The only surviving authenticated portrait of Billy the Kid, the infamous 19th-century Wild West gunslinger outlaw, was sold for $2.3m on Saturday at Brian Lebel’s 22nd Annual Old West Show & Auction in Denver.
William Koch, son of Wichita founder Fred C. Koch and the brother of prominent conservative political donors David and Charles Koch, won with the top bid. Koch lives in Florida and has extensive land holdings in the central mountain state of Colorado. Although he has donated money to Republican causes, he has separated himself from the support his wealthy brothers give to ultra-conservative “Tea Party” movement. He is an energy company executive and well-known collector of art and American West artifacts.
Auctioneer Brian Lebel said the bidding, mainly between William Koch and an unidentified bidder from New Mexico, went on about 10 minutes. Koch’s bid of $2 million won out. A 15 percent “buyer’s premium” was added to the winning bid, making the selling price $2.3 million. Organizers had expected it could fetch between $300,000 and $400,000 at an auction preview.
The two-by-three-inch tintype of a smirking Billy the Kid, dressed in a rumpled sombrero hat and layers of clothes topped with a bulky sweater, was taken outside a Fort Sumner, New Mexico saloon in late 1879 or 1880 with the notorious outlaw resting his right hand on a Winchester carbine and a Colt revolver holstered on his left side.
The tintype was auctioned off along with more than 400 other Western-themed items, including documents from Buffalo Bill’s aborted divorce, Native American antiquities, and a painting from Andy Warhol’s “Cowboys and Indians” series depicting a Navajo woman with a baby on her back.
The gunman, who according to legend shot dead 21 people — one for each year of his life — was himself gunned down by a town sheriff in New Mexico in July 1881.
At least two photographic portraits were taken of Bonney as a school child in Silver City, New Mexico. He also appears in the background of a photograph of a half dozen cowboys at a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico.
Bonney was about 20 when he had his portrait taken at a saloon in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, and received four identical images on a thin metal plate that was eventually cut into quarters. The other three images have been lost.
The remaining image was given by Billy the Kid to his cattle rustling partner rustler, Dan Dedrick, who passed it on to his grand-nephew, Frank Upham, who in turn willed it to his sons, Stephen and Art Upham of California and Arizona.
The Uphams let a museum in Lincoln, New Mexico, display the picture for several years in the 1980s. Since then it has been kept in a nitrogen-filled envelope.
Koch told Reuters after the auction that he plans to allow some small museums to display the piece, and after that he will “just enjoy” the iconic piece.
“I love the old West,” he said. “This is a part of American history.”
Born Henry McCarty (also known as Henry Antrim), but known in New Mexico as William Bonney, the Kid was shot dead at age 21 by lawman Pat Garrett in 1881, months after a jailbreak in which Bonney reportedly killed two deputies. Billy the Kid had grown into a legend because the governor of New Mexico had put a price on his head for killing up to 21 people.
In the 130 years since his death and burial in Fort Summer, New Mexico, Billy the Kid has been depicted, with varying degrees of accuracy, in scores of popular culture movies and books.
Brian Lebel said he was pleased that the photo wasn’t sold to an overseas buyer.
“I’m happy that it will stay in this country and will be shared with the public,” he said.
Tintypes were an early form of photography that used metal plates. They are reverse images, and the Billy the Kid tintype led to the mistaken belief that Billy the Kid was a lefty. The myth inspired the 1958 movie “The Left Handed Gun”, starring Paul Newman as Billy.
Auction spokeswoman Melissa McCracken said the image was the most expensive piece ever sold at the event.
“There’s only one photo of Billy the Kid, and I think that’s why it captivates people’s imagination,” McCracken said before Saturday’s auction.
“It’s recognisable around the world as a classic image of the Old West.”