ANYONE WHO COLLECTS anything—doesn’t matter what it is—will tell you that when it comes to adding high profile (and high dollar) items to their collection, the single most important word is “provenance.”
But what exactly does that mean?
Provenance is, simply, a record of ownership, and it is used to lend credence and authenticity to an object and the story associated with it. If something has good provenance, it can drive the price through the roof.
The best example of this in the firearms world is a pistol known as “The Danish Sea Captain Walker.” It is the only known cased, civilian Colt Walker revolver to have a note about this specific gun in Samuel Colt’s own handwriting. That ironclad provenance led the gun to be featured in more than a dozen publications throughout the 20th century.
When the gun came up for auction in late 2018, it had an estimated sale price of $800,000 to $1,300,000. When the gavel finally came down, it shattered the high estimate and became the most expensive firearm ever sold with a final price of $1,840,000.
That Walker’s provenance is what drove the price sky-high. Without it, the gun would have sold for a still-healthy sum in the six figures, but that’s a far cry from almost two million dollars!
Case Study: Custer and the Battle of the Little Big Horn
In the 1980s, Dr. Douglas Scott, an archaeologist working with the National Park Service, pioneered a new method of battlefield interpretation based on findings in the ground. With the help of 30 other colleagues armed with metal detectors, Dr. Scott’s team recovered more than 5,000 artifacts from the Battle of the Little Bighorn in what was once southeastern Montana Territory, now just east of Billings, Montana.
Use of Dr. Scott’s systematic recovery and mapping methods offered new insight into the iconic 1876 battle, forever changing our understanding of how the battle truly played out.
Many of the items they recovered were fired bullets and spent cartridge casings from the Springfield 1873 Trapdoor carbines carried by troopers in the 7th Cavalry and the assorted other firearms carried by the Northern Cheyenne, Lakota, and Arapaho tribes.
Re-Creating the Battle
Utilizing similar methods of forensic ballistics pioneered by Dr. Calvin Goddard in the aftermath of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Dr. Scott and his team were able to determine which casings had been fired from the same guns. Ballistic imprints are like fingerprints. Some may be similar, but no two are alike.
This allowed the team of archaeologists to track the movement of the soldiers and the Native Americans across the battlefield, based on where the cartridges were recovered and recorded on the grid system.
Eyewitness accounts and old-age memoirs are fallible, but the archaeological record doesn’t lie.
History for Sale
There are two US Model 1873 Springfield trapdoor carbines coming up for sale at Morphy Auctions on April 24, 2019, that have ironclad provenance based on the work performed by Dr. Scott and his team at the Little Bighorn.
The “W W” Carbine
Cartridge cases fired more recently from a US Model 1873 carbine with serial number 41219 were compared to three cases recovered in 1985. A letter from 2006 by Dr. Scott confirms the match “is a good one with several unique features such as mark depths, lengths, and several other features that match perfectly for the archaeological specimen.”
Adding to the allure of this gun are the initials “W W” stamped in the wood in front of the trigger guard. There were only two troopers from the 7th Cavalry at the battle with those initials: William Whaley, a private in Company I, and Willis Wright, a private in Company C.
It’s highly unlikely that evidence will ever surface to confirm which of these two men carried this gun, but that doesn’t take away from how impressive it is in its own right.
Of the 262 men killed at Little Bighorn in June 1876, this carbine is known to have been carried by one of two men in the unit. That narrows down the ownership by 99.24 percent, which is an astonishing figure!
The auction estimate for this carbine is $80,000 to $120,000.
John Martin’s Carbine
When it comes to provenance, the only thing better than 99.24% accuracy is 100% accuracy—and that’s what the carbine with serial number 19573 has.
Orderly trumpeter John Martin, assigned to Company H of the 7th Cavalry, had been dispatched by Custer to ride back to Captain Frederick Benteen and urge him to hurry his men and their supply of extra ammunition to Custer’s position.
For reasons lost to history, Martin left his carbine, serial number 19573, with his fellow troopers before he set out to find Captain Benteen. After delivering his message, Martin was instructed to return to Custer’s position unless he encountered hostile natives while en route. In that case, he was to return to Benteen’s position and ride with them back to Custer.
Because John Martin did indeed encounter Native Americans on his return journey, he went back to Benteen, who never made it to Custer’s men. Instead, he chose to take up a defensive position with Major Marcus Reno. Two days after Custer and his men were killed, Benteen arrived at the location of the Last Stand and identified Custer’s body.
Because of how events played out, John Martin holds the distinction of being the last white man to have seen Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer alive on June 25, 1876.
The left side of the forestock on this US Model 1873 Springfield bears the name “J. MArTiN” carved into it, providing positive identification to orderly trumpeter John Martin.
Cartridge cases fired from Martin’s carbine have been compared to those recovered on the battlefield in 1984 and 1985. A letter from Dr. Scott accompanies this gun, stating that the “match to the Martin carbine is unmistakable.”
The story of this gun and its place in American history is remarkable, and it is bolstered by a tremendous amount of provenance.
The auction estimate for this carbine is $90,000 to $140,000.
The Price of History
Artifacts linked to important events in history are often considered to be priceless. Intrinsically, this is absolutely true. However, everything has a price, and these two carbines are no different.
Will the two guns sell within their combined estimated range of $170,000 to $260,000? Or will they go for more? Only time will tell…