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Pa. City Tries Wild West Auction To Rope In Cash

Jul 19, 2013
Originally published on July 19, 2013 4:43 am

Leaders in Harrisburg, Pa., hope the legends of the Wild West will ride to the rescue of the cash-strapped state capital. Thanks to a former mayor's eccentric, failed museum project, the city has an extensive collection of Wild West artifacts — some said to have ties to people like Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Buffalo Bill.

About 8,000 pieces have been put up for sale in the week-long auction, which continues Friday. The hope is that the profits will put a dent in Harrisburg's $370 million in municipal debt. Ten thousand bidders are signed up online; many are bidding by phone, and a handful have come in person — toughing it out in the 96-degree heat inside a picnic pavilion nestled behind Harrisburg's minor-league ballpark.

Mike Reasner is one of the sweaty bidders. He has been collecting and reselling antiques for four decades. At the auction, he spent $30 here and $20 there, picking up artifacts including a Native American wire purse, butter churns and some old lamps.

"I got some things that I don't know what they are," he says, "but it's going to be fun discovering what they are."

Harrisburg's former mayor spent nearly $8 million in public money buying those and many other pieces, raising questions about why an East Coast city of 49,000 would want a Wild West museum. As Harrisburg slipped into an economic crisis due to various causes, leadership changed, and the museum plans fell apart.

Workers took the artifacts and stacked them in messy piles inside a public works building with a leaky ceiling and no climate control, where they sat for years.

Selling the pieces is a small, but very tangible, step toward economic recovery, says the city's chief operating officer, Bob Philbin.

"This auction is kind of symbolic of a transfer from that past, that kind of rocky past, which, in many ways was, correctly or not, symbolized by the artifacts themselves," he says.

The money will immediately be used to pay down some of the city's debts, Philbin says.

Harrisburg originally planned for at least $500,000 in profits from the auction, but the sale marked $1 million in advance bids, and the final total will likely be much higher.

Despite warnings from some collectors to be on the lookout for fakes, Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey's, the company auctioning the items, says his staff simply didn't have time to check the provenance of every piece.

"To research these lots, I suspect that my son, and maybe his son — and my son's 13 — would die of old age before we could ever get to this event," he says.

A set of dueling pistols once presented to George Custer of Little Bighorn fame was one of the biggest hauls from the auction, fetching $32,500.

Three days after the auction started, Ettinger still can't tear his eyes away from the bidding.

"I said this morning to our staff that I was going to personally oversee the production of T-shirts that said, 'I survived the Harrisburg Auction,' " Ettinger says.

When they pull on the T-shirts, Pennsylvania's capital will have a little more cash and memories of a Wild West museum that rode off into the sunset long ago.

Copyright 2018 WITF. To see more, visit WITF.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We've reported elsewhere on the program on Detroit filing for bankruptcy. Another city in financial trouble, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The state capital is laboring under some $370 million in municipal debt. So, several hundred items are going on the auction block today, including the dental toolkit that purportedly belonged to gunslinger and Wild West dentist Doc Holliday.

Harrisburg is trying to make money with a week-long auction of artifacts and memorabilia accumulated for an eccentric project that never got off the ground.

Here's Craig Layne of member station WITF.

CRAIG LAYNE, BYLINE: The thermometer says 96 degrees inside this picnic pavilion nestled behind Harrisburg's minor league ballpark.

Guernsey's Auction Company is selling some 8,000 items in the city's Wild West artifact collection - once destined for an ill-fated museum. Some items are said to have connections to Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Buffalo Bill and various Western legends.

Ten thousand bidders are signed up online, many are bidding by phone, and a handful are here in person, toughing it out in oppressive summer heat.

Mike Reasner is one of the sweaty two-dozen. He's been collecting and re-selling antiques for four decades, and today he spent $30 here, $20 there.

MIKE REASNER: Well, today I got some things that I don't know what they are, but it's going to be fun discovering what they are.

LAYNE: So you just bought lots.

REASNER: So yeah, I bought a Native American wire purse, some crocks, butter churns, old store lamps.

LAYNE: Harrisburg's former mayor spent nearly $8 million in public money buying those pieces and many others, and raising eyebrows along the way. Plenty of people asked why an East Coast city of 49,000 would want a Wild West museum. And as Harrisburg slipped into an economic crisis due to various causes, leadership changed - and the museum plans fell apart.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SLAMMING)

LAYNE: Inside a public works building with a leaky ceiling and no climate control, workers stacked the artifacts in messy piles where they sat for years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ITEMS CLANGING TOGETHER)

LAYNE: City Chief Operating Officer Bob Philbin says selling the pieces is a small, but very tangible step toward economic recovery.

BOB PHILBIN: And this auction is kind of symbolic of a transfer of that past, that kind of rocky past, which, in many ways was, correctly or not, symbolized by the artifacts themselves.

LAYNE: Philbin says the money will immediately be used to pay down some of the city's debts.

Harrisburg originally planned for at least $500,000 in profits from the auction, but the sale marked $1 million in advance bids, and the final total will likely be much higher. That's despite warnings from some collectors to be on the lookout for fakes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...Nine-fifty. Any of you $950? One thousand. Bid Eleven hundred...

LAYNE: Company president Arlan Ettinger says his staff simply didn't have time to check the provenance of every piece...

ARLAN ETTINGER: To research these lots, I suspect that my son, and maybe his son - and my son's 13 - would die of old age before we could ever get to this event.

LAYNE: One of the biggest hauls comes on a set of dueling pistols once presented to George Custer of Little Bighorn fame - $32,500.

Three days after the auction started, Ettinger still can't tear his eyes away from the bidding.

ETTINGER: I said this morning to our staff that I was going to personally oversee the production of T-shirts that said: I Survived the Harrisburg Auction.

LAYNE: When they pull on the T-shirts, Pennsylvania's capital will have a little more cash and memories of a Wild West museum that rode off into the sunset long ago.

For NPR News, I'm Craig Layne in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.