Picturing Billy the Kid
Some insight from Brian Lebel's Old West Show & Auction about the sale of that famous tintype of the Wild West icon.
The Famous Upham tintype of Billy the Kid, c. 1879/80
Courtesy Brian Lebel's Old West Show & Auction
The most famous — and expensive — photograph ever auctioned, it’s called “The Holy Grail of Western Collectibles.” C&I talks to Brian Lebel’s Old West Show & Auction about the Billy the Kid tintype.
Cowboys & Indians: What can you tell us about the record-setting Billy the Kid image? Any insights into the provenance?
Melissa McCracken, Brian Lebel’s Old West Show & Auction: The Billy the Kid tintype spent approximately 130 years in the care of one family, being passed down through generations by gifts and inheritance. The photo was taken in 1879 or 1880 in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, probably by a traveling photographer. The nature of tintype photography at the time resulted in the production of four separate images on a single metal plate; meaning there was, at one time, four of these photos of Billy. This particular copy was given by Billy to one of his traveling buddies, Dan Dedrick, and it was through the Dedrick family (and their heirs, the Uphams), that the photo was saved. Dedrick told his nephew, Frank Upham, that he was present at the time the photo was taken.
The photo was lent to the Lincoln County (New Mexico) Heritage Trust in the 1980s for a few years and was displayed in the County’s History Museum. It is during this time that it was made available for scholars, historians, and experts to study. There may be no more closely scrutinized photograph in American history, leaving no doubt as to its authenticity. With the exception of these years, it had never left the care of the family and remained with them until they decided to sell it at auction.
Of the remaining three original tintypes that were taken that day in Fort Sumner, one is known to have burned in a fire; the other two have never been positively accounted for. Scholars and collectors mostly all seem to agree that they are lost forever, making the photo that sold at auction the only authenticated photo of The Kid in existence.
The image was expected to fetch between $300,000 and $400,000 but instead broke records at a staggering $2.3 million.
'Probably the most important element in the photo’s popularity and value is the fact that it is the one and only photo in existence of one of America’s most notorious historical figures.'
C&I: What's the story behind the crazy bidding that went on?
McCracken: It is necessary to estimate the sales price of auction items prior to a sale, and these estimates are usually arrived at through “comps” (prices realized for comparable items). The thing about The Kid’s tintype is that there was absolutely nothing that could be considered a comp. How do you put a price on what people refer to as “The Holy Grail of Western Collectibles”?
The bidding was very exciting. Though our auction offers both phone and Internet bidding, all of the bidding on the tintype was done in person on the sales floor. The auctioneer began by trying to open the bidding at 1 million dollars but had to drop down to $350,000 before getting his opening bid. And with that, it was off and running. Five bidders battled up to $1.2 million, and then two bidders remained through the final stretch until the hammer fell at $2 million, at which point the audience jumped to their feet and burst into applause. From the opening bid to the fall of the hammer took only two minutes. The final sales price of $2.3 million (includes the premium) is an auction record for a historic photograph, and an overall record for a single piece at our Old West Auction. A number of videos of the sale of the tintype can be seen on our YouTube page and elsewhere online.
C&I: What can you tell us about the specs of the photo?
McCracken: Regarding the material, the photograph is a tintype (aka ferrotype), an early photographic process that, by spreading certain chemical emulsions onto a thin sheet of iron metal, produced an image taken from a box camera. There is actually no “tin” in a tintype. Billy the Kid’s tintype measures 3” tall by 2” wide, making it approximately the size of a modern-day credit card.
As regards the condition: Like seemingly everything having to do with The Kid, the condition of the tintype is itself an interesting story. For many years — up until the recent auction of the photo — it was rumored that the image had been ruined from exposure to bright light and improper handling. This was, of course, not true. Though the image had definitely darkened over the course of 130 years, it was still clear, sharp, and obviously Billy. I would call its “official” condition “fair.”
C&I: What do you think makes that particular image so compelling (and now valuable)?
McCracken: I think there are a number of reasons why the image is so compelling. It is probably the single most recognizable image of the American West; just about everyone can identify it. Also, Billy the Kid is the quintessential Old West outlaw, having been immortalized in any and every popular medium from the dime novels of his day to modern-day Hollywood, and everything in between. I think it helps that this photo of Billy really captures the Old West — with his Winchester rifle by his side, his Colt revolver on his hip, his boots and scarf and gambler’s pinky ring — making it far more interesting than a portrait photo in a studio could ever have been. I wonder though, is the photo compelling because its subject is, or is the subject compelling because we’ve had this photo of him grinning at us for the past century? Probably the most important element in the photo’s popularity and value is the fact that it is the one and only photo in existence of one of America’s most notorious historical figures.
Find more on Billy the Kid in our June "Best of the West" issue, on newsstands April 17.