in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, from 1881 to 1889. Today it is a museum. “I’ve been there,” stated the buyer of the second sign, a collector who owns the historic Simon Cameron mansion along the river in Harrisburg and also an upscale gentlemen’s club in the city. “The girls used to dance in cages,” he continued, explaining the theater’s name. He also bought a hand-painted folding screen that read, “Welcome to/ the Old Homestead Parlor House” on one panel and “Gentlemen, be kind to Pearl’s girls” on another. It was $531.25. The items may go into his club as decoration.

The Sunday sale was without Internet bidding. A crowd converged. Easily over 1000 lots were sold, and the auction house seemingly handled it very smoothly. The packed house was enthusiastic about finding a sleeper, and, yes, some of the material could have easily been put into the catalog portion, yet much of it was plain stuff among tchotchkes that had questionable merit. The overall quality and condition of much of the material was lacking. Many of the things were intended to be used as props and purchased in bulk. A worn U.S. 35-star flag sold for $732; a large buffalo hide sold for $915; and a box of boot spurs sold for $671. An early velvet-lined gambling box with chips sold for $2074, and 15 wooden teepee poles, each 25' long, sold for $488.

“In general, it has been a great sale, especially for the locals,” stated a New York state dealer who attended every day of sales.

“They [Guernsey’s] did a better job than Heritage,” mentioned one veteran local collector. “The sale being held here is a big aspect. The community came to see the items sold, and their people went out of their way to make the collection as accessible as possible.”

There remains more to sell on October 8 and 9 (Internet bidding only). “We discovered we couldn’t do justice to everything,” said Arlan Ettinger. “Due to the incredible volume, there will be a follow-up auction. We will sell about 2000 lots, mostly documents from the city of Harrisburg collection. There is material from George Washington to John F. Kennedy.”

The controversial buying spree and overall legacy of Reed has played out like a soap opera, and the city is trying to move forward. It has rid itself of the material. The market has spoken. The city’s net for this sale, as reported by Roxbury News, was $2.57 million. [The sum was later revised to “approximately $2,720,000.”] Along with the 2007 sale, that puts it at about $4 million, roughly half of the amount that was reportedly spent on the purchases.

These auctions were clearly among the greatest gatherings of items oriented toward the American West ever presented to the public. Historians, dealers, advanced collectors, and decorators participated. Those who conducted proper due diligence came away with numerous treasures. “This event is a highly unusual and spectacular thing. It will never happen again,” stated Jeff Hengesbaugh.

The captions tell more of the story and showcase a cross section of diverse material from this historic sale. For more information visit Guernsey’s Web site (www.guernseys.com) or call (212) 794-2280.


Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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