A Colt Single Action Army made specifically for a Metropolitan Museum of Art benefit auction in 1985 is truly a piece of gun artistry. The revolver is one of a kind, from its serial number to its engravings of specific museum pieces.
Made and donated by Colt Industries, the Colt Single Action Army transcends the unadorned working-class Wild West six shooter to become a piece of art through the gorgeous and meticulous work of master gun engraver Alvin White. White began working for Colt following World War 2 and was considered the “dean of American arms engravers.” He passed in 2011.
This amazing Colt Single Action Army that sold at that 1985 auction to benefit the Met’s Arms and Armor Department is among the offerings Rock Island Auction Company will have available in the May 19-21 Premier Auction.
A Colt Single Action Army revolver that was engraved with gold inlay by master gun engraver Alvin White for an auction at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1985 sits in its case with an extra cylinder.
Colt Gun Art at the Met
Steel is the canvas – in this case brilliantly blued steel, and rather than oils and water colors the art medium is 18 karat gold inlays and engraving tools. Master engraver White rose to the occasion for the piece that is considered by some experts to be the most inspired work of his career. The Colt Single Action Army, nestled in the burnt orange velvet of its custom, French-fitted case, shows White and his work are worthy to succeed the 19th century artisans responsible for the finely engraved and gold inlaid Colt Third Model Dragoon and 1851 Navy revolvers that reside in the Met’s collection. Comparisons are easily drawn between those objects at the Met and the Single Action Army on offer this May.
The Met’s Dragoon similarly exhibits a blued finish adorned with gold inlaid animals, borders, a raised relief shield and eagle alongside subtle floral engraving. A portrait of George Washington decorates the cylinder. This revolver was part of a sequentially numbered pair presented to the Czar of Russia, with the other Dragoon currently residing in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Met’s revolver entered the museum’s collection in 1995, but the institution does not list the engraver.
Also exhibited at the Met is a heavily gilded 1851 Navy even more lavish than the Dragoon. It features dense gold inlaid floral scrolling across the gun’s blued finish. Highlights of the gold inlays are a lion, animal heads, birds, the Goddess of Liberty, and a Native American on horseback shooting a buffalo. A hand-engraved naval battle scene is depicted on the cylinder. This is one of five known gold-inlaid Model 1851 revolvers and was a gift to the museum from the Robert M. Lee Foundation in 2018. Gun engraver Waterman Lilly Ormsby is known to have done the cylinder engraving on this piece.
A Colt Model 1849 Pocket Percussion revolver embellished by gun engraver Gustave Young is also part of the Met’s collection. Though not nearly as ornate as the other two Colts, the tight scrollwork displays the work of a true master.
A closeup of the right side of this magnificently embellished Colt Single Action Army shows a flush gold engraved portrait of Bashford Dean, the founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Arms and Armor Department. Also visible is a Japanese sword hand guard in front of the cylinder, gold floral scrolls and crosshatching on the cylinder, a dragon can be seen below Dean’s portrait while an inlaid flush engraved dolphin dolphin is on the hammer.
Colt Single Action Army to Support the Met
The gold inlays truly pop from the Colt Single Action Army’s blued steel. The department’s founder, Dr. Bashford Dean is depicted in a flush inlaid engraved gold can be found on the frame behind the cylinder. Specific items from the Met’s collection are also depicted in the gunmetal in a similar manner. They include a medieval spur that decorates the trigger guard, and a hand and a half sword adorns the back strap. The gun’s fluted cylinder features golden scrolling and cross-hatching. The façade of the Second Branch Bank of the United States that is part of the Met’s American Wing, a relief Renaissance helmet, as well as the museum’s logo are interspersed with floral scrolling in gold inlay on an extra, non-fluted cylinder.
A Swiss dagger, mace, and the Peter Peck over/under Wheelock pistol bedeck the gun’s 7 1/2-inch barrel, and cross-hatching covers the front sight as floral scrolls and borders encircle the muzzle. Joining Bashford on the frame are a Japanese sword guard – or tsuba, stirrup, a sea serpent, and a Merovingian shield boss. Dancing dolphins festoon each side of the Colt Single Action Army’s hammer. A relief chiseled gold eagle with its wings spread is surrounded by flourishes on the butt plate. On the left grip, a plaque in the shape of a Venetian Lion’s head helmet is inscribed “From/Colt Industries/logo/to benefit/Met logo/Dept of Arms & Armor/Christie’s/Octr. 8th 1985.” A plaque in the profile of a Renaissance breastplate is blank and located on the right grip. The grips are oil-stained walnut.
MMA-1, the custom serial number, is on the underside of the frame in front of the trigger guard. Gun engraver White signed his work. “A.A. White” is located on the trigger guard bevel behind the serial number.
A closeup of the right side of this highly embellished Colt Single Action Army auctioned to benefit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1985 shows a Peter Peck over/under Wheelock pistol on the barrel, a stirrup directly behind the cylinder and a Merovingian shield boss. A gold dolphin also adorns the hammer on this side.
Colt Single Action Army at the Met Auction
The Oct. 8, 1985 auction featured 147 lots and was standing room only. Johnny Cash served as a guest auctioneer for a handful of lots. The Colt-donated Single Action Army was the penultimate lot in the catalog and was featured with a full color photo on its catalog page and on the catalog’s cover, sitting atop its vibrant blue case. It wasn’t the only piece of gun art on offer but it was the most spectacular. The New York Times mentioned the revolver specifically in its write up ahead of the auction:
“The most spectacular piece was one that has been promised but not yet given. As its contribution to the Auction, Colt Industries has offered a finely decorated weapon, a modern counterpart to the elaborate armor of Renaissance Europe.
A view of the top of the embellished Colt Single Action Army revolver made specifically for an auction benefiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows a mace on the barrel behind the gold-covered sight, while behind it is a Swiss dagger on the left of the barrel and the Peter Peck over/under wheelock. The one and a half hand sword on the backstrap is also visible.
“The weapon, a custom-made Colt .45 revolver will be richly inlaid and engraved with scenes and details from the Metropolitan Museum. A famous Renaissance helmet in the Arms and Armor Collection, formerly owned by J. Pierpont Morgan, will be engraved on one side of the revolver’s chamber and the façade of the (Second Branch Bank of the United States) that stands in the museum’s American Wing will adorn the other side.
“Every square inch of the weapon is especially designed, right down to the 18-karat-gold front sight and the serial number, `MMA-1’ for Metropolitan Museum of Art-1. The Armor and Arms Club hopes that the one of a kind weapon will sell for more than $25,000 at auction.”
The Single Action Army donated by Colt hammered for $34,000. Whether that was the highest price in the auction was unknown, but it did significantly clear the amount organizers had hoped to achieve.
The underside of the Colt Single Action Army features a spur on the trigger guard and a gold eagle with its wing spread surrounded by scrolling. Its truly unique serial number, MMA-1, can be seen in front of the trigger guard.
The Colt-donated gun art wasn’t the lone Single Action Army in the auction that also featured a number of books, flintlocks, fine sporting arms, and experiential opportunities. A Single Action Army donated by singing cowboy Gene Autry was also available along with one featuring ivory grips, another was a John Wayne commemorative SAA. The only gun to approach the level of artistic endeavor as was invested by White was a Single Action Army embellished by Tiffany & Co. that featured an undersea theme with a seashell on the barrel, swimming dolphins on the cylinder, a wave crashing on the receiver, and sailboats embossed on the grip.
An auction-goer was quoted by the New York Times saying, “Arms and armor is a fine art. It’s just like collecting painting and sculpture. A design on a gun can be every bit as fine as you’d find on an etching.”
A Colt Single Action Army made for a 1985 Metropolitan Museum of Art auction benefiting the museum’s Arms and Armor Department sits on a specially made case of blue leather with a lid tooled in gold leaf. A plain spare cylinder that has the Second Branch of the United States Bank that is now part of the museum’s American Wing, the Met’s logo, and a relief chiseled helmet on it also sits on the case.
Colt Single Action Army Auction Effect
The auction was part of a $4 million fundraising effort for the first-ever expansion and renovation to the Arms and Armor Department. The department was founded in 1912 and by the 1980s, it needed more space. And air conditioning. A lack of air conditioning was causing ivory inlays to loosen on some pieces in the collection. More modern display cabinets and an improved lighting system were also included in the plan. The auction raised more than $500,000 for the expansion.
This amazing Colt Single Action Army won first place at the 2009 Colt Collectors Association Show in Concord, N.C. For the achievement, a Colt Collectors Association Rampant Colt bronze statue by Thomas Palmerton was awarded and is included in the lot.
Colt Single Action Army at Auction, Redux
It is well established that this brilliantly adorned Colt Single Action Army is a work of art and has a case befitting it. The French-fitted blue leather case with gold leaf lettering was made by Arno Werner of Blue Oasis. The case’s lid bears the inscription, “MMA-1/DONATED BY COLT INDUSTRIES/COLT FIREARMS DIVISION/FOR THE BENEFIT AUCTION/THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART/ARMS AND ARMOR DEPARTMENT/CHRISTIE’S NEW YORK/OCTOBER 8th 1985.” A factory letter accompanying the SAA confirms the revolver was specifically made for the auction.
This bespoke Single Action Army auctioned off to benefit the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a genuine piece of art, with its blued steel acting as canvas for dazzling engraving and luminous gold inlays representing pieces found in the Met’s collection as well as a portrait of the Arms and Armor Department’s founder. This is the opportunity to obtain an amazing firearm created by master gun engraver Alvin White to benefit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s encyclopedic collection of weapons.
This bespoke Colt Single Action Army made specifically for a 1985 auction benefitting the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Arms and Armor Department can be seen facing right, showing off the blued steel the engraving and the flush gold inlays and some of the distinct items from the Met on the gun.
Rock Island Auction Company