February 2, 2010

Another fake Soapy Smith artifact.

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Soapy Smith's powder flask?

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Close-up of flask
"To Bill Cody From Soapy"

ellow historian couple, Ginny and Ivan sent me information on an upcoming auction (February 24, 2010) that contains three gunpowder flasks that are supposed to have belonged to Soapy Smith. One of them is engraved (more like scratched) and presented as a gift to Buffalo Bill Cody.

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"Buffalo Bill" Cody

I am always happy to receive information about Soapy Smith artifacts whether authentic or fakes, but I admit I was especially thrilled to hear about one of the flasks coming up for auction because it gave me the chance to finally see it. I had first learned of this flask back in the 1990s when someone sent me a Xerox copy of a page from a gun book that had been published in the 1950s. Unfortunately the photo was so small on the page that nothing could really be seen, and I had the bad luck of not being able to locate a copy of the book for a decent price, considering I believe the item is a fake. The book has no provenance or source where the flask came from or how the owner obtained it.

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Soapy's flasks?

Ginny informed me that the flask was being auctioned off by Little John’s, an auction firm I happen to be well acquainted with. I can say from several years of personal experience in attending their auctions that their reputation is ... debatable. It has been many years since I have attended one of their auctions but it is obvious by reading the catalog description for the flasks that their "character" remains the same. The gun book from the 1950s only listed the one engraved flask, however Little John’s has had the fortunate luck of having three flasks once owned by Soapy for bid.

The auction description

Lot 659
Lot of three (3) powder flasks with attributed ownership to famous Alaskan pioneer and con man Soapy Smith. These flasks have long been known to collectors and are pictured in Soapy Smith King of the Con Men by Robertson and Harris. One Hawksley shotgun flask with adjustable charger, 2-3/4 drams of powder, measuring approx. 8” from tip to end. The body of the flask engraved “To Bill Cody, from Soapy.” One Donnelley powder can with screw top. One somewhat crude American made primitive powder flask with tin body and brass top, crudely soldered, with spring release. The three flasks are in good condition and show patina finish.
Est.: $1,000-$2,000.

Let’s examine some facts:

    • Little John’s cannot honestly state that these flasks “have long been known to collectors.”
    • Little John’s is wrong in stating that the flask(s) are “pictured (let alone mentioned) in Soapy Smith: King of the [Frontier] Con Men.”
    • The use of the sobriquet “Soapy” began with a newspaper story in 1885, meaning Soapy, age 25, was already a rising business man and underworld power in Denver, Colorado and absolutely not using a cap and ball pistol (that required the use of a powder flask) for personal protection, let alone owning 3 flasks.
    • Soapy hated to be known as “Soapy Smith.” The only time he ever used the alias was to command fear. He certainly would not have used that moniker to sign a gift to Buffalo Bill Cody, a man of whom he did not known personally.
    • If this was indeed a gift to Bill Cody, Soapy (in 1885) would have been making enough money to afford a nicer flask with professional engraving. I don’t see Soapy scratching the flask with his name so crudely that it looks like a child did it, and then hand it over as a gift to Buffalo Bill.

    Am I right or do you disagree? Let me (us) know please...

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