It's safe to say the auction exceeded expectations. The only known photograph of William McCarty, alias Billy the Kid, was expected to draw bids around $400,000 over the weekend at Brian Lebel's Old West Show & Auction in Denver. Instead, it went for a jaw-dropping $2 million to oilman and yachting enthusiast William Koch.
Like they say: It takes an outlaw to catch an outlaw.
Billy paid about two bits to have his picture taken outside a saloon in Fort Sumner around 1879, when he was twenty and already calling himself a "Regulator" in the bloody Lincoln County War. Researchers say there were four tintypes originally, but only one survives, handed down from generation to generation by descendants of the friend Billy gave it to.
How fitting, then, that one of the most famous photos to emerge from the West's wildest days should end up (after a billion percent markup in value) in the well-manicured hands of Koch, one of the heirs to a vast financial empire based on oil refining and extraction industries, the kind of activities that tamed (and, yes, tainted) the West at last. Koch describes himself as "retired" -- he sold out his interest in Koch Industries years ago, and it's his siblings, Charles and David, who get all the press for funding conservative causes and drawing protesters. But he still has his hobbies.
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Like Oxbow Corp., a $4 billion company involved in mining operations from Singapore and South America to Colorado's Western Slope. Like collecting fine art, wine, women and the occasional handy politician. (His donations to John Salazar, and a subsequent federal land swap that benefited Koch, became a touchy subject in the congressman's failed bid for re-election last year.) In short, Koch is a worthy successor to the kind of Western land barons, such as John Chisum and the Santa Fe Ring, who hounded Billy for rustling cattle while they were out rustling the whole Southwest.
In the most elegiac and thoughtful Hollywood version of the Billy legend, Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Kris Kristofferson plays Billy as a kind of proto-hippie who allies himself with outcasts and pretty senoritas against the big cattle bosses. His old pal and nemesis Garrett (James Coburn), though, wants the respectability and comfort that comes with backing the winning side. "It's just a way of staying alive," Garrett explains. "No matter what side you're on, you're always right. And I aim to be rich, old and gray."
After gunning down Billy, Coburn's Garrett prevents one of Chisum's stooges from hacking off the Kid's trigger finger as a souvenir. But that kind of solicitude happens mainly in the movies. The artifacts of outlaws and mavericks have a way of ending up in the hands of the rich, old and gray, who can shape the official history to accommodate what they believe is their rightful place in it. To the victor belongs the spoils.
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