Fresno-area collector pays $2 for Billy the Kid photo that could fetch $5 million
Jan 06, 2016 06:43PM
A little bit of luck and a lot of perseverance have turned into an amazing find for a Clovis couple.
Back in 2010, Randy and Linda Guijarro were perusing items at an antique shop in Fresno’s Tower District. A friend directed them to another store, where Randy came across a shoebox of old tintype photographs.
Randy Guijarro did not know it at the time but one of the photos he selected out of the box is believed to be just the second known photograph of the Western outlaw Billy The Kid.
Guijarro has spent most of the last five years trying to authenticate the photo. Jeff Aiello, an executive producer with Clovis-based 18Thirty Entertainment, helped produce a documentary on this quest. He picked up the story with more details.
“Randy bought the photo out of an old antique shop in downtown Fresno in 2010,” Aiello said. “He walked in to visit a friend. His friend said, ‘There were just two young men here with a shoebox full of old documents and photographs.’ He knew Randy liked to collect those kind of things. He had sent them next door to the next shop and told Randy he should go and catch them.
“He wanted to buy the whole shoebox but he only had a couple of dollars. He picked out three tintypes and he gave them $2.”
Upon closer inspection, though, Guijarro believed there was a familiar face in the photo.
“One of those tintypes, when he got it home, he looked at it through a viewfinder, and he realized that one of the individuals in the photograph looked very similar to the one known and authenticated photograph of Billy the Kid,” Aiello said. “That’s when he got excited.”
Billy the Kid — also known as Henry McCarty or William H. Bonney — was a 19th-century gunman who participated in the Lincoln County War and became a frontier outlaw in the American Old West. After a spree of various crimes, including a daring jailbreak, Billy the Kid was gunned down by Sheriff Pat Garrett in New Mexico in 1881.
The photo in question is believed to have been taken in 1878, making the tintype roughly 137 years old. It depicts Billy the Kid and his cohorts, known as the Regulators, playing a game of croquet on a lawn next to a cabin.
Guijarro’s excitement was well founded. In 2011, millionaire William Koch purchased what was believed to be the only legitimate photo of Billy the Kid for $2.3 million, a discovery that was well publicized.
“Of course, when that came out, everybody had a Billy the Kid photo after that,” Aiello said. “A lot of the Old West historians and collectors were bombarded by people who said they had Billy the Kid photographs. Randy became one of those people. He took his picture to those experts.”
Aiello said the reasons why experts regularly discount such claims are many, Aiello said.
“First of all, it’s easier to say no than yes. There is also some politics involved. There is a lot of old power in play,” he said. Guijarro’s efforts to have the photograph authenticated were rejected at first, Aiello said.
“One of those tintypes, when he got it home, he looked at it through a viewfinder, and he realized that one of the individuals in the photograph looked very similar to the one known and authenticated photograph of Billy the Kid, That’s when he got excited.”
But Guijarro believed he had “something real,” Aiello said.
“He kept working and researching and traveling to New Mexico, and doing all the things you need to do to prove a photo is real. This photo does not have provenance (record of ownership). There is no documented chain of custody. It was taken. It was lost and then it was found again in a California junk shop.”
Aiello was working on another project when he was introduced to Guijarro, who shared the story of the photo.
“I became interested in that. I went for a couple of months and tried to do research on it. I said, ‘Let me see if I can come to the same position of belief you are.’ We dove in and did a ton of research on it,” finding out that not only was the subject indeed Billy the Kid, but everyone else in the photo was identified except for a few people.
“It was nothing more than diving into the early history of New Mexico and the Lincoln County War. It was understanding the movements of the group of people who were believed to be in the photograph,” Aiello said. “We believed that this certain group of people could only have been together at a certain place and a certain time in history for about two weeks in 1878. That’s when we started to drill down.”
With his background in film, Aiello convinced the Guijarros to allow him to produce a documentary on his quest to show this rare find was real.
“I said, ‘Let’s do a documentary on your journey to document this photograph. But more importantly, let’s shine the light on the shortcomings of photo authentication in Western Americana and Old West photos,’ ” he said.
“The problem is, there are one or two wealthy guys who get to decide if something is real or not … especially whether they have financial interests or not. That inspired the documentary.”
As the process continued, National Geographic Channel and Leftfield Pictures, producers of the popular Pawn Stars series, signed on to help with the documentary. The documentary, titled “Billy the Kid — New Evidence,” aired in October on the National Geographic Channel. The channel proposed a two-hour documentary narrated and executive produced by Kevin Costner.
With involvement by national media interests, Aiello said his goal was to stay true to the story at its root.
“That’s part of the deal working in television: Everybody tells you what you want to hear at the beginning. They say, ‘We want to keep it authentic and tell the story.’ At the beginning, we did not know how it was going to go. We told people we were embarking on an investigation.
“We knew we would give up some control. National Geographic also wants an entertaining story with re-creations. We did the best we could. We told the story and it was fascinating.”
Aiello recalled the various steps Guijarro took to get his photo recognized, including identifying the location where the photograph was taken, Chavez County, New Mexico, which was integral to eventually authenticating the find, he explained.
“We did high-tech facial recognition that proved that five of the people we thought were in the photo were there. All of these things started to triangulate with the fact the photo was authentic.” Eventually, fairly recently, globally recognized dealer named Don Kagen pronounced it authentic.
“He took it and documented our evidence and went out to the site where it was taken. They did their own surveys and did everything independently. They found our findings were correct and they stamped their seal of approval on it,” Aiello said.
A forensic scientist had helped provide a seal of approval this past July, while Kagen and his firm added their sanctioning in October.
Aiello said the route they took to reach the conclusion of authenticity wasn’t typical. Usually, two or three photo historians or collectors are approached “to sell them on the idea.
“We tried that and it didn’t work,” Aiello said, but “that didn’t change the fact we had an authentic piece. We went to a wide variety of experts, scientists and historians with different parts of this world. We took all of that and compiled it into one thing that proves the photo is real.”
According to Aiello, the documentary is available for streaming on the online National Geographic channel. It will be re-packaged and shown in some 200 countries and in 70 different languages. He called the response from Western memorabilia collectors and viewers in general “overwhelming.”
The obvious endgame for the Guijarros is finding a new home for the tintype and monetizing their $2 find from years ago. Kagen and Associates is brokering the sale.
Aiello said that despite the historical nature of the photo, the Guijarros aren’t emotionally attached to it. “They realize it is worth some money.”
Aiello said the photo has been valued at about $5 million by an independent author and historian, R.L. Wilson. However, he cautioned, “Valuation is always a tricky deal because five people will have five different ideas on what it’s worth.” He said the sale price is currently $5 million and two parties are interested in purchasing it.
But Aiello admits there are “two or three” known experts in this field who are rejecting the authenticity of the Guijarro-owned photo.
“These are the same people who would probably like to have the photograph in their collection, so that’s why they’re doing that,” he said. “There is an overwhelming and rapid movement by most people to accept the photograph.
“There could be a sale at any moment on it. If the right offer comes along, that would be great.”
As the magazine was going to press, Aiello shared one more tidbit about this special photo:
“We have found documentation that proves one of the Regulators in the photo, Charlie Bowdre (seen at far left on the horse), had a great-great nephew that lived and died in Fresno and came from a side of the family that preserved the history of Bowdre’s past. This is the first link between someone proven to be in the photo and the place where the photo was found here in Fresno.”
Written by Steve Helwagen