Billy The Kid Photo Valued Over $5 Million
Pat Garrett may have killed Billy the Kid but it looks like “the kid” aka William H. Bonney, just blew away Oscar-winning superstar Kevin Costner. And Bonney did it back in the summer of 1878 simply by mugging for the camera while playing croquet at a wedding with members of the notorious Lincoln County Regulators, the old west vigilantes turned deputized posse.
The National Geographic Channel hired Costner to tell the story of the single most significant discovery in the history of photography and American folklore: a “tintype” photo that a collector named Randy Guijarro purchased in 2010 in a Fresno, California memorabilia shop, that turned out to be the second only known photograph of Billy The Kid in known existence. Billy The Kid: New Evidence, is a full examination of what experts are calling “The Find Of The Century.”
Costner was so blown away by the photograph that he fought for its authentication and signed on as executive producer. “Billy the Kid was once the most-hunted man in America and, if you think about it, was one of the media’s first notorious bad boys,” said Costner. “Billy the Kid is the epitome of an American legend. The world was fascinated with him then, and the fact that this recently discovered image has created such excitement proves that the world continues to be fascinated with him today.”
How An Amateur Collector Discovered A Priceless Photograph
Most of us might think we can spot a bargain at a flea market but few people in the history of the world have been lucky enough to discover a priceless artifact in a junk sale. Luckily Guijarro has a good eye, a passion for history and a knowledge base so rich that he could not only identify Billy the kid but also his best friends Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre.
But as well as knowledge Guijarro had something else going for him: good taste, a lucky hunch and the ability to unwittingly negotiate perhaps the most lucrative artifact purchase in history. Randy and his wife Linda Guijarro were browsing in a memorabilia store in Fresno’s Tower District when Randy came across two cardboard boxes full of old tintype photos.
Three photos in particular caught his eye but the Billy The Kid photo was “kind of beat up” and had a hole in it so he haggled the owner down and purchased the estimated $5 million dollar photo for just $2. At this point Guijarro still hadn’t actually realized the extent of his discovery but he was intrigued by the photo enough to cough up $2 for it.
“When I picked it up I thought it was unusual,” Guijarro said “But, I couldn’t tell who the cast of characters were. I just thought it was neat.”
In an interview with National Geographic Guijarro said he didn’t realize what he had actually discovered until he got home and examined the photo with a magnifying glass and thought he recognized the face of one cowboy who was wearing a cardigan and leaning against a croquet mallet. Guijarro was understandably sceptical himself but when he saw the face of Billy the Kid in the photograph he said, “Oh my, what have we got going on here? Man, this is Billy the Kid!”
“The holy grail of photography”
After taking a closer look at the photo Guijarro was intrigued enough with his theory that this picture of a cowboy in a cardigan was indeed William H. Bonney, that he shared the photo with Jeff Aiello, a television producer who had recently left his job at Disney to break out on his own by starting up the production company 18THIRTY Entertainment. Now at the helm of his own production company, Aiello’s interest was perked and rather than being deterred by the battle Guijarro still faced to have the photo authenticated, he saw that as an important part of the drama yet to come.
In regard to the Billy the Kid photo, there was enough intrigue, backstory and oddball details to fill a Quentin Tarantino script. I mean come on, not only is the most famous outlaw in American history wearing a cardigan but he’s playing an afternoon game of croquet? Wow, in regard to Americana this was the find of the century.
But Aiello was also discerning enough to see that the story was not just about Billy the Kid but also about Guijarro, the frustrating process of officially authenticating the photo, and the cutting-edge science and historical techniques that would have to be used to do just that. In the end it is a story of an amateur collector pitted against the most powerful and sceptical numismatists and American historians who decide what does and does not become part of our official history. At first many experts involved were sceptical that the photograph was genuine.
Even Costner originally refused to sign on to the project until someone could prove that the photo wasn’t a hoax. Upon first examination the professional numismatists at Kagin’s authentication firm could not immedietly confirm that the photo was legitimate. This lead to a year long search to prove that the photograph was indeed the legitimate discovery of the “Holy Grail of Photography.”
Within months major breakthroughs had been made. Costner was blown away by the evidence that he signed on to the project as narrator and as executive producer and National Geographic invested millions into expanding the research into the mysterious croquet game played by Billy the Kid and the Regulators.
How Historians and Sciencists Proved The Impossible
In the end the experts at Kigins who declared the photograph a Hoax would themselves delve into the history books and use cutting edge technology to authenticate the only known photograph taken of Billy the Kid with the Regulators.
“When we first saw the photograph, we were understandably skeptical — an original Billy the Kid photo is the Holy Grail of Western Americana,” Kagin’s senior numismatist David McCarthy said. “We had to be certain that we could answer and verify where, when, how and why this photograph was taken.” In fact the first and only known photograph of Billy the Kid sold at auction for $2.3 Million.
The painstaking process of authenticating the greatest photographic discovery in history would involve two intertwined methods: meticulous historical research and cutting edge technology used by the world’s most advanced Numismatic experts. Like a scene out CSI or the Da Vinci code, the numismatists working on the authentication used facial recognition software to identify the people in the photograph.
Aside from Bonney himself, the most important person in the photograph is the woman on the left who is Sallie Chisum. The New Mexico State University in Las Cruces owns Chisum’s hand written diary and by studying it they placed her together with Billy the Kid for two weeks in 1878.
By blowing up the photograph authentication experts were shockingly even able to identify the maker of the croquet set, which they then obtained and used to calculate the exact height of everyone in the photography.
The holy grail of photography had been discovered. But the most amazing part of the process was yet to come.
By cross referencing historical records and using geographic mapping technology, the team discovered the exact site where William H Bonney stood took a break from a game of croquet with the Lincoln County Regulators and mugged for the camera and what would become the second only photograph ever discovered of America’s most notorious outlaw in the Wild West.
Shocking Billy The Kid Discoveries
By cross referencing the scientific data with historical documents history begins to unfold in clear and uncertain terms. And now the authentication team had something even more amazing. The exact location.
Miraculously this “beaten up” photo with a hole in it how now been studied so carefully that experts could identify the subjects through facial recognition, determine the date within a couple weeks through Chisum’s diary and then they travelled to the exact location of the photograph. According to Aiello the photograph was taken in Chavez county, New Mexico. This was just a short time after Billy The Kid had killed Frank P. Cahill on August 17, 1877 and fled the Arizona Territory for New Mexico out of fear of retribution from Cahill’s friends.
Aiello and his team unearthed the entire setting. “We found the old lumber underneath,” he said, “We found those exact rock piers are still there.” Experts now believe that Billy the Kid and the Regulators were visiting Chisum after Billy had killed Cahill.
The photograph is thought to have been set up as a final tribute to their boss John Tunstall, whose murder instigated the formation of the regulators and started the Lincoln County War. “They’re all doing a last tribute to John,” said Guijarro, “saying here you go boss. We’re all even. This is the end of the regulators.”
But if that photograph was an ending it was also a beginning. One that would only begin 137 years later. For Billy the Kid that would be seven lifetimes away, when his enigmatic presence would once again captivate the world.
An early draft of this article incorrectly identified Jeff Aiello as “a recently unemployed movie producer.” In fact Aiello had left his job as a producer with Disney to start his own production company 18THIRTY Entertainment.
The same version also incorrectly claimed that Kagin’s initially considered the photograph a hoax. In fact Kagin’s was just unwilling to authenticate the tintype photograph without further study.
A number of Billy The Kid aficionados including the collector Robert G. McCubbin have asserted that they believe the photograph is a hoax despite the expert work performed by Kagin’s, Nat Geo and 18THIRTY Entertainment.
McCubbin is the publisher emeritus of True West Magazine and You can click here to read the opinions he collected on the matter. Interestingly enough this article includes a statement from Mark Boardman, “the website’s editor,” that states there is “no way” the photo is authentic, although Boardman admits to have not seen the National Geographic Documentary and is instead voicing his expert opinion on “what I’ve seen and read and heard.”
What do you think? Watch the video clip below and let us know on Facebook or in the comments section below!
You may now view the entire Nat Geo program online. Check out the excerpt below in which Randy Guijarro works with a facial recognition expert to identify Billy the Kid.
National Geographic Channel Will Exclusively Premiere Leftfield Pictures and 18THIRTY Entertainment produced Billy the Kid: New Evidence on Sunday, Oct. 18 at 9 p.m.