Published: July 9, 2019
Review and Onsite Photos by Walt Borton, Additional Photos Courtesy of Brian Lebel’s Old West Auction
SANTA FE, N.M. – Auctions are fun. There’s no two ways about it. Whether it’s Veuve Clicquot in Baccarat crystal at Sotheby’s Old Masters outing in London, Margaritas in plastic cups at the Santa Fe Convention Center or Bud Light out of a can in a Nebraska farmyard, when the auctioneer’s on his game and the bidding’s aggressive, everyone in the crowd turns into a player.
The 30th Annual Cody Old West Auction Saturday night, June 26, had that kind of excitement from the first lot to the 233rd. It seemed not to matter whether the low estimate was $200 or $200,000 for the 300-plus bidders in the room, on the phone and on the internet. Everyone remained seriously competitive throughout the night. It didn’t hurt that auctioneer Troy Black and his team bring the kind of showmanship to the Old West Auction that some major auction houses could use a little more of.
Only 16 of the 233 lots coming to the floor didn’t reach their reserves, yielding an exceptionally high sell-through rate of 93 percent. That’s ample evidence that sellers and the Lebel team know how to keep estimates and reserves where they will assure a sprightly sale and convert consignments to cash.
Auction headlines, of course, always feature the flashiest and most expensive items sold. In the case of the Cody Old West Auction, those include a silver-laden parade saddle and rig by Edward H. Bohlin, which hammered in at $26,550, and a fascinating collection of John Wesley Hardin memorabilia sold at $23,600.
The Bohlin Dick Dickson Jr model sold was one of his most popular parade saddles among movie stars and western horsemen, and this one was made for John R. Dow, a Kansas City businessman and avid horseman mid-Twentieth Century.
The framed Hardin memorabilia immortalizes one of the most blood-soaked of the west’s gunfighters. John Wesley Hardin won shoot-outs with, by his account, 42 men, until he was shot while playing dice in El Paso’s Acme Saloon August 19, 1895. The collection includes an image of Hardin, a gambling chip from the Acme Saloon, a “shooting card” – the nine of hearts – with four bullet holes in it, a business card claiming Hardin to be an attorney and a receipt from the Wigwam Saloon in El Paso for a half gallon of whiskey at $2 and a pint of rye for 30 cents. During my next trip to El Paso, I’m going to find that place.
But what sustains the excitement of any auction is the treasures buried deep in the catalog, which folks in the know recognize and reach for. The 30th annual Old West event offered plenty of those.
This crowd not only wore their hats, they bought them. Roy Rogers’ personal Stetson with a polished nickel hat band sold for more than twice its high estimate at $3,835. Dale Evans’ light brown 7X beaver, made by Stanley, N.M.’s Davis Hats, went just above high estimate at $1,180. Three other hats more than doubled their high estimate; A Nudies Rodeo Tailor well-worn (or movie costume team-aged) Stetson made for John Wayne took $8,260; Tom Mix’s Nutria cream dress hat, $5,015; and Lee Marvin’s Nudie Stetson bid to seven times high estimate at $3,025.
Eleven saddles all sold in their estimated range, but the most popular was a studded Navajo men’s saddle, circa 1900, hammering in at $1,500 above high estimate at $5,310. Belt and buckle performance was not particularly strong, but a beautiful Hopi Kachina turquoise and silver buckle set with tooled belt, estimated $200/300, quickly bid to $590.
Flat art consistently delivered at or near low estimate with surprises, including a small Edward Borein quill sketch of a mounted cowboy surpassing its high estimate of $12,000 to claim $18,880, and a charming Charles Damrow oil on board featuring a saddled horse and adobe house at dusk more than doubled its high estimate selling at $2,242.
Bridles performed solidly, with the standout a spectacular Montana prison horsehair outfit attached to the original iron bit, which drove bidding to $5,900. Every pair of chaps sold above low estimate, ranging from $900 to $1800.
Estimates for the ten Navajo textiles seemed somewhat high, but realistic reserves moved them through the sale at prices ranging from $288-$1,265.
Twenty-six pairs of spurs came to the block, selling at or near high estimate, with the two strongest being a pair of Kevin Peebler gal leg spurs that drove the winning bidder to $2,655, well above twice the high estimate, and a rare pair of Buermann/Bianchi spurs featuring Mexican silver coins, which hammered in at $5,015.
An Arizona Territory US Marshal’s badge last worn by William Kidder Meade in 1897 sold for $3,000 above the $6,000 high estimate at $9,440, and a vintage oak Texas horn hall tree doubled its $2,000 top expectation at $4,425.
Speaking of famed law men, these days, there’s never an auction without controversy. The only withdrawal from the sale was the original, 1887-88 handwritten criminal docket ledger from Colton Township, San Bernardino County, Calif., featuring entries by justice of the peace Nicolas Earp and his son, constable Virgil Earp. When San Bernardino County officials learned that the ledger – found in the county dump – was to be auctioned at a $20/30,000 reserve, they apparently concluded that sending it to the dump was a mistake and now want it back since it’s got the county’s name on it.
When the hammer fell for the last time, just three and a half hours after the first lot came to the podium, 156 lots went to buyers in the hall, the balance to absentee bidders and bidders on the phone and internet. The final sales tally was just shy of $500,000, which is an exceptionally credible number for an auction where a handful lots with low estimates in excess of $100,000, including an Irving Couse oil and a very early man’s quill shirt of Plains origin, remained unsold.
The Cody Old West Auction will return to Santa Fe June 27, 2020, and it looks like the convention center is going to have to send out for more chairs.
Prices given include the buyer’s premium, as stated by the auction house. For information, www.oldwestevents.com or 480-779-9378.
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