Published: June 29, 2021
Review by Greg Smith, Photos Courtesy Heritage Auctions
DALLAS – The Michael Ward collection of Western Americana and Political works was offered at Heritage Auctions on June 19 and culminated with $864,062 in total sales.
Firearms crowded the leader board and produced much of the sale total, included among the finest collection of “Custer Colts” in private hands.
Ward was a collector of all-things General Armstrong Custer, the same general who met his end at the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, romanticized in textbooks as Custer’s Last Stand and reconsidered by modern historians as an avoidable military blunder. A Montana native, Ward grew up within reach of the battlefield and made visits to it. He served in the US Air Force for six years beginning in 1960, receiving an honorable discharge at the rank of staff sergeant six years later. Ward would later become a partner in Ramco-Gershenson, a publicly traded real estate investment trust. The company’s success afforded him the opportunity to pursue other avenues of interest, including Custer artifacts and relics from the American Indian Wars, Western and American Indian art, and militaria from the post-Civil War era.
Ward died in June of 2020.
“He liked Custer, liked the West,” said sale director Curtis Lindner. “If you looked at him, he looks like a rancher. As our auctioneer said before the sale got underway, he was a ‘man’s man.'”
Lindner said Ward was a sophisticated collector who was a strong buyer, regularly pursuing items to their end at auction and private sales.
“He had some of the finest examples of Custer Colts that Heritage has ever handled,” Lindner said. “Jason Watson, our firearms specialist, was very impressed with the collection. He’s seen a lot of guns. For him to say these are very impressive, that speaks to the quality of the material.”
Among the artifacts was a $40,000 result for a National Arms Co derringer that was once owned by Custer. The single-shooter had a scroll-engraved barrel and frame. It had descended in the Custer family from the general’s wife, Elizabeth, to George A. Custer II in 1923, and then to George’s son, Lt Colonel Marvin Brice Custer, who was the General’s great-great-grand-nephew by relation.
The sale’s top price of $47,500 was paid for a 7th Cavalry US Colt Single Action Army Revolver that was authenticated by John Kopec, author and scholar of Colt cavalry and artillery revolvers.
Lindner said, “Having a Kopec letter on a firearm is key to helping identify these as having been used at Little Bighorn or other seminal events in our country’s history. In the firearms world, if you say Kopec’s name, people turn their heads.”
The firearm also appeared with a dated 2001 letter from Dr Kenneth Leonard, who bought the revolver from a family living in Little Eagle, S.D., on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. As a practicing doctor in the 1950s-60s, Leonard would visit Native American reservations to perform medicine on his patients. At the same time he began to collect “Indian-used weapons and firearms,” a novelty collecting area at the time that had little market behind it. His entry into these homes afforded him collecting opportunities that no others had. He wrote, “I personally saw the revolver taken from a trunk of valuables. [The family] acknowledged that the gun was taken at the Battle of Little Bighorn by one of their ancestors.”
That provenance was a key factor in driving value. “With anything, a gun or any artifact, provenance is very important,” Lindner said. “You’re buying the piece itself but you’re also buying the supporting documentation”
According to Kopec, Custer’s 7th Cavalry troops were issued Colt Single-Action Army Revolvers in 1874 from the Ordnance in what is called “Lot Five,” featuring those revolvers with serial numbers between 4500 and 5504. The revolvers were not issued in consecutive numerical order, but recovered revolvers from the battle site as well as those in various registries indicate that those that fall within this range were used by the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Three bidders shelled out $18,750 each for three US Colt .45 caliber Single Action Army Revolvers with four-digit serial numbers placing them in the range of Custer’s 7th Cavalry troops and among those possibly used at Little Bighorn. They had been manufactured in 1874 and were also accompanied by letters from Kopec.
Ward had seven others, all with serial numbers in the correct range, that sold between $17,500 and $3,500.
Years after the war in 1893, the Ordnance Department issued a recall for the revolvers, appealing to any survivors or Native Americans that had captured any of the weapons. In doing so, they created a registry of those returned with indexed serial numbers. They also shortened the barrels before reissuing them, providing a point in time when many were altered. With the exception of one in Ward’s collection, most all of the barrels remained original, lending the thought that these were never turned into the Ordnance and had been scavenged from the field by Native Americans or others on the frontier.
An 1873 US Springfield .45 caliber trapdoor carbine with serial #38961 was believed to be an unrecovered Indian capture example from the Battle of Little Bighorn. It had a 22-inch barrel with a blued finish and a walnut straight stock with decorative silver inlays. The carbine brought $21,875. A Sharps New Model 1863 Saddle Ring Carbine was accompanied by two letters that stated it was used by a Native American named Tall Bull at the Battle of Little Bighorn. A dated 1960 letter from JM Davis said he had purchased it from descendants of Tall Bull, the One Bear family in the Rosebud Creek area.
Photographs and ephemera surrounding Custer were present as well. At $6,562 was a CDV of the general taken at Matthew Brady’s Washington DC Studio, listed as K-21 in Custer in Photographs, accompanied by a handwritten note and signature that reads “Headquarters 2nd Brig 3rd Div, Oct 27 1863, Approved and respectfully forwarded G.A. Custer, Brig Genl. Comdg 2nd Brig.” Another CDV, signed to the back and featuring Custer, was likely taken by Brady in his Washington DC studio and is listed in the same book as K-77. It sold for $5,625. Custer made a check out for $15 to a Thomas Polk & Co on February 15, 1873, and that was included with a John Golden CDV that sold for $4,000. Other CDVs and cabinet cards featuring Custer sold anywhere from $3,250 to $1,375. A tintype produced from a CDV brought $1,500.
Relics from the Battle of Little Bighorn included a spoon found at Sitting Bull’s camp bearing a thunderbird. The auction house noted that three warrior artists who used the thunderbird as a name glyph were known to have been with Sitting Bull at Little Bighorn, including No Two Horns, Swift Dog and Red Horse. The spoon sold for $5,750. Other items recovered from the battlefield were found in a lot, including a 7th Cavalry hat or collar insignia, a small piece of fabric likely from a uniform, and a large iron trade arrow point recovered from Reno’s retreat route. The group sold for $5,250.
Of note was a singular shell casing believed to be from Custer’s Remington .50-.70 caliber “rolling block” sporting rifle originally found under five inches of dirt in the hospital area of the Reno-Benteen defense site. The original excavator, Keith McDougal Jr, said he found it at a known Indian position, which invites theories as to whether the rifle was scavenged and taken by the Native Americans in battle. He wrote, “I personally have seen more than 2,000 shells found at the Custer Battle in the last 15 years and no other shell casings of different calibers have been found which were made of brass. All other shell casings were made of copper. It is my personal opinion this shell casing was owned by General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn.” Custer was known to have used brass shell casings for his rifle. The casing was previously in the collection of the late Custer author John Carroll and was one of the prized pieces in his collection.
Heritage’s next Americana & Political sale featuring the Mahoney Collection of George Washington inaugural buttons will take place September 25-26. All prices reported include buyer’s premium. For more information, www.ha.com.
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