History Features

The Holy Grail for Sale

The Billy the Kid tintype is on the auction block, and it might just clear half a million.

billy-the-kid

The Billy the Kid tintype is on the auction block, and it might just clear half a million.

Back in December 1880, New Mexico Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace put a $500 bounty on the head of Billy the Kid.

That was a pretty penny back then, translating to more than $11,000 in today’s money.

But take that 500 and add three zeroes, and you might have the price tag of the only authenticated photo of the Kid. That’s big bucks, in any time period, all for a cheap, two-by-three-inch piece of iron. With a 132-year-old picture. With damage and wear. And a weird ruffle effect that obscures some of Billy’s body below the waist.

Billy’s gotta be laughing—or crying— that he can’t get his hands on the dough.

Just like the outlaw’s life, a lot of mystery surrounds the tintype. But what we do know is that it was taken in 1879 or 1880. At least four images were made (see p. 28). The Kid gave this one to his rustler buddy Dan Dedrick.

Dedrick, in turn, passed it on to his nephew Frank Upham in 1930. Frank tried to sell it in 1937, but he didn’t get the price he wanted (we don’t know the figure he requested). He eventually gave the plate to his sister-in-law Elizabeth as a wedding present in 1949 (man, where do I get on a registry for a heirloom like that?).

Elizabeth’s sons Art and Stephen ended up with the photo. In 1986, the family loaned it to the Lincoln County Heritage Trust in New Mexico, where the tintype was occasionally shown to visitors (a panel of 18 experts even examined an enlargement of the tintype in 1989, sharing what facts they could discern from the image). The Uphams took back the tintype in 1998.

In 2010, the Upham brothers
began talking to auctioneer Brian Lebel about selling it. Lebel will indeed be putting this rare and famous tintype on the block this June 25 at his Old West Show & Auction in Denver, Colorado.

That’s what we verifiably know about the history of the tintype. We don’t know even more. For example…

 

When and where was it taken?

Dan Dedrick told Frank Upham that Billy had the photo taken outside Beaver Smith’s Saloon in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, in 1879 or 1880. (Paulita Maxwell also stated this when she talked to author Walter Noble Burns in the 1920s.) Some experts think a traveling photographer took the shot outside the saloon, while others think the lack of shadow indicates it was taken inside.

 

Why was it taken?

Not clear. Maybe the Kid wanted to give keepsakes to his girlfriends. Or his pal Dedrick talked him into it, since Dan may have just had his picture taken by the same guy (that tintype will be sold in the same lot). Frank Upham said that Dedrick told him as much. Yet the backdrops of the Billy and the Dan photos are different, leading some to think that this explanation is off-base.

 

What happened to the other three tintypes?

Here’s where we turn to Old West collector and True West Publisher Emeritus Robert G. McCubbin. He says one went to Deluvina, an Indian friend of Billy’s who worked as a servant for the Maxwell family in Fort Sumner. That one was reportedly lost in a fire in the 1930s.

McCubbin believes a second one went to Paulita Maxwell, one of the Kid’s girlfriends. Billy was gunned down in her brother Pete’s bedroom in 1881. Just what happened to this tintype is not known.

The final copy, McCubbin tells us, may have been given to Celsa Gutierez, another of the Kid’s friends (not a girlfriend). Billy was staying with Celsa and her husband when Sheriff Pat Garrett shot the Kid. Celsa was Garrett’s former sister-in-law. She reportedly gave the sheriff her copy, which he sent to a Chicago publishing house for inclusion in his book The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. Apparently, somebody there thought the photo was worthless (yikes!) and tossed it.

 

How did it get damaged?

Most of the damage was normal wear and tear, caused by rough handling over 130-plus years. Some Billy experts believe the ruffle effect probably came from the Kid touching the still-wet photo to the sweater he wore when the picture was taken. Maybe he wiped the tintype off, or he put it in a pocket?

Even beyond the tintype’s cryptic history, this story gets stranger.

Most folks generally concede that the Lincoln County Heritage Trust did not do a good job of preserving the Billy the Kid tintype while it was on loan in its collection. The Billy photo, for sure, was shown under bright lights that, over time, may have caused the varnish to spread over the image.

Somewhere around 1998, rumors began circulating in Kid circles that the famous tintype had been ruined by an overzealous person loosely affiliated with the Trust. He allegedly tried to remove the noise (the markings on the surface of the photograph) in order to see the image of the Kid better. But the rumor is clearly unfounded, because, although dark, the photo still shows the Kid in all his glory.

The Uphams deny the tintype went black, and they repeat it was returned to them under mutual agreement. They say they have done nothing to restore the photo since it came back to them nearly 13 years ago. Photo experts say one cannot bring back a tintype image once it has gone black, yet take a look...

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