Posted: Sunday, February 7, 2016 11:00 pm |Updated: 11:57 pm, Sun Feb 7, 2016.
Another photo said to be of the famous outlaw Billy the Kid — showing a young man posing on a rock, holding one pistol in his right hand and another in his holster — surfaced last week.
It is still unauthenticated and lacks provenance.
But like all the other purported Billy the Kid photos, this one has an interesting backstory.
Two Gun Billy is one of nearly 500 photos in an Old West collection believed to have been owned by Frank Phillips, the founder of Phillips Petroleum.
The photos are now owned by an unidentified couple who traveled in the 1990s to Checotah, Okla., where they stopped at an antique store called the Downtown Antique Mall. The woman, who is an artist, purchased several photos from the store to use in painting profiles.
Both she and her husband are Western enthusiasts and, after comparing the photos to those in their books on the Old West, they went back to the antique store the next day, and the day after that, and spent a few hundred dollars on the collection.
The couple believe that 100 of the photos depict people involved in the O.K. Corral shootout, their family members and others from Tombstone, Ariz.
Because there were photos of Phillips and his family among those the woman purchased, she and others who have examined them concluded that they once belonged to Phillips, whose 3,700-acre ranch in northwestern Oklahoma, called Woolaroc, was only 100 miles away from where the photos were purchased. And the property was adjacent to land frequented by outlaws. The photos came to be known as the Phillips Collection.
Jim Williams, a Western antique dealer with a shop in Springfield, Mo., was hired by the couple to help authenticate the photo called Two Gun Billy and market it. Cathy Briley, Williams’ fiancée, a real estate appraiser and collector of antiques from Palmyra, Neb., said they immediately felt the albumen print was of Billy the Kid.
They didn’t have the resources, Briley said, to hire people with the software to do facial recognition — and besides, they were unsure if it would work because the photo shows the Kid in profile. But they did decide to try to find the location where the photograph was taken, and they were pretty sure the landscape depicted New Mexico.
They came here in December, after studying Google Earth images for weeks and weeks. In New Mexico, everyone gave them different opinions. They failed at first and spent the night in Ruidoso before driving home.
It was there when Briley had an idea that the photo might have been taken at the time of the shootout at Blazer’s Mill between the Lincoln County Regulators and the buffalo hunter Buckshot Roberts. The Regulators apparently were hunting down anyone associated with the murder of John Tunstall, which had set off the Lincoln County War. The confrontation took place three days after the shooting of Sheriff William Brady, a crime for which Billy the Kid was convicted in 1881. The Regulators, including the Kid, were supposedly in Blazer’s Mill to eat at Mrs. Godfrey’s Restaurant.
The connection hit Briley, she said, “like a ton of bricks.”
They now believe the photo was taken on a hillside between Lincoln and Tularosa overlooking a 19th-century village called South Fork. The area subsequently became part of the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation. Williams and Briley believe the photo was taken April 3, 1878, the day before the shootout.
Williams went back to New Mexico and on Jan. 20, Briley said, he found the rock overlooking South Fork on which the Kid had been posed, and matched up the mountains in the background as well as old Indian trails.
Briley said the face looks identical and the body type and size are “perfect” when compared to the authenticated tintype of Billy the Kid purchased by billionaire William Koch for $2.3 million in 2011 at an auction in Colorado.
Furthermore, the figure is wearing patterned suspenders and an unadorned sombrero, and is pictured with the types of guns Billy was known to carry. There’s a bandana wrapped around his leg above his right knee, which could be related to injuries sustained in the Brady ambush, Briley said.
In Koch’s tintype, the Kid looks sloppy, but in this photo, his tie is tucked into his shirt and, according to Briley, he was known as a “snappy dresser.”
Briley said she has seen another photo that surfaced in recent years — one said to show the Kid playing croquet in New Mexico in 1878 — and the National Geographic program that aired about the photo last year. In that case, the photo was bought by a California man for $2 or so from a Fresno County memorabilia shop.
She believes that photo is of the Kid, but she conceded many photos claimed to be of him don’t get received very well. “They get a lot of negative response,” she said. “Western enthusiasts immediately deny them if there’s no provenance attached to the photo.”
So, she said, even though “I do think our photos are the genuine article … we are fighting an uphill battle.”
But that doesn’t stop people who think they have the real deal, she added. “We’re just going to be inundated with photos because people are seeing dollar signs.”
Briley said several photos from the Phillips Collection already have been sold, including those of outlaw Belle Starr and lawman Wyatt Earp’s brother James, and one of Earp himself in a forest with several other people. Two of those were bought by Williams and resold. There are two other photos of the Kid in the Phillips Collection, Briley said.
The original Oklahoma vendor, however, had no idea of their value, she said. Online, Briley called the collection “likely one of the largest historical finds in recent history.”
But Daniel Kosharek, photo curator at the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives in Santa Fe, said the number of Kid photos cropping up is getting to be “almost as bad as Elvis sightings.”
“This one is a pretty good stretch,” he said of Two Gun Billy.
Korsharek said there are many photos that could show the Kid, and even in the Museum of New Mexico collection, he said, he could probably find a half-dozen tintypes that could be of the famous outlaw.
Contact Anne Constable at 505-986-3022 or email@example.com.