June 25, 2011On the anniversary of General George Armstrong Custer's bad haircut day, and after 278 other auction items came and went, the only known photo of Billy the Kid hammered in at a cool $2 million, beating most pre-show estimates by about $800,000.
It became obvious to me this morning that the final price on the Billy photo was going to go a bit higher than expected when I talked with two of the biggest contenders. Jim Earle, the College Station, Texas book publisher and old west collector (he owns the gun that Pat Garrett used to kill Billy the Kid) came by the True West booth and scoffed at our cover headline (Would You pay $500,000 for This Little Piece of Tin?), saying, "I wouldn't buy the photo for $500,000. It would be embarrassing in my neighborhood." I took this to mean he was swinging for the fences and that he was prepared to bid well over a million.
Bob McCubbin came by our booth with William Koch (hint: he has the ponies). I asked Mr. Koch if the rumor was true that he had said he wasn't leaving the building without the picture, and he just smiled. Everyone thought McCubbin was going to make a run at the image, but he steadfastly denied it. Based on Koch's smile and Jim Earle's cocky comment, my estimate jumped considerably above the $1 million mark. As the day wore on we started hearing all sorts of crazy rumors: a Saudi oil prince was going to be on the phone bidding, as well as a bidder from France and Asia (actually this turned out to be true, although they weren't a factor in the final bidding). At least three people told me Bill Gates would be bidding, but then someone reminded me that this rumor gets floated at every auction on earth. Two people told me George Lucas of Star Wars fame, would be bidding. I'm not kidding. By about five, it was pretty tense and exciting at the Denver Merchandise Mart.
A Westerns Channel film crew showed up to tape a True West Moment and I had Brian Lebel pull out the photo for one more look, then we taped several segments of me talking about the importance of the image and what it might go for. When Brian mentioned the foreign bidders I told him that the parking lot was full of Texas license plates (a foreign country by Denver standards) and we were bound to have a high priced showdown.
At 5:20 the actual auction began, but there were a total of 443 items to be auctioned with the Billy photo at number 279. Two hours later, when the auctioneer was touting lot number 100 we realized we had some time to go eat dinner, so Ken A. and I drove to downtown Denver to the hipster area and had dinner outside on the sidewalk at the trendy Ocean Prime at 1465 Larimer Street. Two attractive couples sat across from us and one of the guys says, "Are you guys farmers?" I refused to answer the rude little prick, but Ken told him that we were in town for the Billy the Kid auction and that I was going to buy it for $1.2 mil. Of course this didn't shut the bastard up, and it even led to a longer conversation which I refused to participate in.
An hour and a half later we were back at the Denver Merchandise Mart and the lots were up to 215. A sweet Mexican sugarloaf sombrero sold for $1,700, then a hat worn by John Wayne in the movies sold for $15,000. A newly discovered photo of Charles Bowdre went for $11,000 (Bob McCubbin dropped out at the $9K mark). As the next couple of lots came up, the excitement in the room started to build.
When the Billy the Kid photo came up you could feel the tension go up at least three notches. The bidding started fast and furious with Jim Earl hanging in well past the $1 mil mark, which came within about 30 seconds. There were a flury of bids, but Wiliam Koch stood alone at the $2 million mark and that's where the hammer came down. Everyone rushed Bill, including myself. I got an interview with him about what he intends to do with the photograph and we'll post that as soon as we can.
"I'm William Koch and I just bought the Billy the Kid photo and this has been a True West Moment."
—William Koch, into the TV camera for the Westerns Channel. I joined him on the last part.