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Million Dollar Baby: How to Get Rich on Portraits of Criminals

In 2011, a lawyer from North Carolina Frank Abrams bought an old photograph for ten dollars at a flea market featuring five young men dressed in 19th century fashion. In this way, one of the most valuable photographs in the history of the US changed its owner.

The photograph he bought, to be more exact, a ferrotype — a print on a thin sheet of metal, was the size of a hand. Frank Abrams hung it at home, in the room that he rented to tourists through Airbnb. He didn’t know who was in the picture and hardly thought about it, seeing the photograph as the depiction of unknown cowboys. With his guests, Ambrams joked that one of those guys is Jesse James, the famous American robber who was killed in 1882.

Frank was not far from the truth: the photograph indeed depicted the legend of the criminal world, although he had a different name.

Billy the Kid

Henry McCarty (the real name of Billy the Kid) was born in 1859 in New York. Later together with his mother, stepfather, and younger brother moved to New Mexico. At the age of 14, Henry suffered through his mother’s death, and at 16 he got the first sentence that he decided not to spend till the end. The young man who will later be known under the names of William Antrim, William H. Bonney, and Billy the Kid escaped from prison through the chimney (“I could hardly put my fist through the hole that Billy used to escape,” the sheriff later said) and went to Arizona. There he got employed at a ranch, started stealing horses and soon committed his first murder.

Soon after coming back to New Mexico, Kid got involved in the Lincoln County War — the bloodiest conflict in the history of the Wild West that started with the murder of Billy’s employer, John Tunstall. In 1880, not only New Mexico newspapers, but also the New York press wrote about Billy the Kid.

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Billy the Kid. Photo: Ben Wittick

The Unforgiven

Pat Garrett was nine years older than Kid. The age difference didn’t get in the way of their friendship — but the circumstances did: Garrett decided to settle down and in the autumn of 1880 became Lincoln county sheriff. Having ended up on different sides of the barricades than a friend, Garrett ordered the Kid to immediately leave New Mexico — otherwise he promised to fulfil his duties.

After the Kid refused to leave the state, Garrett’s people indeed captured him. He was sentenced to hanging, but he managed to escape again, killing two deputy sheriffs on the way.

Finally, it was luck that helped Garrett trace the runaway. The sheriff came to Fort Sumner village to one of the Kid’s friends hoping to find out something. And the Kid himself also turned up there. It was at night, the encounter took place in complete darkness. The sheriff recognized his old friend by his voice and shot in his direction. Billy the Kid was dead on July 14, 1881, at the age of 21.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Billy the Kid’s story is full of contradictions, so it is not hard to understand why some thought he was a heartless outlaw, and the others considered him a victim of circumstances, a pawn in the war of the rich and politicians. Garrett’s act didn’t receive unanimous praise in society — many condemned the sheriff for this reprisal. He later wrote a book where he outlined his version of the events (it wasn’t popular with his contemporaries, but it became a valuable document for historians).

The author of the article in the New York Times dedicated to the Kid’s killing (dated July 22, 1881) writes that he had good manners, attractive looks and angelical blue eyes, and so every person who saw him for the first time would think that he was a victim of circumstances. Nevertheless, the journalist continues to say that the Kid was one of the most dangerous characters that this country ever spawned. The article mentions that the Kid killed a total of 19 people. However, modern researchers think that this figure is exaggerated.

The Kid had good manners, attractive looks and angelical blue eyes, and so every person who saw him for the first time would think that he was a victim of circumstances.
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Photograph from 1878. Its owner Randy Guijarro thinks that the fourth person from the left on it is Billy the Kid, and some of the other people are members of his gang. Photo from Randy Guijarro’s collection.

Soon after the Kid died there were rumours that the killing was staged: that Garrett helped Billy escape and cover his tracks in memory of their old friendship. In the following decades there were many men who claimed they were Billy the Kid who survived. The discussion around his death continues until now. In recent years, there was even information that the scientists are trying to obtain permission to exhume the body of Billy’s mother for DNA testing.

Abrams’ Luck

The portrait of ‘unknown cowboys’ that was purchased in the flea market hung in Frank Abrams’ living room for four years, until one time he saw a documentary about an old photograph that was estimated to be worth $5 million. It was an accidentally discovered photograph that captured a group of people playing cricket. The experts recognized Billy the Kid as one of the players. Previously, only one photo portrait of the legendary outlaw was known — the photograph where Billy the Kid stands with a carefree expression leaning on his gun, was auctioned for $2.3 million.

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Photo from the collection of Frank Abrams

Abrams got interested in this story and started studying Billy the Kid’s biography on the Internet and realized that one of the ‘cowboys’ in his photograph looked like Pat Garrett — the sheriff who shot Billy. And another man looks like Billy himself.

Experts confirmed the guesses of a lawyer: they concluded that the ferrotype was most likely created between 1875 and 1880, and further study showed that the two men depicted there are Billy the Kid (on the left in the back row) and his killer Pat Garrett (rightmost in the front row).

Study showed that the two men depicted there are Billy the Kid (on the left in the back row) and his killer Pat Garrett (rightmost in the front row).

People who sold the photograph to Abrams said that they obtained it from a man in New York by the last name Clinton. He thought that the ferrotype earlier belonged to journalist Marshall Upson who wrote the book about Billy the Kid together with Sheriff Garrett. Supposedly, later the photograph ended up in northwestern USA with Upson’s relatives, who had no idea of its value.

The Legend of the Wild West

The photograph that belongs to Abrams is probably the most expensive portrait of Billy the Kid, as there he is captured together with his killer. However, the real price of the photograph remains unknown — Frank Abrams didn’t have his finding evaluated by experts stating that he wasn’t interested in selling it. According to Abrams, he just loves history and thinks that he is very lucky to own such an artefact.

For over a hundred years, dozens of books, songs, movies, TV shows, and theater pieces were dedicated to Billy the Kid. That’s why all of these photographs are so important and are valued so highly. It is not only about Billy the Kid himself. It is also about the legend that surrounds his name and is an important part of the Wild West mythology. As the lead expert of Kagin’s auction house said, a real photo of Billy the Kid is the Holy Grail of the history of the American West.

It is useless to look for a room with Billy the Kid’s portrait on the wall on Airbnb now — Frank Abrams told the journalists that he took the photograph off the wall and hid it in a safe.

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