DENVER (Reuters) - One of the most iconic photographs taken of a 19th-century Wild West outlaw, that of legendary gunslinger Billy the Kid, is up for auction on Saturday, when it is expected to sell for at least $300,000.
The credit card-sized tintype, or ferrotype, of an armed Billy the Kid wearing a tall black hat cocked on his head, is the only authenticated photo of the infamous gunman, according to Brian Lebel, owner of Old West Auctions.
“This is the Holy Grail of photographs,” Lebel told Reuters at an auction preview.
Other purported photos of Billy the Kid have surfaced over the years, but none has ever been conclusively verified as an image of him.
Hardly resembling any of the Hollywood actors, Paul Newman among them, who portrayed the Kid in various movies, the tintype depicts a snaggletoothed young man grasping the upright barrel of a Winchester carbine rifle, a holstered Colt single-action pistol strapped to his hip.
In the reverse, mirror-image of the tintype, the holster appears to be on the Kid’s left side, leaving the false impression that he was left-handed. The 1958 Newman movie about the outlaw was even called “The Left Handed Gun.”
The picture was likely taken by a traveling photographer outside a saloon in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, in late 1879 or early 1880, long before the Kid became a legendary figure in American Western lore, Lebel said.
Myths continue to swirl around the gunslinger, who was born Henry McCarty but known in New Mexico as William Bonney and reputed to have killed 21 men.
What is known is that Bonney was shot dead at age 22 by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881, months after a daring jailbreak in which the outlaw reportedly killed two deputies.
The Kid had been awaiting execution for the murder of another lawman, William Brady, in 1878, following the so-called Lincoln County War, a series of bloody skirmishes among New Mexico cattle barons.
Lebel is selling the photo on consignment for the Upham family of California, whose ancestor, Dan Dedrick, was given the photo by a fellow cattle rustler, Bonney himself.
The Uphams contacted Lebel late last year, saying they were willing to part with the famous photo. The family would like to see it go to a museum but acknowledged the possibility that it could end up with a foreign collector.
He said he expects the photo to fetch a minimum of $300,000 to $400,000.
Lebel said he contacted the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery to gauge interest there but does not know whether the Smithsonian will make a bid for the photo.
Other rare items from the American frontier up for bid at the auction include a hand-drawn banner from William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West Show, autographed by Cody and other members of the troupe, including sharpshooter Annie Oakley.
It is valued at between $5,000 and $8,000.
But Billy the Kid’s tintype is clearly the centerpiece of the auction, as public fascination for the outlaw has remained unabated in the 130 years since his death.
Last December, outgoing New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson declined to grant a posthumous pardon to Bonney .
In their petition to Richardson, the Kid’s supporters argued he was promised by a pardon by New Mexico’s then-territorial governor, Lew Wallace, in exchange for the Kid’s testimony against three men accused of gunning down a one-armed lawyer named Huston Chapman.
“You know the romanticism appealed to me to issue a pardon, but the facts and the evidence did not support it,” Richardson told ABC News.
Editing by Steve Gorman and Ellen Wulfhorst