November 2, 2011 / 8:10 PM / 6 years ago

Strapped Harrisburg hopes to cash in its Wild West collection

<p>An overhead view shows part of the old west artifact storage area at the Harrisburg Incinerator in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, March 10, 2010.Tim Shaffer</p>

HARRISBURG, Pa (Reuters) - If Pennsylvania's fiscally battered capital city wants to stage a Wild West-like battle with the creditors demanding every penny of the millions they are owed, it has enough muskets, stage coaches, sheriff's badges and ammunition to get the job done.

Whether any of it would work is questionable.

Desperate to rid itself of more than 8,000 artifacts and to climb out of a $300 million debt crisis, Harrisburg has allowed appraisers and auction houses into a storage space where the bits of Americana have been gathering dust for years.

Nearly all of the artifacts were collected by former Mayor Stephen Reed, who dreamed of building a Wild West museum in Harrisburg that never materialized. The seven-term mayor left office last year.

Reed began buying the artifacts with tax dollars more than five years ago. Two city auctions of some of the artifacts in 2007 and 2008 have netted $1.66 million.

The remaining artifacts are kept in a nondescript brick structure that sits not far from the incinerator whose expensive revamp helped put the city in dire financial straits.

Inside, "Building D," as it is called, can best be described as a curator's nightmare.

<p>A cigar store Indian sits in the old west artifact storage area at the Harrisburg Incinerator in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, March 10, 2010.Tim Shaffer</p>

An Indian canoe sits uncovered, with other artifacts piled inside. Cactus skeletons, some 10 feet tall, lean against heaps of other artifacts. Stage coaches are stuffed with odds and ends.

In the middle the room, water drips from the poorly lit ceiling, collecting in puddles near a stuffed buffalo. Nothing is boxed, wrapped or protected.

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A dusty yellow envelope holds dried salmon. "From Eskimo village bought during Klondike Gold Rush of 1896," a handwritten note explains.

Pistols are strewn about, as are plastic sandwich bags of ammunition. One artifact carries a note: "Slug found in the alfalfa field near the Gary Owen Post Office at Little Big Horn. This area marked the advance of Major Reno troops into the Sioux Village on June 25, 1876."

Harrisburg spokesman Robert Philbin said about nine companies have taken a recent look at the artifacts and gave the city hope some of the $8 million to $15 million Reed spent to buy them will be recouped.

"The collectors saw real value, particularly the guns and wagons. Right away, they knew what they were looking for," he said.

The city is looking for an appraiser and an auction service to help generate the most money for the cash-strapped city. Bids will be accepted until November 9.

Editing by Barbara Goldberg; Ellen Wulfhorst and Jerry Norton

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