Issue #182  8/5/2011
Billy The Kid Tintype Sells to William Koch For $2.3 Million At Western Auction Making It The Most Expensive 19th-Century Photo

By Alex Novak

After just getting used to the fact that we had a new world auction record for a 19th-century photograph (the Gustave Le Gray mentioned in the above article), along comes Billy the Kid, who shoots that record to bits just a week later. And oil is a part of the story again. It is also the highest selling price on a piece of Western Americana that has been reported, according to the auctioneer.

The so-called "Upham tintype" of Billy the Kid sold at Brian Lebel's Old West Auction, netting $2.3 million, including the reasonable 15% buyer's premium. Some earlier news accounts had inaccurately reported that the piece had hammered at $2.3 million and sold for $2.6 million with premium, but it had "only" hammered to $2 million. It had been estimated at $300,000-400,000.

The winning bidder was 71-year-old Florida billionaire and collector, William Koch, whose brothers, fellow billionaires Charles and David Koch, are politically active in conservative circles, funding various rightwing Republican candidates and anti-union campaigns. Their family made its fortune in the oil and gas business. However, William Koch, who reportedly has had some differences with his brothers, is better known for winning the America's Cup in 1992, sailing's top honor. Koch is also known for his extensive art and wine collections.

The underbidder was also an oil man from south New Mexico, who wanted to keep the tintype in the state where it originally was made (Fort Sumner, NM). It took 2-1/2 minutes from the opening bid to the fall of the hammer for the tintype to sell, with five bidders involved to $1.2 million and two bidders through the final stretch, all of whom were present on the floor. The fact that they all wanted to be there for the auction is truly an unusual circumstance.

The tintype is the only authenticated photo of Billy the Kid in existence today, and the object came down through one family and had never before been offered for public sale.

While on loan to the Lincoln County Museum in New Mexico, which was the only time it has ever been available for public viewing, rumors circulated that exposure to light had darkened the image beyond recognition. "That's simply not true," Old West Auction founder, Brian Lebel said. "We've all seen this image of Billy countless times, but when you hold the actual, three-dimensional tintype in your hands, it's a whole different experience." Other purported photographs of Billy the Kid (aka William Bonney and William Henry McCarty) have been reported, but none have ever been fully authenticated. "This is it," said Lebel, "the only one."

Several collectors and dealers, including Andrew Smith and Scott Hale attended the auction. As Scott Hale told me, "I held it. It was spectacular. Nowhere near as dark or unstable as some reported. The provenance is the authentication, coming from a gift from Billy's compatriot to the owner's family. Several pieces of family materials (including an equally fantastic tintype of friend Dan Dedrick, who was the original source of the Billy the Kid photo) were included in the same lot."

Hale went on to say: "Several photo dealers at the accompanying dealer show had great sales, and other photo lots in the sale were mild to strong as a result of casual buyers who had come only to see Billy and suddenly developed an interest in antique photographs. Compared to a $2.3 million tintype, a $200 albumen cabinet card looked like a steal. Though this may prove to be event/venue specific, I'd like to think that it will trickle over to other historic dealers and sales. Big color is cool, but small silver is precious. Regardless, the old adage remains true: quality will always have collectors."

Santa Fe photo gallerist Smith told me he tried to put his hand up to be able to say that he bid on it, "but they started at $550,000, and the price went up too fast!"

Hans Rooseboom, photo curator for the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam, said in our discussion on LinkedIn: "For whatever reason photographs are being bought, it is always interesting to see a technique that has been held in such low esteem for such a long time (see what Helmut Gernsheim wrote on tintypes in his history) get such high prices. That does say something on the photography market.

"On the other hand, I think what this auction result indicates is that with tintypes it is still the subject that influences the selling prices the most. Civil War pieces are relatively expensive as well. Had this portrait been a daguerreotype or a salt print, it would certainly have been offered and sold much earlier or --if the owners did not want to part with it--at least been valued much higher in photo history circles. The fact that a tintype has now been sold for such an enormous price is significant. It will help to get this intriguing technique more recognition, and it may push prices asked for mainstream tintypes, so the consequences will be both favorable and unfavorable."