|By Eric C. Rodenberg
HARRISBURG, Pa. — The deadlock is over. This summer, the capitol city of Pennsylvania will open its coffer of Wild West antiques – some 11,000 items collected throughout the country – and offer them for public sale.
The auction, hosted by Guernsey’s auction house of New York, is expected to be a multi-day, multi-million dollar affair. It will offer a gambling table purportedly once owned by Wyatt Earp, a Colt Model 1883 Gatling gun, and a Tomahawk said to be once used by Chief Crazy Horse.
The proceeds – minus an 18 percent commission (with a sliding scale predicated on the amount of purchase) and a 22 percent buyer’s premium – will help pay city debts of more than $340 million.
“We are a city that is in debt recovery, and that’s what this money will be used for – to pay our debt obligations,” said Mayor Linda D. Thompson. “It will be good for taxpayers on several fronts. It will bring buyers into the city for our restaurants and hotels, it will help ease our debts and bring something festive to the community.”
But, it’s been a long time coming, Thompson said. The auction has been in question for nearly a year, after Thompson’s administration became entwined into controversial issues with the city controller.
For nearly a year, the city has been at war with itself.
The controversy began after Harrisburg City Controller Dan Miller refused to sign off on the auction contract earlier last year, maintaining that necessary line items – reflecting city expenses and revenue from the auctions – had not been added to the budget.
On April 4, Thompson brought a suit against Miller, insisting that Miller be forced to sign the authorization.
Dauphin County Judge Bernard L. Coates Jr., sided with Thompson in a November ruling, ordering Miller to sign the auction contract. Miller, however, immediately appealed the decision to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, asking the court for a stay to postpone the auction until the appeal was heard.
On Feb. 7, the higher court Judge James Gardner Colins gave a green light to the auction after refusing to grant Miller’s request.
In a four-page opinion on the case, Colins gave Miller slim hope of a legal victory in appeal. “There is little likelihood of (Miller) prevailing on the merits,” the judge wrote, “and further, as the City is in receivership, the proceeds of the auction are critical in order to maintain the continued operations of City government.”
Miller signed the contract on Feb. 8. “We’re done with it,” he told AntiqueWeek.
Miller and Thompson are locked into a 2013 race for mayor of Harrisburg.
Meanwhile, Guernsey’s which has been “waiting in the wings” for nearly a year, will begin preparations for the auction, according to Arlan Ettinger, president of the New York auction company.
“We’re at the ready,” Ettinger said.
No dates have yet been set for the auction.
“It will be this summer,” Ettinger said. “I’m in a conference call with everyone concerned later today. I don’t want to rule anything out. We have to get back down there, access the inventory, begin the catalogs – see what we have … it’s been awhile since we’ve been there and seen anything.”
Ettinger said Guernsey’s will work with some local auction companies regarding “equipment and personnel. But the sale will be under Guernsey’s banner.”
The items set for auction were purchased by former long-time Harrisburg Mayor Stephen R. Reed in his quest to create the National Museum of the Old West.
Despite Harrisburg’s location being many miles from “the Old West,” Reed went on an estimated $30 million antique spending spree between 1991 and 2005.
Reed served a 28-year, self-described “autocratic” rule from 1981 to 2009. He presently owns an economic development consulting firm in Harrisburg.
With some of that city money, Reed was instrumental in creating the National Civil War Museum with collections he purchased between 1994 and 1999. The city has sold some of the items he purchased on the city’s behalf in two auctions in 2007 and 2008, netting $1.6 million.
But, today, the city’s debt has increased to more than $340. Harrisburg filed for bankruptcy in October 2011, only to have a judge later throw out its petition. It is now in receivership and is selling its parking garages and other assets.
Of the items for sale this summer, Reed made a “best guess” that the city paid $6 million to $6.2 million for the inventory.
“Today, I have no clue what it’s all worth,” Reed told AntiqueWeek in April.
Last spring, Ettinger estimated the inventory would sell for “$5 million to $6 million, possibly significantly higher.” Thompson is more conservative, only saying that it will bring in “several million dollars” in revenue.
Since the former mayor’s spending spree, the inventory (scattered among “three or four locations,” according to Mayor Thompson) has not been appraised.
City officials did provide a list of items listed as “purchased after May 1999, previous to Jan. 2004.” The list of purchases is 410 pages long, giving only category, a basic description, price paid and “current location.” There is no record of condition or specifics of provenance.
The descriptions are vague. To the seasoned antique dealer and collector, some of the entries – and prices – may be suspect.
A sample of the listings (and prices paid) include: Vampire Hunter’s Set, $6,500 paid; Treasure Chest, $9,000; American-made Revolutionary War Hunting Shirt of White Linen, $25,000; Kiowa Dress, $26,500; and Tomahawk attributed to Chief Crazy Horse (1809), $45,000.
The larger the item prices become, sometimes the more vague the description: Josephine Earp Gold Bracelet, $250,000; Earp Oriental Saloon Table, $250,000; Six Item Collection, $73,500; Colt Model 1883 Gatling Gun, $166,250; and Portrait of Virgil Earp with Documentation, $30,000.
Guernsey’s president, the affable Ettinger, is aware of the complexities and logistics of putting such an auction together at relatively short notice. In 1984, Guernsey’s auctioned off the contents of the SS United States – one of the world’s largest auctions – while the legendary ocean liner sat in dock in New York. The undaunted Ettinger put that sale together under a three-month deadline.
“It’s a big project, but we will get it done. And we’ll get it done beautifully,” Ettinger said.