January 19, 2018


I know. How could I praise one of the Koch brothers?!? I shudder every time I walk into Lincoln Center and see David Koch‘s name on the wall. David and Charles Koch are notorious for supporting extreme right wing causes including the Tea Party. If you are progressive they are the most dangerous corporatist bete-noirs of our age.

David and Charles are the most (in)famous of the clan but many people don’t know that there are actually four Koch brothers, the sons of an engineer who discovered a better way to retrieve gasoline from refining heavy oil early in the Twentieth-Century. Actually, two of the brothers are twins, David and Bill, but as the Village Voice pointed out in a 2011 profile: “In the shadow of his brothers’ Tea Party fame, Bill Koch seems almost like a normal billionaire.” Which doesn’t mean we share an obvious affinity. In 2010, Forbes Magazine estimated Bill Koch’s wealth at $3.4 billion and he uses those billions to support Republican candidates and stifle renewable energy projects among other things. No Thurston Howell, he also is an amateur yachtsman who blew $65 million to win the Americas Cup in 1992.

But another of his hobbies is one that interests me: preservation of historical artifacts. Bill Koch buys and collects American Western memorabilia and artwork and he has a collection that will knock your socks off. You may have read that he recently bought the the only existing photo of BILLY THE KID for $2.3 million.

Billy the Kid's $2.3 million dollar tint type

But that is just the cherry on the sundae. His collection includes stagecoaches, wagons, rifles, Native American clothing and weaponry, Custer’s guidon (military flag) recovered from THE LITTLE BIG HORN, Custer’s yellow deerskin glove, a lock of his goldenhair, his folding chair, Sitting Bull’s breast plate and rifle worn at the battle, the gun that shot Jesse James, Pat Garret’s folding rifle that was in his hands when he was gunned down, actual Indian scalps (!) hanging from spears, memorabilia from Western brothels, saddles, Wyatt Earp’s vest and the Marshall’s star pinned to it, a vast array of cowboy hats, chaps and boots, 150 antique guns and knives-many belonging to famous outlaws and lawmen, a Howitzer cannon from 1867 and a large plexiglass case filled with gold nuggets mined in the West that must be worth a fortune just in itself! And then there is the artwork: original sculptures and paintings from Remington and Russell, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, sepia photos and landscapes.

Bill Koch with Custer's guidon recovered from the Little Big Horn battlefield

Bill Koch lives in Palm Beach (not far from David Koch). I can’t imagine how he keeps this collection (1.5 million objects) in his home, (like Fibber McGee’s closet?!?), but for a few months much of it was exhibited at the Four Square Arts Center in Palm Beach and I had a chance to see it. The museum was bursting with memorabilia and art to the point that some of it had to be hung in the hallway while wagons and coaches were set outside on the lawn of the museum.

Clearly this avalanche of artifacts could be overwhelming but breaking it into smaller displays made it easier to digest. These divisions include Native Americans, Women in the West, Mining, Saloon, The Brothel, Cowboy Life, Economic Growth and Migration, Indian Wars and Firearms.

It is jaw dropping to be inches away from the pennant recovered from the Custer-Sitting Bull Battlefield and to actually touch the table where Billy the Kid’s corpse rested after his assasination, but there were many unexpected things I found here as well.

After Dodge City, Bat Masterson became a newspaperman in NYC. He died in 1921, not in a gunfight but slumped over a typewriter writing his last editorial. His final words included these: “There are those who argue that everything breaks even in this old dump of a world of ours. I suppose these ginks who argue that way hold that because the rich man gets ice in the summer and the poor man gets it in the winter things are breaking even for both. Maybe so, but I’ll swear I can’t see it that way.” Wow! A progressive message preserved and promoted by a Koch brother!

Wyatt Earp's vest, badge and guns

The gun collection here is awesome, from rifles to derringers to pepperboxes and revolvers. One can viscerally understand how firearms became indelibly linked to the American experience. I’m not a gun nut, (although my brother is!) yet I was struck by the artistic beauty and craftsmanship of these pieces.
I hadn’t thought about the pepperbox in years. Pepper-box revolvers have multiple barrels that revolve about a central axis and there were several odd looking, fascinating examples here. Some derringers were so small you could hide them in the palm of your hand.

I was also shocked to see how closely my own toy gun from childhood resembled the actual Colt 45 Peacemaker, even down to the metal engraving and pearl handled grip.

Real or toy? Hint: This one doesn't shoot caps!

For my generation Western mythology was a big part of our childhoods. I remember how much we cherished that old air rifle. The barrel was blocked so it could not shoot out anything dangerous but there was a way to pour baby oil into a small barrel hole so it would waft smoke. That seemed so neat! And, boy did it make a LOUD bang! One day my brother (another brother, not the one with the guns) swung it like Davy Crockett when we got into a fight with neighborhood toughs. The neighborhood kids used to play cowboys (no Indians) dividing into rival teams from Eggert Place and Dickens Avenue, sneaking up and ambushing the other team. And I remember the night we were caught, roped and tied to the monkey bars in the playground until our parents came to rescue us for dinner!

My brother Brian, the Cowboy!

The Wild West inhabited a large part of our imaginations growing up and yet it seems to hardly exist for kids growing up today. Comic book super heroes have taken its place. Will that change in childhood role modeling, divorced from national history and actual heroism, make a difference to this new generation of Americans as they grow into adults?

The Palm Beach exhibit was open only a few months but this collection really cries out for a museum of its own. If we are lucky, Bill Koch will bequeath one someday as a legacy. I may abhor his brother’s name on Lincoln Center but I wouldn’t mind passing through the doors of a Western museum with Bill Koch’s name on it. Its not like he just wrote a check. He spent time, money and effort to gather all these important artifacts in one place and I have to admit, many of my favorite museums (The Frick, The Gardiner, the Neue, The Barnes, the Getty) were created by wealthy robber barons, businessmen and socialites. Collections like these, motivated by personal passions also display a unique individual taste and touch often lacking in professionally curated museums.

Finally, in an interview about this exhibit Bill Koch admitted: “Collecting all this stuff, I’ve become somewhat anti-Manifest Destiny.”

Which might indicate that even for a Koch brother there is hope for personal growth.