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Buffalo Bill Memorabilia Auction : Old West Buffs Corral a Piece of U.S. History

Times Staff Writer

Pragmatic investors and romantic history buffs spent more than $500,000 here Friday on buffalo skulls, a full-length buffalo skin coat, a tomahawk, letters, guns and other memorabilia from the life of William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Carl Ontis, 39, who came to the auction dressed as Buffalo Bill in a fringed buckskin coat, high black boots and Stetson hat. Ontis and his look-alike partner, Glenn Sousa, 37, came to bid on some small items used by Buffalo Bill and to drum up interest in their Northern California traveling show, Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Exhibition Re-Enacted.

The collection of more than 400 items was the largest private collection of Buffalo Bill memorabilia ever auctioned off, according to Nancy Brown, of San Francisco-based auctioneers Butterfield & Butterfield. The auction attracted more than 250 buyers from throughout the country.

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Some came in search of investment opportunities while others were drawn by the lure of owning a piece of the Old West.

“Bill Cody was the greatest showman of all time,” said James Nottage, curator of the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum scheduled to open in Los Angeles in October. “He was one of the earliest myth-makers of the West.”

Nottage bought some “cowboy memorabilia” for the museum, but declined to disclose any details.

Buffalo Bill’s life reads like a Wild West epic and, in fact, he was the hero of hundreds of dime novels. Born in Iowa in 1846, he got his first taste of the Old West at 14, as a rider for the Pony Express. He earned his nickname and legendary fame as a buffalo hunter in his early 20s after he killed thousands of the animals to feed Kansas railroad workers. He also served as an Indian scout with the U.S. Cavalry.

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Wild West Image

In 1883, Cody organized Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, an outdoor exhibition dramatizing Western life. The show traveled throughout the United States and Europe for more than 30 years, and is credited with popularizing the Wild West image later re-created in countless Western movies.

“Buffalo Bill is the one who made us see the West the way we do,” said Greg Martin, 49, the San Francisco gun collector who sold the collection.

Until a year ago, the collection was gathering dust in a warehouse in Billings, Mont. It was owned by Stella Foote, who bought it in 1952 from Josie Goodman, Buffalo Bill’s niece. Foote and her husband, Don, organized the collection into a small museum and took it around the world, sponsored for a time by the U.S. Department of Commerce. After her husband died, she put the collection in storage.

A tip from an art dealer friend sent Martin, who is one of the country’s foremost collectors of rare Wild West guns, to Montana in search of an 1887 Westley Richards shotgun that was custom made for Buffalo Bill on his first European tour.

Bought Whole Collection

He found the gun in Foote’s collection, but Stella Foote refused to separate it from the rest of the items. Undaunted, Martin simply bought the whole collection for $300,000. (This is not the first time Martin has used this tactic. In 1986, he had his eye on three rare guns housed in the Pony Express museum in Reno. When the museum declined to sell them to him, he bought the whole museum, then auctioned off the items he did not want.)

At Friday’s auction, other buyers were delighted to be able to relieve him of the unwanted items.

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Buffalo Bill’s full-length buffalo skin coat sold for $18,000; a bonbon dish that he used went for $250. The highest-priced item was a Plains rifle that sold for $24,750. The skull of a wolf allegedly shot by Cody fetched $400. Buffalo skull prices fluctuated wildly; a skull measuring 28 inches from horn to tip sold for $800, while one measuring 23 inches went for a mere $275.

R. A. Murray of Denver paid $375 for a glass bud vase that Cody used for the single red rose he always kept in his tent when he was on the road. “It appealed to my wife,” he said. “She usually leaves a rose by the side of my bed.”

Near the end of the auction, an exultant John Timko successfully bid $4,250 for a sepia photograph of Buffalo Bill, valued by the auctioneers at between $1,500 and $2,000. “I’m a dentist back home,” he said. “I’m going to have to go back and do a lot of root canals to pay for this. But it was worth it.”


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