It's like Antique Road Show's greatest episode ever: A man who bought a lot of three photos at a California junk shop for $US2 may have stumbled across what one authenticator calls "the Holy Grail of Western Americana."
There's only one known photo of Billy the Kid, the 19th century outlaw who became infamous in his few short years as a gunman in the American frontier before dying at 21. That photo is owned by William Koch, who bought it a few years ago for $US2.3 million.
But a man named Randy Guijarro may have found the second, according to one authentication house, as National Geographic reports: Guijarro bought a 4 x 5-inch tintype at a California antique shop along with two other photos in 2010 for $US2. He has spent the past five years trying to convince authenticators and historians that the photo shows Billy the Kid — along with his gang fighting in the Lincoln County War, the Regulators — playing croquet after a wedding in 1878, just three years before his death.
This month Kagin's, an authentication house that specialises in Western Americana, announced it had officially authenticated and insured the photo for $US5,000,000 after a years-long process. "Simple resemblance is not enough in a case like this," Kagin's team writes in a statement, "After more than a year of methodical study including my own inspection of the site, there is now overwhelming evidence of the image's authenticity."
Right now, details are slim about how the photo was authenticated — that will be the subject of a documentary on National Geographic airing this weekend — but Kagin's says they used facial recognition software to ID several people in the photo at Billy's friends and associates, as well as a diary entry by Sally Chisum, seen in the photo, describing the wedding and the attendees seen in the photo, and helped the authenticators locate the modern-day spot the photo was taken.
While it's easy to read this as a random jackpot story, it's far more complicated than that. Guijarro has spent five years trying to prove it's Billy the Kid in this photo, and sceptics may never agree. Authentication of artifacts, especially when they're potentially very valuable, is hugely tricky. With paintings by masters or conventional antiques, authenticators may be able to use chemical testing and other processes to verify an artwork. But the problem here is that the photo's value depends on verifying the identity of a single subject. Since everyone in the photo, along with the photographer, died a century ago, it's destined to be debated forever.
Yet the discovery and ensuing scramble for authentication did bring at least one interesting historical tidbit to light. Artnet's Sarah Cascone explains:
If croquet seems an uncharacteristically genteel pursuit for such a notorious outlaw, you'd be surprised to learn that the sport had a downright unsavoury reputation back in the day. According to James Charlton and William Thompson's Croquet: The Complete Guide to History, Strategy, Rules, and Records, "it had become associated with gambling, drinking and philandering to such an extent that it was banned in Boston by one Reverend Skinner."
Croquet used to be an outlaw's sport.