History

Sacramento auction house puts trove of California history up for bid

Brian Witherell holds a photo with a patch and other World War II items that belonged to the late insurance company founder James O. Burpo and will be auctioned by Sacramento-based Witherell’s as part of its “Western Design” auction running from May 1 to 15.
Brian Witherell holds a photo with a patch and other World War II items that belonged to the late insurance company founder James O. Burpo and will be auctioned by Sacramento-based Witherell’s as part of its “Western Design” auction running from May 1 to 15. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Brian Witherell has had his hand in scores of auctions over the years, but the one that started Friday is closest to his heart.

The annual “Western Design” auction through May 15 at Witherell’s auction house in Sacramento is steeped in California history and includes a diverse list of items dating back to the Gold Rush era.

“This is my pet project. This is the one I think about the most,” said Witherell, chief operations officer of the family business started by his father, Brad, in 1969. “My hand is on this one. I think it represents our family’s devotion to California and the West.”

One of the prize offerings is a gold watch fob with a special, engraved golden spike attachment. The screw-size spike is made of the excess gold – called sprue – broken off from the original, ceremonial golden spike driven by Leland Stanford to formally complete the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. The famed spike connected the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit in what was then Utah Territory.

Witherell’s has estimated the bracelet-size chain’s value at $10,000 to $15,000. It is believed to be one of less than a dozen known to exist.

That’s just the beginning of a diverse collection of more than 200 lots covering more than 150 years of history. A preview of the lots up for bid will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at Witherell’s, 300 20th St. in Sacramento.

Items for bid also include an ornate, meticulously engraved San Francisco silver service from 1852; vintage Western paintings and artwork, including a 1908 bronze by internationally famous artist Frederic Remington with an estimated value of $30,000 to $50,000; a Native American Pomo gift basket from 1860; an early 20th-century cast-iron slot machine; a wide selection of antique firearms; a sterling silver humidor presented to former Gov. Pat Brown; an extremely rare 1909 Tiffany Favrile glass vase valued at $8,000 to $12,000; a patriotic letter signed by Texas legend Sam Houston; and 1962 original-print photos of Marilyn Monroe, taken by photographer Bert Stern shortly before Monroe’s death that year.

Local history also is represented.

A bomber jacket and other World War II items of the late Sacramento insurance company founder James O. Burpo will be auctioned. Burpo joined the U.S. Army Air Forces after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor and flew B-29 bombing raids on Japan. His flight suit and cap, military trunk and suitcase, insignia, identity bracelet, papers and other artifacts are being sold in a single lot. Burpo opened James Burpo Insurance Inc. in Sacramento in 1952. He died in 2004.

Witherell calls the Burpo items “the most extensive World War II pilot archive I’ve ever seen.”

Witherell is known nationally for his work as an expert appraiser on PBS’ long-running “Antiques Roadshow” series. That far-reaching reputation has served him well as Witherell said many tips about valuable items come to him from out of the blue. The “golden spike” watch fob discovery, for instance, was the result of a chance phone call from a descendant.

“We’re very fortunate to learn about so many historical items that we didn’t even know existed ... items that could be lost to history,” Witherell said.

The Western Design auction has more than 300 lots, with an estimated value of around $300,000, Witherell said.

Some of the auction items also will be displayed next Friday and Saturday at Witherell’s “Old West Show” at the Nevada County Fairgrounds in Grass Valley.

Witherell’s is among a group of companies that sell online through New York-based iGavel Auctions. Witherell said the local auction house’s periodic auctions typically draw bids from all parts of the United States. Witherell’s hosted its first live estate auction in Sacramento in January.

For more information, see witherells.com or call (916) 446-6490.

Call The Bee’s Mark Glover, (916) 321-1184.

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