The last Colt handgun made in the city of Hartford will be up for sale in Las Vegas Sunday in the first phase of what may be the largest auction of firearms made by the legendary Connecticut gunmaker.
Two major investors in the Colt companies are liquidating their collection of about 1,200 firearms, including the Single Action Army model made in the onion-domed factory along I-91 on May 31, 1994, shortly before Colt moved to West Hartford.
The auctioneer estimates that the gun, engraved with the date, will fetch $150,000 to $250,000.
Donald E. Zilkha and John P. Rigas, New York investors, bought the struggling Colt's Manufacturing Co. in 1994, and later provided additional capital. The Colt gun collection was used as partial collateral, Zilkha said.
Zilkha said the auction is one way of recouping some of the investment. "This was a very tough company to save. ... At different times, we were forced to put up money out of our pockets. Along the way, certain things had to be put up for collateral."
Hartford-born Samuel Colt established his armory in Hartford in the late 1840s. It became a world-famous gun producer, synonymous with both its home city and Yankee ingenuity.
Colt is regarded as the father of the single-action revolver and his .45-caliber "Peacemaker" as one of two guns that "won the West." (The other was a Winchester repeating rifle, made in New Haven.)
Today, Colt is split into two firms, Colt Defense and Colt's Manufacturing Co. Zilkha said there are no plans to sell them.
Sunday's auction of the first 430 items from the Colt Factory Archives Collection will take place at the Riviera Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
Colt previously gave away or sold parts of its collection, and most items in the coming auction were made in the mid-to-late 20th century.
"In rare cases, they are pure museum pieces," Zilkha said.
Still, the collection includes many prototypes, samples and other models of interest to collectors, said Herbert G. Houze, author of "Sam Colt: Arms, Art and Invention."
"From a gun collector's point of view, they're gong to be quite excited," Houze said.
In 1957, the Colt company donated a cache of antique items to the Museum of Connecticut History, which has about 400 Colts.
The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art also has about 50 Colts once owned by Colt himself. Museums in Wisconsin, Wyoming, Texas and California also have major Colt holdings. The largest collections are thought to be held by private, often secretive people.
"There are private collections of Colt firearms that just take your breath away," said Dean Nelson, administrator of the Museum of Connecticut History, part of the state library.
One collector, a retired California businessman who goes by the pseudonym "Buck Stevens," is offering 77 Colts for auction Sunday, along with the Zilkha and Rigas items. Stevens has many 19th-century guns. Nelson has identified about 100 auction items the museum would like to acquire, many that it once hoped Colt would donate, he said.
Nelson declined to characterize the liquidation of the Colt collection as good or bad, but noted that the museum and its collection would be "here to the end of time."
"If the stuff is dispersed across an auction block," he said, "you're not going to know where it is."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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