The famous “Upham tintype” of Billy the Kid sold on Saturday, June 25, 2011 at Brian Lebel’s Old West Auction, bringing $2.3 million including the premium. This is a record price paid at auction for an historical photograph, and is a record for any single item at Lebel’s event, now in its 22nd year. Total sales equaled $3.6 million for 444 lots, a total sales record for the auction house. An impressive 94% sales rate was realized overall.
It took 2 1/2 minutes from the opening bid to the fall of the hammer for Billy’s tintype to sell, with 5 bidders involved to 1.2 million and 2 bidders through the final stretch, all of whom were present on the floor. The winning bidder was Florida billionaire and collector, William Koch, who graciously granted interviews, posed for photos and even signed autographs after the sale.
The one-and-only authenticated photograph of Billy the Kid - the famous Upham tintype - will be offered to the public for the first time ever at Brian Lebel’s Old West Auction this June.
130 years ago, legendary outlaw Billy the Kid had his “picture made” in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, posing for what is now considered the most recognizable photo of the American West. A single, original tintype is the only authenticated photo of the Kid in existence today. Descended through one family, and never before offered for public sale, it will be sold at auction on June 25, 2011 at Brian Lebel’s 22nd Annual Old West Show & Auction, to be held at the Denver Merchandise Mart in Denver, CO. A famous, historical item with impeccable provenance, the tintype is estimated to bring between $300,000 and $400,000.
Nearly as legendary as the kid himself, the photo has been studied, copied, scrutinized, portrayed in films, re-imagined, and immortalized. Once thought to prove Billy was “The Left Handed Gun,” it later proved he was not. While on loan to the Lincoln County Museum in New Mexico (the only time it has ever been available for public viewing), rumors emerged that exposure had darkened the image beyond recognition. “That’s simply not true,” says Old West Auction founder, Brian Lebel. “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 surfaced over the years, but none have ever been authenticated. “This is it,” says Lebel. “The only one.”
by Bob McCubbin, noted historian and collector
Forty years ago when I first began collecting historic photographs of the Old West, finding the original Billy the Kid tintype was my dream, as it was all of my fellow collectors. At that time the original tintype was not known to still exist. That changed in 1986 when the Upham family in California came forward and donated their original tintype to the Lincoln County (New Mexico) Heritage Trust. But it was still unavailable to collectors. However, the gift had a provision that if the Trust ceased to exist, ownership would revert to the Upham family. That occurred in 1998. The one and only known original tintype of Billy the Kid is now being offered in this auction.
Why is this small photograph so important and valuable? I suggest four main reasons:
The tintype if not a very professional or flattering photo of the Kid. But that is part of its fascination. It shows the Kid as he might have looked if we ran into him out on the trail between Lincoln and Fort Sumner... wearing the clothing he wore on the range, with a screwball hat that he liked, well worn boots, his 1873 Winchester carbine at hand, and his Colt single action in his holster on his right hip (a tintype is a mirror image, making the gun appear to be on his left hip). This is so much better than if the only known authentic photo was a stiff studio photo, wearing an uncomfortable borrowed suit, with hair neatly combed, holding a hat in his lap.
Paulita (Maxwell) Jaramillo, almost certainly a sweetheart of Billy the Kid when she was young, told writer Walter Noble Burns in 1924 the photograph was taken by a traveling photographer who came through Fort Sumner in 1880. “Billy posed for it standing in the street near old Beaver Smith’s saloon,” she said.
Photography experts say there were four photos made simultaneously using a multilense camera. Paulita related that the Kid gave one of the tintypes to Deluvina, a Navajo servant of the Maxwell family, but it was eventually destroyed in a house fire.
One of the four tintypes, the one being offered here at auction, was given by the Kid to his rustling buddy Dan Dedrick. Dan told his nephew Frank L. Upham, when he gave him the tintype in the early 1930’s, that he was present when the photo was taken.
We can only speculate what happened to the other two tintypes. It seems unlikely to me that they will ever surface.
The first publication of the actual tintype image was in a two volume History of New Mexico in 1907. It was the tintype photo, but the source is unknown. Almost every appearance that followed was derived from that publication, until the Dedrick/Upham tintype surfaced and copies of it became available.
Is it really Billy the Kid? Absolutely! Few photographs have ever been so thoroughly documented:
The first appearance known to me was in the Boston Illustrated Police News, January 8, 1881. At that time THE KID WAS STILL ALIVE! He was in the Santa Fe jail. It was a woodcut, obviously crafted from the tintype image. (It was not until the 1890s that it was possible to directly print photographs in books and magazines.)
Pat Garrett used a steel engraving of the tintype image twice in his book, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, published in Santa Fe in 1882. Charley Siringo used an engraving of the tintype image, with some slight alterations (including changing the hat to a sombrero) in his 1885 book, A Texas Cowboy. Both Garrett and Siringo knew the Kid well. We also have the words of his girlfriend, Paulita Maxwell.
And, we have the Dedrick/Upham tintype. Dan Dedrick not only knew the Kid, the tintype was given to him by the Kid!
To maintain a collection’s integrity, a collector must always be certain of authenticity, provenance, and rightful ownership. This tintype is impeccable on all counts.