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The New York Times

The New York Times


Auctioning the Old West to Help a City in the East
Published: November 12, 2007

DALLAS, November 11- Prospective bidders looking to buy a piece of the Old West here over the weekend were greeted by an intimidating view straight down the barrel of a Model 1883 Gatling gun. Behind the weapon, an exhibit hall at a hotel was filled with rows of exquisitely beaded moccasins, revolvers and well-oiled Western saddles.

The items were included in auctions of more than 800 artifacts from a trove of period photographs, Indian artifacts and historic memorabilia acquired by Mayor Stephen R. Reed of Harrisburg, Pa. His dream was to establish a tribute — the National Museum of the Old West — to his city's role as a supply point for those bound for the West. But with the city's budget in the red, the idea was scratched and the collection was put up for sale.

Also among the weekend's offerings were a Wells Fargo stagecoach and a Conestoga wagon, notes and canceled checks signed by Judge Roy Bean, George A. Custer, Robert E. Lee and Frederic Remington. Interspersed among tarnished spurs and sheriffs' badges and six spittoons — including a slightly chipped ceramic model designed for ladies — there were daguerreotypes and photographs of Geronimo, Sitting Bull and Lillie Langtry and tableaus of 49ers, Indian scouts and frontier executions.

Since the late 1990s, Mr. Reed spent $7.8 million in public money on the collection of 3,800 items. He did so without public discussion or approvals. Four years ago, a firestorm of protest erupted when a local newspaper, The Patriot-News, revealed the purchases and the scope of the mayor's plans. Budgetary shortfalls led the City Council to overrule Mr. Reed and kill the project last year.

The expanse of the collection awed experts.

"The mayor's vision of the Old West was incredible," said Rawhide Johnson, a Western memorabilia expert, as he paused before an 1860 newspaper broadside extra edition printed in San Francisco announcing the arrival of the first westbound rider for the Pony Express. The presale estimate for the newspaper ranged from $15,000 to $20,000. Next to it, a rare Pony Express Bible was expected to fetch $30,000.

"But he didn't just go after the sort of Wild West things everyone sees in their minds, like chuck wagons and stagecoaches," Mr. Johnson said. "He bought pots and pans, cans of evaporated milk, and coffee tins, things for everyday living. He wanted the whole picture, not just the highlights."

The unrivaled size and the expansive scope of the Harrisburg collection, which was auctioned with items from several other collections, attracted bidders from around the world for the auctions, which ran over Saturday and Sunday at the Hilton Anatole hotel.

"We had more than 2,100 registered bidders for all three auctions," said Gary Hendershott, director of Western auctions for Heritage Auction Galleries, the auctioneer, based in Dallas.

"That's quadruple what we'd see for a rare autograph auction. There were 108 live bidders, 150 registered telephone bidders, and the rest were on the Internet. To give you an idea how crazy it was, we had 15 Heritage employees taking bids over the phone nonstop from 9:30 in the morning to 7:30 at night."

Gross sales exceeded $3 million. Some of the most sought items went up for auction on Sunday, including the Gatling gun, which still works and sold for a winning bid of $280,000 and the stagecoach, which sold a bid of $90,000. The winning bidders will pay a buyer's premium of 19.5 percent.

Jeb Stuart, a special consultant to the City of Harrisburg who attended the event, said the money from the auctions would be used to close a budget gap. Whether the city will make a profit on the auction "still needs to be analyzed," Mr. Stuart said. But he said the city was pleased by the outcome of the weekend auction, adding that a number of items went for more than their estimated values.

Whatever did not sell this weekend will stay listed for 14 days at the Heritage Auction Galleries Web site, www.ha.com, so, Mr. Stuart said final totals would be known after that.

Mayor Reed had planned to attend the two-day event in Dallas, but a last-minute scheduling conflict interrupted his plans, said Mr. Stuart.

Mr. Hendershott said Mayor Reed would have another chance in May. The sale of the remaining 3,000 items will require one or two more auctions next year.