Published: August 9, 2022
Review by Marty Steiner, Photos Courtesy Holabird Western Americana
RENO, NEV. – Back when you could just drop your kids off on Saturday morning, they went to their Wild West matinee at the local movie theater. Perhaps it’s some of those same kids, now with gray hair and on Social Security, who are bidding and buying at auctions of Wild West memorabilia and artifacts.
The old local movie theater has now become the Internet and instead of actors and stage props, the main feature is actually taking place live at Holabird Western Americana Collections in Reno. The items being sold are the real thing, not stage props, however. With nearly 2,500 lots, this matinee takes four days to complete.
Holabird introduces itself as, “hoping to bring back the fun of collecting for many Americana collectors by addressing the larger auction houses minimum or starting bids of $500 to $2,000. This leaves a huge percentage of collectors out. We will offer rare and vintage items generally priced below $500.”
With this large of an offering spread over four days, the items were grouped into collecting specialties. The first day offered a total of 612 lots of postcards, postal history, express company items along with mining and railway stocks and bonds. The next day saw 627 lots of transportation material including railroad, stagecoach and steamers and general Americana. The third day featured 624 lots of firearms, militaria, numismatics with currency, scrip, coins, medals and area trade tokens. The last day offered 584 lots of cowboys, Native American, bottles, saloon, tobacciana and gaming items
Many items in the sale from Gary Bracken, whose collection is being sold in installments – this sale being the first. The Ponca City, Okla., attorney collected seriously in more than 60 different categories. Fred Holabird commented about Bracken and his collection, “I mostly knew him as a coin and token collector. What a surprise when I spent over a week sorting through tens of thousands of items over so many categories. He started collecting as a kid with stamps and coins. That passion for collecting just grew over the years.”
Additional material in this sale came from the private museum of James E. Sherman in Tucson, Ariz. Like Bracken the collection encompasses several different specialties.
Cowboy and Western movies all started in 1903 with The Great Train Robbery. That film set the action pattern of outlaw gangs and gunslingers. An early wood Railway Express strong box, complete with heavy chain and lock, wasn’t being thrown down to the outlaws as it was in the movies but sold to a bidder for $1,170. Stagecoach versions also were thrown down at successful bidders’ feet. All in all, five strong boxes changed hands during this two-day live and online auction with prices ranging upward from $585 for a cast iron bullion chest with original painted Railway Express label.
Usually, the outlaws would then shoot the lock off the strongbox. This Holabird auction allowed buying an original strongbox lock with key for $488. What a steal, and this allowed that bidder to go after other treasures!
A wide assortment of memorabilia from those railroads, stagecoach and express companies along with river steamers was offered and sold in this sale. Among these were 83 annual pass cards from the many railroads that eventually became the larger, more familiar railroads. Prices ranged from $33 to $3,900 for a Colorado Central Railroad pass that was mounted in a paperweight holder.
Other railroad lots included nine marked lanterns with intact glass globes from $260 to $2,730 for a F&CC (Florence & Cripple Creek) railroad with marked glass globe. Another 21 lots of various railroad material also were sold.
Some of the Old Western movie outlaw gangs quit chasing the stagecoaches and trains to rob them of the gold and silver in those strong boxes. They went straight to the source, the mines themselves. Today’s version finds bidders chasing those mines by bidding on their stock certificates and other ephemera.
The really bold outlaws later moved to robbing new targets, including mining town banks and post offices. A terrified postmaster or bank teller would slide a money filled bag through the window to the robber/gunslinger. This auction offered eight lots of original post office cabinetry to construct your very own Old West post office for reenactments, or to sort and display a postal history collection. Two quartersawn oak post office frontis-panels with barred windows brought $1,300.
Postal history is a collecting category with its own following. It may include special cancellations, postmarks, cachets or simply be a business envelope with interesting imagery and business address. Postal history made up 288 lots listed by location or mail provider. Prime examples included an archival album with 74 Denver covers at $1,105 ($1/1,500), a Leavenworth City & Pikes Peak Express envelope $1,690 ($3/5,000) and a Central Overland California Express cover for $1,040 ($500/750). Eight lots of antique post office cabinetry were offered, perhaps to aid in sorting, storing and exhibiting postal history collections.
Other memorable Western movie scenes were the shootouts in the saloon with bar-back bottles being shattered by gunfire. Hopefully none of those were Endlich & Good squat beer bottles because one of those, intact of course, sold for $7,110. Not far behind at $5,850 were a green R.A. Montag soda and a Wolf & Schaylor Wines & Liquors clear glass quart at $5,720. These were just a few of the 184 lots of bottles offered.
But for all the action fantasies that many of these auction lots might trigger, the top dollars went to six lots of encased postage stamps. So seldom seen at auction, a little refresher history may be in order. Every national trauma seems to cause hoarding. Much like the recent Covid-19 toilet paper and coinage shortages, the distrust of paper money as the Civil War began led to hoarding coins. Postage stamps became the substitute but were not very durable on their own. J. Gault invented and patented a packaging method to encase postage stamps to allow them to be used as a substitute for coins.
The current value of an encased stamp is based largely on the scarcity of the stamp denomination found in encased form. With only two or three examples known, the 12¢ George Washington topped the catalog estimate of $5/10,000 selling for $20,800. This was the top lot of this sale. All in all, six lots of this scarce and esoteric collecting specialty crossed the block with the 10¢ George Washington encased with simple Patented by J. Gault on the reverse being the bargain at $553 ($300/500).
For the numismatist, more than 30 lots of paper fractional notes and currency, a dozen scrips, nearly 200 lots of coinage, followed by more than 250 lots of Western tokens, including many from the collection of Gary Bracken. Examples of tokens that brought strong bids include a Pioneer Saloon in Vulcan, Colo., for $2,600; Temple Saloon in Bodie, Calif., for $2,470; Keg Saloon in Tombstone, Ariz., Territory for $1,950; and, at $1,365, the Club saloon in Divide, Colo. Makes one thirsty.
While so much of the material that was sold in this sale reflected the Old West, more recent Western items included groups of postcards, especially older real photo postcards (RPPC). A few interesting postcards among the 173 lots on offer included a group of 42 World War II anti-Hitler cards for $221, 37 early RPPC horse and buggies for $98 and three RPPC horse-drawn fire engines for $85. Other postcards were grouped by the location pictured and were generally sold for moderate prices.
Much of all this action originally took place in what was then Indian Territory. A small group of photographs, cabinet cards and other Native American material was followed by Wild West show items. Pawnee Bill and Buffalo Bill were eclipsed by an Annie Oakley autographed cabinet card at $1,755. This card was from Bracken’s collection.
Successful collecting of any sort requires passion, knowledge and financial commitment. The vast population of collectors are not those who can afford high-priced items, so auctions like those at Holabird are a breath of fresh air.
Prices quoted include the buyer’s premium as reported by the auction house.
Holabird’s next Western Americana auction is scheduled for August 25-28 and will include the second installment of the Bracken collection. For information, 775-851-1859 or www.holabirdamericana.com.
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