By Michael Sadowski
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Thousands of Wild West artifacts, collected by a former mayor for a museum that never materialized, will be auctioned off next week by the capital city of Pennsylvania to help pay down more than $300 million in debt.
The long-awaited auction is part of Harrisburg's efforts to recoup some of the city funds spent by former Mayor Stephen Reed to acquire the rare artifacts for a tourist-drawing Wild West museum. Featuring items ranging from the very valuable to knick-knacks, it is scheduled to start Monday and continue through the week.
Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey's auction house in New York City, said the sale was the largest of its kind. "I've said it a few times, that it's the largest auction of Wild West items ever, and no one has challenged me on it," he said. "So we're sticking with it."
Joanne Grant, the auctioneer who cataloged each item, said about 6,700 people had signed up to bid online(www.proxibid.com). By Monday, she said, that number could be as high as 10,000. That does not include people who will be at the live auction at Harrisburg's City Island from Monday through July 21.
Bidders will see a warehouse packed to the rafters with vintage Wild West artifacts and other items related to the 19th Century conquest of the American West and figures like Buffalo Bill Cody, Wyatt Earp, Jesse James and Doc Holliday.
There also are artifacts from Native American tribes, a collection of pieces relating to the Battle of Little Big Horn and more than 500 vintage firearms, as well as a Stetson hat belonging to former President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Other historical items to go on the block include Teddy Roosevelt's three-barreled rifle, hand-written notes from George Washington and John Hancock and the uniform worn by General George Patton in World War Two.
Arnold Duke, owner of the Ruidoso River Museum in Ruidoso, New Mexico, flew to Pennsylvania for last week's public preview and was flabbergasted at the selection.
"The collection is vast. It's staggering," he said. "It would have made an incredible museum. I'm not sure the best place for it was Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but it would have been impressive."
Reed's huge collection was stored in warehouses at the Harrisburg Department of Public Works.
The auction is not expected to solve Harrisburg's massive debt problem, caused by a costly and mismanaged incinerator project. Ettinger, the auctioneer, would not say how much he believed the collection to be worth. What it can bring is an end to the long-debated Wild West museum idea.
"It will be closure for a lot of people for a project they never really understood," said Brian Enterline, 38, a Harrisburg collector who viewed the selection on Thursday. "By next week, hopefully we can all put this behind us and focus on moving the city forward."
(Reporting by Michael Sadowski; Editing by Arlene Getz and Dan Grebler)