October 21, 2020
We in the Old West collector's world live with a phenom we jokingly call The Plague of the Billy Wannabes. Here's how it started.
Before Koch and After Koch
I was there when the only known photo of Billy the Kid was auctioned off for $2.3 million. I don't want to overstate this, but it actually felt like the oxygen was being sucked out of the room.
Several weeks before the auction, my friend, Brian Lebel, brought the tintype out to the True West World Headquarters and I actually got to hold it in my hands. I had gloves on to protect it, of course, but the experience was quite surreal. First off, to think that the Kid held this in his hands was off the chart crazy. And, even though the piece of tin is no larger than a credit card, and is dark and covered with "noise" (the surface is thick with aging marks and debris, including strand marks from the sweater he wears in the photo!), there was a hypnotizing effect just staring at it, as if you could see deeper into the image. I felt the Kid's presence, and I'm not that kind of guy, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.
For years the photo was considered lost, but then in 1986, descendents of one of Billy Bonney's pards, Dan Dedrick, donated their tintype to the Lincoln County Heritage Trust in Lincoln, New Mexico. When the trust ended, the photograph went back to the Dedrick family and they ultimately contacted Brian Lebel, who put it up for aucton at the Brian Lebel's 22nd Annual Old West Show & Auction in Denver. This was in June of 2011. Brian told me he thought it might fetch $400,000 and, so, we asked on a True West cover, "Would you pay $500,000 for this Little Piece of Tin?" Boy Howdy. Turns out we were both wildly off.
The bidding, at the Denver Merchandise Mart, started with five bidders and within two minutes, the bids shot past the one million mark. The air seemed to be crackling with electricity. At the $1.5 million mark several bidders dropped off, and then with a calm determination, Bill Koch bid $2 million and all the competition dropped away (Koch confided to a friend of mine before the auction, "I'm not leaving this building without that photo.")
"When the bidding ended, the whole room erupted in clapping and people leapt to their feet," said Melissa McCracken, wife of Brian Lebel. "I've never experienced anything like this before."
A $300,000 "buyer's premium" was tacked on to the winning bid, bringing the total selling price to $2.3 million.
Koch is one of the sons of Fred C. Koch, founder of the Wichita based energy conglomerate Koch Industries, one of the largest private companies in the U.S. Bill has a twin, David and another brother, Charles, who are prominent conservative activists.
Ever since this auction we have been besieged with one new Billy wannabe photo after another. It's not an exaggeration to say a new one pops up every week. Everyone smells that multi-million dollar payday. So far, none of them have passed the provenance test.
"The owner of the photograph believes he is living every collector's wildest fantasy and lots of folks are rooting for him. He believes in the photograph and has enlisted some persuasive allies in his quest to prove its authenticity. I fear, however, that he is simply 'tilting at windmills.' The whole quixotic episode proves yet again the eternal, worldwide fascination with America's favorite bad boy. Billy would love it—but even he might say 'buyer beware.'"
—The Top Secret Writer