Wild West gold mine: Pennsylvania city auctions off artifacts to get out of debt

An East Coast city that's been sitting on a Wild West gold mine is finally cashing in on the loot.

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's state capital, is auctioning off thousands of antique artifacts this week, hoping the sale will help pull the city out of debt.

Back in 1980, the citizens of Harrisburg elected Stephen Reed as mayor. He envisioned the city as a tourist destination, filled with museums, including one showcasing Harrisburg's one-time claim to fame as the gateway to the West.  He spent more than $8 million on roughly 10,000 pieces, including antique guns, old horse-drawn wagons, “Wyatt Earp’s Days of the Week Shaving Set,” Jesse James and Billy The Kid wanted posters and sheriff's badges.  The city built one museum, but went broke before it could build three more, as the mayor intended.

"He went about it in ways that were not exactly according to rules," said Arlen Ettinger, President of Guernsey's, the New York City-based auction house the city hired to sell the items.

"He took city monies to acquire things that he thought would look well in museums, and he was a great fan of the old West."

Harrisburg will take every penny it can get. Unlike most auctions, this one requires no minimum bids.

"If there was ever a sort of every person's auction, this has got to be it," Ettinger said. "There are things that are going to be quite expensive, I suspect, and things that will go for very affordable prices and that makes it open to everyone."

In the first three days, the auction raised approximately $2 million, nearly half of it from antique weapons. Theodore Roosevelt's rare combination rifle and shot gun went for $115,000, 10 to 15 times more than expected.

Harrisburg will use the money to pay down loans and bonds, but this auction is not expected to make much of a dent in its mammoth debt, estimated at more than $300 million. That debt was largely caused by the building of a trash incinerator more than 40 years ago.

The incinerator was designed to collect and burn trash from across the state as a way to make a profit, but it never really worked properly and the city fell deeper and deeper in the red trying to keep up with payments on the money borrowed to build the burner.

Harrisburg's chief operating officer, Robert Philbin, says the auction signifies a turning point from the past into what he calls the “post-recovery future” for the city.

"This is the best way to do it I think. It will go to people who respect the collection and institutions that respect the collection rather than molding," Philbin said. "I mean it's not doing any good in a warehouse in the city of Harrisburg.”

The auction started Monday and runs through the weekend. Anyone interested in bidding can do so in person in Harrisburg or online at www.guernseys.com.