‘Wild Bill’ Hickok’s pistol fails to sell at San Francisco auction
By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO — The revolver carried by Old West lawman James “Wild Bill” Hickok on the day he was shot down at a Deadwood saloon failed to sell at an auction in San Francisco on Monday, with bidders failing to meet the steep reserve set by the gun’s owners.
Bonhams Auctioneers started the bidding for the Smith & Wesson No. 2 revolver at $150,000, but potential buyers were only willing to pay $220,000, less than what the consigners would sell it for, Bonhams arms and armor specialist James Ferrell said.
The reserve price is private, but it is typically set between 20 and 30 percent less than the minimum of the item’s estimated value, Ferrell said. Hickok’s revolver was valued between $300,000 and $500,000.
“It was a fairly bold estimate,” Ferrell said. “But it’s an auction. There’s no way to state a reason why it didn’t sell.”
According to Bonhams’ rules, the gun’s owners could take the pistol back, list it in an upcoming sale or accept bids submitted in the days following the auction.
Typically, the auctioneers will receive bids for high-interest unsold items for about a week after the auction, Ferrell said.
Moments after Monday’s sale ended, potential bidders were already calling about the gun, Ferrell said.
The pistol, a piece of Wild West history, went on display for public viewing on Friday. The item has attracted special attention compared to the other 500 items listed in the sale, Ferrell said.
“Wild Bill Hickok is as big an icon of the Old West as there is,” he said. “Anything in our field that’s associated with somebody who’s famous gives a whole new value to the item.”
Also contributing to the gun’s value is the fact that Hickok left behind very few belongings when he died in 1876, Ferrell said.
Hickok, a lawman known for his shooting and gambling skills, was playing a game of poker at the Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood, when he was shot from behind by Jack “Crooked Nose” McCall. McCall reportedly shouted “D-- you! Take that!” after pulling the trigger.
A fictionalized Hickok was a central character in the former Emmy-winning TV Western series “Deadwood” from HBO, and his death was featured in the show.
Notarized letters that will be included in the revolver purchase say that a Deadwood sheriff took possession of Hickok’s belongings after he was slain and shortly after gave it to the Willoth family to settle a tab Hickok ran up at the family’s stationery and tobacco store.
A member of that family gave the piece to Leo Zymetzke and his family, the current owners, in 1972 for unknown reasons.
The 6-inch-barrel pistol, with blued finish steel and rosewood grips, is considered to be in very good condition despite cracks and slight bulges in front of its breech.