Accord near in dispute over James gun

April 17, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

A British antiques dealer who has the gun used to kill outlaw Jesse James and the American insurance company that paid off when it was stolen 25 years ago are working out a deal that would clear the way for the historic pistol's auction April 28.

The son of the Towson man who owned the gun when it was stolen may wind up a little richer, too.

The fate of the .44-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver now rests with the Firemen's Fund Insurance Co. and Richard Thompson, 57, a dealer who said yesterday that he bought the Jesse James pistol from a collector a decade ago, not knowing it was stolen or even how valuable it was.

Mr. Thompson will pay either a percentage of the sale price or a flat fee to Firemen's Fund, according to Bob Hope, the insurer's commercial property claims manager in Kansas City. The company paid $9,000 in 1968 to the late Henry G. Lingenfelder of Towson after the gun was stolen from a museum in Missouri to which he had lent it for display.

By paying the claim, the insurance company could legally claim ownership of the gun. But after conferring with a company lawyer in England and with Mr. Thompson, Mr. Hope said striking deal was the best solution.

"I'm going to call him and release any claim that Firemen's has," Mr. Hope said.

The pre-sale estimate of the gun's value at Wallis & Wallis, the English auctioneer in Lewes, Sussex, was at least $150,000. But Mr. Hope said, "The controversy has driven the price up remarkably" because it affirmed the pistol's authenticity and history.

Mr. Thompson, who alternates between Naples, Fla. and Brighton, on England's south coast, said in a telephone interview yesterday that he is also willing to give 2 1/2 percent of the gross sale price to the Lingenfelder family.

In exchange, however, Mr. Thompson said he wants a letter from Henry A. Lingenfelder, of Manchester in Carroll County and son of the former owner, "blessing" the sale. He also wants any documents that trace the gun's provenance.

Mr. Hope said he asked Mr. Thompson if he would let the Smith & Wesson be displayed in the Jesse James House museum in St. Joseph, Mo., where the slaying occurred, or in a museum in the legendary bank robber's hometown of Kearney.

If the pistol does not meet its $60,000 reserve price and goes unsold, Mr. Thompson said, he would consider displaying it once his title to it is confirmed. "I hope it finds a nice home back in the United States," he said.

Mr. Thompson said the revolver was in a small collection of

pistols he bought from a collector in Biloxi, Miss. more than 10 years ago. "I had no idea what we had," he said.

In 1904, E. Stanley Gary, the first Baltimore owner, had the pistol engraved with the legend, "Bob Ford killed Jesse James with this revolver at St. Joseph, Mo. 1882." Mr. Lingenfelder bought it from the Gary estate in 1952.

"Engravings like that don't mean a lot" because they're easy to fake, Mr. Thompson said. But in the mid-1980s, he saw a photograph of the gun in a book about Jesse James. "We compared the rust spots, the pitting, on the pistol with the photograph and they seemed to match, so we assumed it was the same gun," said Mr. Thompson.

Several efforts to sell it to other dealers fell through when they demanded clear provenance, he said.

Mr. Thompson and Henry Lingenfelder disagree over what happened next.

About three years ago, Mr. Thompson said, he telephoned Mr.Lingenfelder, identified himself as someone who was writing about the gun and said it was in England. He said Mr. Lingenfelder told him he understood it to be in a collection in Texas but that he had no further interest in it because the claim had been paid.

Mr. Lingenfelder recalls the conversation differently. He said a man with a British accent telephoned him saying the gun was in England and asking if he would contest ownership. When he said he would, the man hung up, Mr. Lingenfelder said.

Mr. Lingenfelder met yesterday with his lawyer, Robert L. Preller, of Towson, to discuss the insurance company's decision. "We are still considering all the options," said Mr. Preller, who also spoke with the company's lawyer in England.

Last week Mr. Preller asked Scotland Yard to look into the matter. Detective Sgt. Tony Russell, of the Art and Antiques Squad, asked Roy Butler, senior partner at Wallis & Wallis, to withdraw the pistol from sale until the title could be resolved.

Mr. Hope said police now believe there is no criminal activity involved in the current sale, leaving only the possibility of civil litigation in British courts. Mr. Preller said such a suit would involve a "horrendous cost" with an uncertain end. The other parties in the case agreed.

If the pistol does not go to auction, for whatever reason, Mr. Thompson said, "I will make a private sale, but I would like it to go through. I would like it to come out in the open."

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