Only once in a blue moon does a collector like the late Walter J. O’Connor come along. Those who attended or bid from afar as Morphy’s auctioned the late O’Connor’s pre-eminent collection of historical Americana could attest to that, whether they knew him or not. The $2.3 million sale held on September 26, 2018 showcased his assemblage of early American rarities – most of them antique military firearms, accoutrements and ephemera – that simply had no peer in private hands. From hand-drawn Revolutionary War maps and George Washington signed letters to a grouping of late-17th/early 18th-century engraved powder horns, the 70-year O’Connor collection had them all and had the best.
The top lot of the sale, a 1759 French fusil de chasse, or hunting musket, had been purchased by O’Connor in the 1960s as part of a New Jersey auctioneer’s sizable personal collection of antique arms. Originally, an estimated 244 wampum beads had been inlaid into the stock; 153 remained at the time of the gun’s consignment to Morphy’s. The highly important musket sailed past its $40,000-80,000 estimate to sell for $102,000. All prices quoted in this report include a 20% buyer’s premium, per Morphy’s pre-stated terms.
“Antique firearms were always central to Walter O’Connor’s collection. He started collecting them at the age of seven, when he was gifted with an 1842 musket,” said Dan Morphy, president of Morphy Auctions. “It inspired him to start collecting early American military weapons, which he paid for by mowing lawns. He never once wondered what the future held in store for him; he always knew he would be deeply involved in historical Americana.”
Another rare and historically significant gun was the Ferguson breech-loading flintlock-pattern Rifle No. 2 produced by the London gunmaker Durs Egg. Developed by British Lt. Colonel Patrick Ferguson (1744-1780) and supplied to the Board of Ordinance in 1776, this rifle was one of only 100 made, all expressly designated for military use during the Revolutionary War. One of only 12 known to exist – half of which are held in museum collections – the example offered by Morphy’s was featured and discussed in the book British Flintlock Military Rifles: 1740-1840. It sold within estimate at $96,000.
Throughout his life, O’Connor was a dealer, collector and sought-after authority who was called upon to catalog antique weapons for auction houses and evaluate them for prestigious institutions and historical societies. He even appraised the entire inventory of the Stembridge Arsenal, then located at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. The arsenal was the go-to source of authentic arms to use in movie production.
One could easily imagine some of O’Connor’s exquisite 18th-century pistols playing a role in cinematic swashbucklers of the 1930s to 1950s. His Scottish all-steel flintlock pistol by Allen & Basket, lotted together with a hilted backsword, were identified as having been used by Ensign James Grant of the First Highland Battalion during the French and Indian War. Grant’s pistol, sword and military papers were carefully preserved by his descendants for more than 200 years and came to Morphy’s with not only family documentation, but also exhibition loan documents. Against an estimate of $40,000-60,000, the duo realized $90,000.
Also, O’Connor’s collection included a pair of fine 1760 Bailes (English) silver-mounted flintlock pistols that originally belonged to Archibald Montgomerie (1726-1796), a Scottish earl, general, Member of Parliament and head of Clan Montgomerie who served in the French and Indian War. Steeped in history, the pair of pistols rose to $55,575 against an estimate of $15,000-40,000.
O’Connor’s peerless knowledge of engraved powder horns was well known within the hobby, and his collection housed many outstanding examples. Three of his exceptional powder horns achieved identical auction prices, each selling for $84,000. They included a rare horn polychrome-engraved with a view of Charlestown, South Carolina and Fort Johnston; a 1759 horn originally belonging to Elijah Sharp and engraved “Defiance to the Proud French;” and a 1764 powder horn inscribed ‘John Cox’ and ‘1764, Fort Pitt’ [the western Pennsylvania fort built by British colonists during the Seven Years’ War].
“To me, the biggest surprise was the way the documents and manuscripts performed. There was a lot of interest from both individuals and institutions, including the Fort Pitt Museum,” Morphy said. The ephemera category was led by a circa-1758 Francis Pfister folding map of the Hudson River Corridor, complete with original travel case. It surpassed expectations to close at $84,000.
“We were so honored to have been chosen to auction Walter O’Connor’s incomparable collection,” Morphy added after the sale. “He had amassed and generously shared seven decades of knowledge with many friends who were grateful they could bid on pieces from his collection.”