Ten Grand No-Name

Jim Bowie’s famous fighting knife. This one brought $11,750 at Rock Island in August in spite of having no provenance or identification beyond the name “ET Henry” etched on the blade. Perhaps the bidders knew something no one else did. It measures 18⅜ inches. Courtesy of Rock Island Auction Company

by Terry Wieland

“There are strange things done, ‘neath the midnight sun, by the men who moil for gold…” wrote Robert Service, as he began his tale, in verse, of the cremation of Sam McGee. The Klondike today may be given over to snowmobiles and ATVs, but men still go forth to seek their fortunes, and more than a few do so at the Rock Island auction.

Every auction produces surprises, some in the form of erstwhile treasures selling for a pittance — rare, admittedly — and sometimes the reverse, when a modest item, expected to sell for pennies, goes for thousands.

The Rock Island premier auction in August had one such: A no-name Bowie knife, with no provenance, in pretty rough shape. Americans love Bowie knives the way they love Sharps rifles and Colt revolvers. Even so, this one was inexplicable: Expected to sell for a maximum of $1,500, when the gavel fell it changed hands for $11,750 — hammering at $10,000 plus the buyer’s premium of 17.5 per cent.

The auctioneer was Jessica Tanghe (who is also vice president of acquisitions) and as the bidding duel progressed, with two determined buyers going head to head, she at first looked bemused and finally simply unbelieving.

When the bidding gets above $5,000, each leap up is $500, and when it gets to $10,000, the increment becomes $1,000. At $10,000, then, the next bid would have been $11,000 which, with the premium, would put the final price close to $13,000. These plateaux of bidding increments can be put to good tactical use because they present a psychological barrier. Whether the losing bidder ran out of money, breath, or simply came to his senses, who knows?

Jessica was not the only one who couldn’t believe what was happening, and when the bidding ended, the winner got a round of applause usually reserved for a guy paying a million bucks for a Walker Colt.

It’s hard to know exactly where to place James (Jim) Bowie in the pantheon of American frontier heroes.  I gained my first impression of him in long-ago childhood by way of Walt Disney’s depiction of the fall of the Alamo, and also a picture in a Classic comic which showed him in his sick-bed stabbing a Mexican soldier with his famous knife, and other soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets bursting through the door.

This is the legend, but it has been called into question. Undoubtedly, Bowie died at the Alamo, but other than that, some facts are cloudy and others show him in a less than admirable light. The absence of eye-witnesses complicates things. Before emigrating to Texas, Bowie’s career was pretty spotty.

He is known to have engaged in slave dealing, employing some practices worthy of Wall Street at its worst.  After the importation of slaves was outlawed, he smuggled them in from Jean Lafitte’s island, turned himself in for the reward, then bought the slaves back at a knockdown price and resold them upriver. That, at least, is the way it’s described in modern accounts.

At some point, he “designed” the Bowie knife, which is a pure and simple fighting knife, intended for no other purpose except possibly chopping kindling. Other knives of the time included skinning knives, as well as poignards, daggers, and stilettos — good for stabbing and assassination.

The Bowie could chop and slice as well as stab, and its weight gave it considerable authority. It closely resembles the traditional German hunting knife carried by hunters in the Alps, and that had been in use since at least the Middle Ages. In America, however, such a knife would now be called a Bowie knife. For the longest time, dying at the Alamo was all you needed to wipe out past sins and become a hero, and Jim Bowie is proof of that.

The knife that sold at Rock Island was undoubtedly large — 18⅜ inches long — and size seems to matter in the case of Bowie knives. The only identification was a name, “ET Henry,” etched in acid on the blade.  Whether that was the maker, or an owner, who knows?

Possibly the bidders knew, or thought they knew, something no one else did. If nothing else, they certainly gave everyone an entertaining few minutes. Too bad Robert Service is not around to immortalize such events, as he did Sam McGee.

Gray’s Shooting Editor Terry Wieland has a nice Bavarian hunting knife that measures 15½ inches and has his name etched on the blade. It was made to commemorate the introduction of the Sauer 101 a decade ago. It’s not for sale, but he has hopes it will bring a pile a century from now.