Original publish date: March 20, 2014
Seeking escape from the coldest, harshest winter in recent memory, I sought escape by attending a liquidation auction at an iconic baby boomer tourist landmark on the site of America’s greatest battlefield; The Gettysburg Wax Museum in Pennsylvania. Aware of my penchant for tourist traps and knowing that the museum was built the year I was born (1962), despite my reservations, she decreed “You’re going.”
Known as “The National Civil War Wax Museum”, the site at 297 Steinwehr Avenue opened April 19, 1962. That week Walter Cronkite took over as CBS anchorman, Bob Dylan performed “Blowin’ in the Wind” for the first time in Greenwich Village, the Boston Celtics won their fourth straight NBA championship, the Seattle World’s Fair opened and Indy 500 champion Al Unser Jr. was born (on the museum’s opening day). The original Museum featured 35 scenes containing over 150 individual figures highlighting the Civil War and Gettysburg. The museum’s purpose was not only to entertain but to educate.
On Saturday, March 15th the museum’s contents were sold to the public at auction. The sale included 95 Civil War wax figures and the accouterments used to illustrate each scene. In it’s half century of service the museum saw over 8 million visitors walk through the turnstiles, now lot # 265 in this very special auction.
Although I had been in the museum many times over the past 25 years, it was a shock to now see the building gutted and lain bare. Most of the auction lots were arranged in the scenes where they had “lived” for the past half-century. It seemed strange to now step into the scenes to get a closer view of the lifelike depictions from the pages of history. These forms thast were gazed upon by untold generations of visitors including presidents, diplomats, dignitaries and just plain folk from every walk of life.
I met 19-year wax museum employee Stephanie Lightner while walking the halls among the ghostly figures. She is the manager of the new museum that will soon be open there. Stephanie says the building was purchased by a New Jersey man who had grown up in Gettysburg and that the facility was being retooled to better accommodate a new generation of visitors. “We’ll be keeping some of the exhibits to display in the new museum,” said Stephanie. She said that the new owner kept all of the staff from the Wax Museum, always a good thing. The new museum, known as the “Gettysburg Heritage Center”, is set to open in late April but as Stephanie smilingly admits, “It might be Memorial Day at this point.”
As I finished perusing the auction lots, I halted at an area tucked away in a back corner of the hall. This dimly lit crook featured tiered shelves upon which rested approximately 40 disembodied heads. Some of the heads were recognizable to me; Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson. On a shelf nearby lay a pile of arms, legs and hands. Some of these body parts, in keeping with the brutality of the Civil War, were spattered with blood stains. Seeing these, I turned to my wife and said “Now these have the potential to go sky high.”
Officially, the auction featured 335 official lots but that number would balloon to over 400 by close of sale. The crowd quickly ballooned to standing room only. It was a strange mix of Civil War re-enactors, Harley dude’s and local Pennsylvania Dutchmen. I spotted a few ghost hunter types in the crowd as well, no doubt hoping to score a disembodied head, bloodstained arm or broken hand should the opportunity arise. I saw some familiar faces, among them Gettysburg’s former Abe Lincoln, Bill Ciampo, who told me, “I just came to see if there was a market for this stuff. When I sold my Lincoln wax statue, I sold it for $500 just to get rid of it.” Ciampo walked up to the Lincoln figures (the museum had three full Lincoln figures and one head) and said, “See, their chins are already drooping, that’s why I got rid of mine.”
The synchronicity of the moment was not lost on me as, outside just yards away, bulldozers busily cleared out the massive football field sized blacktop parking lot. It had once served the old visitor’s center (torn down in 2008) and Cyclorama building, built the same year as the wax museum and torn down in March 2013. In the past 25 years I watched as other tourist landmarks disappeared from the borough including the Lincoln Room Museum, The National Tower, and now, the Wax Museum.
Also among the crowd was Erik L. Dorr, curator and owner of “The Gettysburg Museum of History” at 219 Baltimore Street. Erik painstakingly maintains his fantastic personal collection of relics from the Battle and the pages of American history within the walls of his ancestral family home. “The house was built in the 1850s and has been in my family for four generations. It was extensively remodeled in 1867 and again in the early 1900s.” said Dorr.
On this day, Mr. Dorr was searching for additions to his massive collection. “I’m running out of room at my Museum now. I actually tried to buy the whole Wax Museum, including the contents, land and building. I thought it would be a fun experiment and I was getting financing in order but it didn’t fall into place fast enough and the museum sold.” says Dorr, “I would have kept the wax museum intact as much as possible while adding my collection to it.” Among the items he bid on and won were the Jenny Wade, George Armstrong Custer and John Wilkes Booth wax statues. He also bought many of the signs including the iconic interior entryway sign that lit up to indicate when the next group should enter.
“I bought most of the Jenny Wade booth with the idea of recreating it in my museum.” Dorr remarked. “As it stands now, I’ll have to display the statues one at a time because of space limitations.” Mr. Dorr reports that he is actively looking for a new space to house his collection, “I could get a place just outside of the town limits, but I want it to stay in the borough of Gettysburg.” Currently Dorr, the consummate historian, is busy making plans to attend the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion at Normandy in early June as an invited guest. “They’re calling this the last reunion.” he says, “The trip is pretty brutal and most of the vets won’t make it to the 75th.” But that’s a story for a future column.
Seated nearby were a young couple whom I met by taking a photo of them proudly displaying their bidder number. Turns out this couple was Scott and Lori Hilts from Arcade New York. They live on an 1850s dairy farm and Scott has converted the barn into a museum dedicated to the battle of Gettysburg. In a familiar refrain, Scott admits, “I’m running out of room. It’s 40’by 80′, but I might have to expand.”
Scott, owner and operator of 2 funeral homes, proudly traces his roots back to Corp. John Christ of Co. E 136th New York State volunteer infantry who was wounded on the mystical third day at Gettysburg. “I bought the (Robert E.) Lee and (George) Meade figures because I felt they were the ones most identified with Gettysburg,” Hilts said, “but I bought some paintings and signs too. Since I bought the Lee-Longstreet conference painting, I went ahead and bought the General James Longstreet figure too.” He also bought a colorful Zouave soldier to represent the many ethnic troops that fought at Gettysburg and to honor his home state.
I asked Lori about Scott’s Gettysburg obsession and she explained that she was “fine with it and it keeps him out of trouble.” She admitted that when Scott told her of his plans to purchase a wax figure or two, she thought the idea was “strange” and her biggest fear was running into one of them in the middle of the night. “As long as they stay in his man cave, then I guess it’s all right.” Besides, Lori reports that she found a Steiff “center stitched teddy bear” the next day at an antique show in nearby New Oxford so, “It was a good tip for me too.”
Scott, an arduous collector whose specialty is images, letters and diaries of soldiers killed, wounded or held as POWs at Gettysburg, loves nothing better than researching every item he adds to his collection. Over the years I have found that it is often collectors like Scott who are most dedicated to the preservation, protection and promotion of history. Scott Hilts is one of those new breed “collector as curator / preservationists.”
By my count the auction grossed just over $ 100,000, a figure that does not reflect the 10% buyers premium. There were over 350 registered bidders from as far away as Los Angeles. You might think it would be one of the statues that brought the most money at the sale. But the top lot was # 317, a rare Singer sewing machine made in 1846, that brought $5775 and a round of applause from the crowd. The famous General figures, and those of Jennie Wade and Jesus Christ, all landed in the $1000 neighborhood. The Lincoln figures sold for upwards of $2000 each. But many of the lots receiving spirited bidding included the furniture, wall hangings, and artwork that adorned the scenes. Items that went largely unnoticed by museum visitors focused solely on the statues. Civil War military equipment and uniforms used to adorn the wax figures (swords, belts, hats, saddles, and bayonets) all sold well.
A personal favorite was the larger-than-life animated figure of Abraham Lincoln, for years the closing scene for the Museum. This figure moved ever so slightly to the cadence of The Gettysburg Address, or at least it used to. Now the figure looked rather sad, more resembling the Addams family Lurch character than our 16th President. The $ 2200 winning bid came via phone. I couldn’t help but wonder if the bidder would’ve been half as exuberant had they been there to view the statue in person. Oh, and that turnstile I mentioned before, it sold for $ 495. A pittance when you consider the aggregate humanity that hip-checked their way past its mechanical tentacles.
After the last lot was hammered down, I asked Erik Dorr if there were any surprises or regrets at the auction. “I thought most stuff went as expected, but some lots went higher than I would’ve guessed. I knew the Gettysburg lots would go high and recognized many local collectors in the crowd. But it seemed like they waited, bid on the lot they wanted, and left, which might’ve actually helped me.” Dorr said “I wanted to bid on one of the paintings or the Lincolns, but couldn’t justify the high price. I noticed that after the sale, all of the Lincoln statues were grouped together waiting for shipment. I suspect that they were all sold to the same bidder and that they might have actually sold for more had bidding continued.”
When I posed the same question to Scott Hilts, he responded, “I thought things went very reasonably, not cheap, but lower than I expected.” As for regrets, he says, “I wish I’d have bought the George Pickett figure. It only sold for $ 700. I should have bought more of the paintings too.” Scott offers perhaps the most touching observations of the day by saying, “I first came to this museum when I was 8-years-old. I brought my son Derron here when he was the same age. (Scott has 3 daughters too). Now Derron is graduating from Fredonia State University this June. My Great-Great-Grandfather was wounded where those bulldozers are working right now. In fact, he may well have received his wound right here where the museum sits. He was here that’s for sure.” Scott Hilts love for Gettysburg is deeply rooted.
Undoubtedly the happiest person in the room that day was a young woman named Kim Yates. She was hard to miss. Towards the end of the auction she bid on, and won, the last wax figure in the catalog. Suddenly, the previously sedate young lady began to scream wildly and jump around the room. One of the ringmen sidled over to me, after noting the look of obvious surprise on my face, and whispered, “She’s never bid in an auction before.”
Within moments, that same ringman rolled out those uncatalogued body parts. The Lincoln head sold for $330, then Andy Jackson’s head brought $275, followed by several more disembodied heads sporting powdered wigs sold for $ 250 each. Then it was down to the bloodied heads. Suddenly Kim Yates sprang to the front of the room and began bidding on the grisly remains faster than the ringmen could keep up with. After all was finished and the last lot hammered down, Kim told me, “I bought 6 heads, 4 torsos, a sword and a whole bunch of hands and arms.” Turns out that Kim runs a haunted attraction near Baltimore known as “Kim’s Krypt”, scheduled to open that very night. “My only worry is getting them back in time to display them tonight.” Who knew that props from one of Gettysburg’s most esteemed museums would someday end up in a haunted house? I told you those body parts would go crazy.
As you can see in this clip, I nearly owned this sign (the ring-man is pointing at me). Instead, it went to Eric Dorr’s museum in Gettysburg. A suitable place.