|By Eric C. Rodenberg
HARRISBURG, Pa. — The names, themselves, are magical – Wyatt Earp, Annie Oakley, Jesse James, Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok and Doc Holiday.
The event, itself, is extraordinary: A week-long auction (no reserves, no sales tax) from a long-sequestered public collection that, during the past year, has pitted city officials in a cash-strapped city within acrimonious legal and political battles.
And, the Impresario of All Outsized Auctions, the affable Arlan Ettinger who off-handedly notes that “it’s a big project, (but) we’ll get it done beautifully.”
As president of New York’s Guernsey Auctioneers, Ettinger said he does not know how many bidders will show up for the week-long auction. But, a month before the auction, he knows there are more than 1,000 bidders from all across the world signed up to bid July 15-21.
“This is the remarkable collection that has been a topic of discussion for years,” Guernsey advertisements declare.
The auction will include around 3,500 lots, representing more than 10,000 items accumulated by Harrisburg Mayor Stephen R. Reed during his 1981-2009 tenure in office.
Reed, who was on a quest to create the National Museum of the Old West for Harrisburg, maintains he spent around $6 million for the inventory.
“Today, I have no clue what it’s all worth,” Reed told AntiqueWeek in April.
The Harrisburg collection is expected to fetch between $500,000 and $6 million, depending on who is estimating. The low estimate was made during an assessment into the solvency of Harrisburg made by the state of Pennsylvania. The higher end was reportedly quoted by Harrisburg Mayor Linda Thompson.
Whatever the take; Harrisburg needs it. The city has debts of more than $340 million.
To help bail out the city, the auction will be hosted within the “carousel on steroids,” (according to Ettinger) on Harrisburg City Island, amidst the Susquehanna River overlooking the historic section of the city.
Although heavily concentrated on Wild West memorabilia, the auction will not be limited to items west of the Mississippi. Every war from the Revolutionary to World War II – from signed George Washington documents to Gen. George Patton’s star-embroidered shirt he wore while in command of the Third Army.
There are more than 500 firearms, including many fitted and cased sporting and gambling-related sets. Native American art and relics from the Sioux, Cheyenne, Apache, Blackfoot, Navajo, Comanche and the Northern Plains tribes will be sold at auction. Examples include an 1877 Colt single-action revolver owned by sharpshooter Sam Toole (estimate: $18,000-$22,000), a Native American “war shirt” made of human hair and ermine-tail pendants ($15,000-$25,000), a framed Missouri warrant charging Jesse James with first degree robbery ($4,000-$6,000), a 1969 Western hat (and original carrying case) custom-made by Stetson for President Lyndon B. Johnson ($10,000-$15,000).
Ettinger recalls stumbling onto a “plastic-covered tub with about a dozen tomahawks.” He puts their value at a minimum of $15,000 apiece.
This, and much more, has languished in a warehouse for at least 20 years. “It was just staggering,” Ettinger said, upon first walking into the warehouse. “At the time, you needed hiking equipment – mountaineering gear – to scale these massive wooden crates. There were boxes of every description, no order to way things were stored … the range of material was just overwhelming.”
Beginning in February, Ettinger assigned a staff – under direction of company auctioneer and appraiser Joanne Grant – to separate and catalog the inventory.
Missing receipts in some cases, and lack of verifying documents, has complicated the evaluation for Grant. However, she contacted a firearms expert and worked with other known, reputable dealers and auction houses in accessing exactly what Guernsey’s would be bringing to auction.
Grant, who has a broad range of experience in her nearly 40 years in the antiques industry, started working full time with her team three months ago.
“It was overwhelming,” Grant said. “I really didn’t see how we could we could complete this whole process given our deadline. I didn’t think it was humanly possible, but here we are. We’re still cataloging and we’re still making interesting discoveries.”
Found in a bank box was a letter with George Washington’s signature, dating to 1779. Also found was a John Hancock document signed only three days after he signed the Declaration of Independence.
Among other documents was a mortgage for Tombstone, Ariz. property signed by both Wyatt and Mattie Earp.
Already gathering much interest from collectors is a Colt revolver advertising board.
“On it is a large badge, a Texas Rangers endorsement for Colt,” Grant said. “On the back of the board is a stamp from the Colt company. In all my years, I have never seen a Colt revolver advertising board – I’ve seen them from Winchester, Remington; but, never anything like this from Colt.”
Even once the collection has been downsized, Grant claims it is the largest ever handled by the 38-year-old auction company. Previously, it was the contents of the SS United States, the largest ocean liner ever built in this country.
Some of the other auction categories (in addition to early wars, such as the Revolutionary, Civil and Indian Wars), include presentation swords, maritime artifacts, Spanish Colonial artifacts and Pottery (including Tularosa, Mesa Verde, Socorro, Pinto, St. John’s, Anasazi, Jeddito and Puerco), paintings and bronzes (including a 12-foot contemporary bronze of Frederic Remington’s Bronco Buster), a massive Wells Fargo collection, and early horse-drawn wagons.
The auction will also include early games and gambling devices, taxidermy animals, Black Americana and even vintage African carvings.
“I’m not sure what they were doing in the collection,” Ettinger said, adding that the items were verified by an expert as “the real deal.”
There are also several hundred lots of early general store and advertising material, he said.
Each of the first six days of the auction is devoted to specific categories, Ettinger said, posted on Guernsey’s Auctioneers website. Bidding will begin at 10 a.m. each morning and continue through the early evening hours.
The seventh day of the auction (Sunday, July 21) will be “box lot” day, with all uncataloged lots – or those with less than adequate provenance – will be sold to the highest bidder. On that day, there will be no Internet bidding.
The collection can be previewed at Harrisburg July 13-14.
Another auction will be in New York this fall to disburse several documents and ephemera that Ettinger and his crew were unable to assess and catalog at Harrisburg. That auction is expected to be a one-day affair in September, Ettinger said.
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