Wednesday, December 2, 2009

John Dillinger Dilligence: Amazing trove relating to America's most famous ganster readies at Heritage Auctions

Dec. 2, 2009
Posted by Noah

So this one has been a few months in the making, has encompassed national news coverage, a few would-be scandals from mongerers of such things and a whole lot of open-mouthed astonishment from those of us here at Heritage that have actually come face to face with the amazing John Dillinger trove, consigned by Dillinger's little sister, Frances Helen, that will be featured in the Dec. 12 Arms & Militaria Auction.

Let's just say that it's an exciting thing. Letters, guns, clothing, watches and even currency that was in Dillinger's pocket when he was shot, all of these things are part of this amazing trove. It's one of those amazing gatherings that defy explanation when you first see it. It takes a lot to impress the experts at Heritage, but when this stuff came in our Director of Civil War & Militaria Auctions, one Dennis Lowe - normally a man of quiet reserve - could barely contain his amazement.

"I've been in this business 38 years," he said, "and I've never seen anything like this. A grouping of materials this significant, and related to such a huge figure in America's collective memory, is a truly remarkable occurrence in the annals of collecting."

Agreed, times two. Actually, make that infinity+1 no backs.

The icing on the cake will be when Frances Helen herself comes to town for the auction next week. She's in her 80s now, having been only 12 when "Johnny" was killed, and she's still as sharp as ever and her memories of her older brother are quite clear. This amazing gathering of Dillinger-related material has been in her possession for decades and, while it may seem a vast treasure to the rest of us, to her it has been a heavy reminder of her departed and beloved big brother. She has held on to them to assure their safety, and the safety of her brother's legacy, but has decided that now is the time to part with the treasure, all to benefit her family's future.

For what it's worth, Dillinger comes off very well in archive, but still very crafty and smart. He relates in detailed letters to his father how he came to be who he is, and is represented physically by an amazing hunting suit worn during the shootout in Little Bohemia, WI. If history and popular memory bears out that Dillinger wasn't such a nice guy, his family still views him as a generally good man gone astray, one who just happened to really like robbing banks but never hurt anyone.

It may be disputable whether the last bit is true, but it's also never been proven.

One thing that will be proven in just under two weeks from now is what these amazing personal Dillinger treasures are worth to the collecting world at large. His Double Derringer, seized when he was arrested in Tucson, AZ, sold for more than $95,000 last June. If the items in this archive come anywhere close to that, then Frances Helen and her progeny stand to do pretty well off of Big Brother Johnny.
For all the damage he had done to his name and family during his crime sprees in the 1930s, perhaps his greatest legacy will ultimately be the security he has provided his family with, and the pop culture treasures released to the world.

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-Noah Fleisher

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