For Historical Guns, Price Is No Barrier

Times Staff Writer

About three months ago, Greg Martin, a well-known antique-firearms and Americana collector from San Francisco, had his experienced eyes riveted on three rare and exceedingly valuable Wild West guns once belonging to two desperadoes, Billy the Kid and Black Bart, and to stagecoach mogul Ben Holladay.

The problem was that the three famous weapons were in Reno in the Pony Express Museum, once owned by gambling entrepreneur Bill Harrah.

Decided to Sell

The museum, along with Harrah’s other properties, had been acquired by Holiday Inns Inc., when the motel chain took over Harrah’s properties two years after his death in 1978. Holiday Inns had decided to sell the Wild West collection--as it had Harrah’s famous antique-auto collection--but declined to spin off the three firearms separately from the hundreds of other valuable items in the collection.


So Martin did what any dedicated collector with the cash resources would do--he bought the entire museum. Although the precise figure wasn’t disclosed at the time, Gene Evans, a Harrah’s spokesman, told The Times the check Martin wrote was in the $750,000-to-$1-million range.

Now that Martin has yet another piece of Western history, he has consigned the Pony Express Museum to the auction house of Butterfield & Butterfield, which will put the fabulous collection on the block Tuesday in San Francisco.

Included in the collection is what’s believed to be Southern California’s oldest jail, a 134-year-old small, one-room bastille that once served the San Bernardino community. The nine-foot-square jail comes complete with its original riveted sheet steel and wall clamps where four bunks were once hung.

Two stagecoaches also are included: a burgundy-and-gold Wells Fargo U.S. mail coach, believed to have been used on the Placerville, Calif.-Virginia City, Nev., run, and a dark-red-and-gold Ben Holladay stagecoach.


Among other Western memorabilia to be sold will be a number of wooden cigar-store Indians, a Wells Fargo safe and strong boxes, more than 200 guns, player pianos, nickelodeons, oil lamps, antique casino items, posters, correspondence, clothing--in short, enough to equip a film set, for which many of these items have been used.

The collection even includes a zither-playing, life-size Egyptian goddess majestically reposing next to a snarling leopard. The wood-carved and painted figure, called Isis, was created by a San Francisco dentist and magician in 1894. It supposedly once played a number of melodies in response to voice vibrations when a particular song was requested.

Reputedly, however, the goddess had some worldly help: A midget concealed in the carving’s base apparently helped Isis perform.

The museum’s history dates back to the 1920s when Wells Fargo appointed William Parker Lyon, who made his fortune in the moving business, to develop a collection of Wells Fargo material.

Eventually, Lyon’s museum was based in Arcadia across from Santa Anita Race Track. Then it was purchased for $150,000 by Bill Harrah in 1955 and moved by 14 railroad cars to Reno, where it opened in 1962.

Butterfield & Butterfield has invited the public to view the Pony Express Museum at its main gallery at 220 San Bruno Ave. at 15th Street in San Francisco from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday and Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday; and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday.

The auction itself will be held Tuesday in three parts, beginning at 10 a.m., 1 and 7:30 p.m. For information, call (415) 861-7500.