The Bandit and the Robber Baron: Koch Brother Buys Historic Billy the Kid Photo for $2.3 Million

The Bandit and the Robber Baron: Koch Brother Buys Historic Billy the Kid Photo for $2.3 Million
He may have shot nine people, excelled at horse thievery,and escaped prison by worming his way up the jailhouse chimney, but legendaryoutlaw Billy the Kid was, at least in one way, just like you and me. Strollingpast a photographer in Fort Sumner, New Mexico — surely the Wild West equivalent of aphoto booth — the outlaw couldn't resist paying 25 cents to get hispicture taken. Unlike our high school photo booth images, however, Billy's appreciated, rather then disintegrated, over time: On Saturday, the storied image was purchased at a Denver auctionby businessman and collector William Koch for $2.3 million.

The 130-year-old tintype soared past its $400,000 estimateand broke $1 million within the first two minutes of bidding. "When the biddingended, the whole room erupted in clapping and people leapt to their feet,"Melissa McCracken, a spokeswoman for the auction, told CNN. Before he died,Billy gave the picture to his friend Dan Dedrick, and it stayed in the familyuntil his descendants put it up for sale this year at Brian Lebel's annual Old West trade show and auction, a weekend expo. Other than a brief stintat a Lincoln Museum in the 1980s, the image has never been on public view. 

The tintype — an early kind of photography that uses metalplates to create reverse images — pictures the outlaw at 19 or 20, just a coupleyears before his death at the hands of the Fort Sumner sheriff. The reversenature of the tintype led to the misconception that Billy was left-handed;this, in turn, inspired the 1958 film "The Left Handed Gun," starring PaulNewman as Billy.

 

In stark contrast to the suave, perfectly proportioned,resplendent Paul Newman, however, this tintype pictures a gawky, thin young boywith prominent front teeth, a black hat, and rumpled clothes. The Winchestercarbine rifle in his right hand and Colt revolver in his left are the onlyindications of his criminal lifestyle. Otherwise, his look is much more weirdkid from middle school than legendary sharpshooter.

The picture reportedly drew five bidders before landing inthe hands of Koch. One of the lesser-known members of the billionaire, conservativeactivist Koch family, William runs the company Oxbow Cotton. This isn't hisfirst foray into collecting historical American memorabilia: in 2007, he madeheadlines after suing Christie's for selling him wine he believedto be counterfeit. (The auction house had said the bottles once belonged toThomas Jefferson.) According to a New Yorker profile, Koch also has his very own "cowboy room," filled with Charles Marion Russell paintings, antique cowboy hats, andan impressive collection of historic guns, including those that once belongedto Jesse James, Sitting Bull, and General Custer. Billy should fit right in.