Harrisburg, Pa., Begins Auction of Western Memorabilia

The struggling Pennsylvania city is auctioning off items that were acquired for an ill-conceived Wild West museum.
by | July 15, 2013
The pistol given to Wyatt Earp of the Wild West era as a warrant for Jesse James' arrest.
The pistol given to Wyatt Earp of the Wild West era as a warrant for Jesse James' arrest. It was auctioned off for $35,000. Guernsey’s Auction Co.
 

Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania capital that continues to face financial struggles, is finally auctioning off millions of dollars worth of memorabilia that at one point was slated to be included in a city-sponsored museum.

The items for auction -- which include a pistol given to Wyatt Earp, a warrant for Jesse James' arrest, and a knife owned by Wild Bill Hickok -- were purchased with public dollars as part of a plan to create a Wild West museum that would, in theory, have drawn tourists to Harrisburg and revitalized the area's economy at a time when the city was struggling.

As Governing's John Buntin wrote in a 2010 article that outlined Harrisburg's path to fiscal insolvency:

By 2005, (then-Mayor Stephen Reed) had become the capital’s indispensable man, the Richard Daley of Harrisburg. But the arbitrary nature of his reign was put on display when Reed used Harrisburg Authority money to purchase items for a rather exotic economic development initiative: a Wild West museum that would include a replica of Tombstone, Ariz., on the day of the famous shootout at the OK Corral. Unbeknownst to the public, Reed had spent more than $7 million purchasing such items as the gates of the OK Corral and gambler Doc Holliday’s dentist chair for the museum, using funds provided by the Harrisburg Authority.

That plan was ultimately abandoned. The museum never materialized, and the city -- in the midst of a financial crisis -- was stuck with thousands of collectibles like antique advertisements, firearms and maps worth millions of dollars.

This week, New York-based Guernsey’s Auction Co. will auction those 8,000 items, after they spent last week on display to the public for inspection.

The Patriot-News reports that the estimated $2 million in sales the auction is expected to generate will be used to help support the city's financial recovery plan. Together, the city, school district and utilities and parking authorities, have a combined debt of more than $1 billion. In 2011, the city filed for bankruptcy -- a federal judge rejected it -- but Harrisburg is still under tight state supervision.

Still, even with the auction, the city will take a hit on the Wild West endeavor. The newspaper reports that this week's sale, along with the $1.7 million generated by prior auctions in 2007 and 2008, would mean the city ends up with $3.9 million for objects that it spent at least $8 million acquiring. Many have noted that the former mayor had a reputation for overpaying, and the authenticity of some of the objects being auctioned off has been questioned by many, including by the auctioneer who ran the 2007 sale and ultimately returned many of the collectibles.

Bidders who can't make it to Harrisburg this week can view the catalog and make offers via two online services, LiveAuctioneers or proxibid (full disclosure: the author of this article, a native Texan, may be eyeing some items from the Lone Star state.)

The good news for bidders: many of the items are dirt cheap. If $2,000 for a cane Doc Holliday supposedly left in a boarding house seems steep, you can always get a canteen of unknown origin for $20. It might not be clear what role it played -- if any -- in the history of the West. But it's guaranteed to be part of one of the most colorful chapters in the history of Harrisburg

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