They say, whoever “they” are, that a picture
is worth a thousand words. Well, sometimes words aren’t the only currency to measure
its value. Some pictures cost millions of dollars, and a photo of Billy the Kid found
in a thrift store is a good example of that. First off, for those of you wondering who
Billy the Kid is and why someone would be willing to pay millions for his picture: he
was a legend of the Wild West. William Henry McCarty (that was his real name) was born
in 1859 in New York. He only lived for 21 years, but even in that short time, this young
man of Irish origin managed to become one of the most famous outlaws of his era. Interestingly,
he never robbed banks, trains, or stagecoaches, but was rustling cattle and took part in gunfights.
Even when he was captured, he managed to design a daring jailbreak. All this makes him quite
an interesting figure in the eyes of Wild West fans. And, pictures of him are so rare,
those fans are ready to pay millions for them. Now, when I say rare, I mean there was just
one officially confirmed picture of him by 2011. I’ll tell you more about that later.
Now let’s focus on the more recent find. Back in 2010, a collector from Fremont, California,
went shopping for antiques at a junk shop with his wife in Fresno, CA. Among the odds
and ends and old furniture, they found two cardboard boxes with photographs. In there
was a 4×5 tintype (that’s a photograph on a thin sheet of metal) that the collector
liked. He bought the picture and two other photographs for $2. The picture showed a group
of men playing croquet. At the time he purchased it, the lucky collector had no idea it was
a rare image of Billy the Kid himself from 1878. But as he gave the picture a closer
look, he realized he’d found a real gem! It wasn’t a random group of cowboys, but
the legendary outlaw with his gang, the Regulators. However, when it comes to historical pictures,
you can’t just claim that what you found is the real thing and worth millions of dollars.
It took years to confirm the image was, indeed, original. One of the producers of National
Geographic was dedicated to help him in his quest for the truth. To prove that the image
wasn’t a fake, they had to travel as far as New Mexico, to the location you can see
in the picture, and find the now-abandoned building in the back. They found the exact
rock piers and the old lumber underneath. When the picture was brought for official
authentication to Kagin’s, a firm specializing in Western Americana and Rare Coins, they
were skeptical about it at first. It’s no surprise, really, since pictures of Billy
the Kid are so rare, quite a lot of people who know the value try to make money by making
look-alikes. But the company experts knew this one was real because they managed to
identify Billy, as well as other people in the picture, as members of the Regulators
gang using facial recognition software. One of them was Sallie Chisum. She mentioned Billy
the Kid in her personal journals, and one record was of a wedding between Charlie Bowdre,
who’s sitting on the horse in the photo, and Manuella Bowdre. It took place in the
summer of 1878, a month after the gang participated in the Lincoln County conflict. Once the experts
had no doubt the tintype was real, the owner of Kagin’s described the picture as “perhaps
the single most compelling piece of Western Americana that we have ever seen” because
of its historical importance. The executive director of the National Geographic documentary
about the picture called it the holy grail, not only of the Wild West, but photography
in general, and “the rarest photograph in the world”. So now I guess it makes perfect
sense why this $2 junk shop find has been estimated to be worth $5 million. Another officially confirmed photo of Billy
the Kid sold at Auction for $2.3 million in 2011. Collectors and Wild West fans arrived
in Denver, ready to fight for the gem. It was expected to go for $400,000, but obviously,
the buyer gave more than 5 times as much for it, and it became one of the most expensive
old West memorabilia ever sold. That tintype was also taken outside a saloon in Fort Sumner,
New Mexico, around 1880. Billy was posing with a Winchester carbine and a Colt 45 pistol
at his hip. If you expected a twisted and exciting story about how this one got to the
auction house, I might disappoint you. This time, it wasn’t found at a junk shop for
close to nothing but sold by the descendants of Dan Dedrick. He’d received the picture
directly from his partner in cattle rustling crime, Billy the Kid himself. A businessman
from Florida purchased it out of his love for the Old West as an important part of American
history. He said he would let some small museums exhibit the picture first, and then keep it
for his own pleasure. The third picture of Billy the Kid that has
become famous worldwide hasn’t been auctioned yet. But if it is, it’ll be worth even more
than $5 million! What makes this picture unique is that it supposedly shows both Billy the
Kid and Sheriff Pat Garrett, who ended the famous outlaw’s life at the age of 21. Ironically,
Billy and Pat used to be good friends, and they’d spent time together in New Mexico.
Then, Garrett was appointed Lincoln County Sheriff in November 1880, and that turned
their friendship into a feud. Garrett offered his ex-friend a deal: Billy was supposed to
leave New Mexico and take his crimes elsewhere, and Garrett wouldn’t chase him. But if he
had stayed in the area, the sheriff promised to arrest him. The Kid chose to stay and was
arrested by his once good friend. And even though he escaped from jail, he was found
later in Fort Sumner. Seeing the two of them in the picture together (the Kid is supposedly
the guy with the prominent Adam’s apple, and Garrett is the one on the far right wearing
a dark hat) –it’s amazing. Just as amazing is the fact that the picture
was sold at a flea market in Asheville for $10 in 2011. The new owner put it in the North
Carolina home he rented out on Airbnb. It was hanging there for years as a mere wall
decoration until 2015, when the owner watched the documentary about the new Billy the Kid
picture playing croquet. The lawyer who purchased the photo recognized the familiar features.
He gave the tintype a second look and became convinced it was Billy himself with a group
of four Wild West cowboys. Because of his interest in history, he decided to investigate
the matter to find out if the picture was indeed a 137-year-old photograph of the legend.
He asked a retired professor and tintype expert for help. He confirmed the picture was taken
between 1875 and 1880 judging by how the the plate, the clothing and the firearm look.
A forensics expert who studied the picture using facial recognition software confirmed
it must have been Garrett and the Kid. The date written on the picture – August 2,
1880 – was also a clue. A handwriting expert from Texas compared it with 10 documents written
by Sheriff Garrett and said it was a match! You can only imagine how excited the man who
bought the picture was when he found out it was the real deal! He said in an interview
that if he’d known about its true importance earlier, he would have charged more for the
room where it was hanging on the wall. Understandably, he took the image down and put it in a safe
deposit box. Experts are positive if he decides to sell it at auction he could get way more
than $5 million for this gem! However, the lucky owner says as of now, he doesn’t want
to find out. He’s just happy to have that unique piece of history in his possession.
Do you like shopping for antiques and vintage stuff? Let me know down in the comments! If
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