GARRYOWEN — About an hour before this flyspeck of a town and a large collection of historic documents were to be auctioned off Wednesday afternoon, auctioneer Tommy Williams reflected on the fickleness of the business.
“Something that’s this unique, it’s hard to predict how things will turn out,” he said.
In this case, things didn’t turn out at all.
Just before 4 p.m., when the auction was scheduled to begin, Williams stood in front of the Custer-themed collection of buildings and announced that there would be no auction.
“The reason is very simple,” Williams said. “There is nobody that has registered today. Is it still for sale? The answer is yes.”
Williams followed that up with a couple more rhetorical questions.
“Do we have people who are sincerely interested? Yes. Are they here today? No.”
This marked the third time that owner Christopher Kortlander has attempted to sell off the town, which is really an unincorporated tourist stop about five miles south of Crow Agency just off Interstate 90.
The seven-acre property, which is within the Crow Indian Reservation, includes a gas station, a Subway restaurant, a post office, a gift store and museum. Kortlander’s 4,000-square-foot residence is built on top of the other structures.
Sotheby’s of London had no takers when it listed the town in 1997 for $2.95 million.
Kortlander then tried auctioning the property in 2008. That auction, which was to include his recently acquired 6,000-piece Elizabeth Bacon Custer Manuscript Archive, had a starting bid of $6.5 million.
Before that auction was held, however, Kortlander sued the Texas auction house running the sale, accusing it of failing to market the properties as agreed and of failing to return to him consigned historical artifacts.
The auction house countered by saying Kortlander had breached the agreement by failing to deliver the Elizabeth Custer archive as promised. That case was later settled out of court under undisclosed terms.
On Wednesday, Kortlander made a brief appearance about 45 minutes before the auction was to start, but he referred all question to Williams, founder of the Oklahoma-based auction house of Williams and Williams.
“That’s why I hired the big boys,” Kortlander said. “I’ll let them do the talking.”
Williams, who is semi-retired but still conducts about 50 sales a year, said Williams and Williams will continue trying to sell Garryowen and the archive, but not at auction.
Also in attendance Wednesday was Matt Robertson, with NAI Business Properties in Billings. He said NAI began listing the property last January and is now co-listing it with Williams and Williams.
Williams said Kortlander contacted his company after Williams and Williams auctioned off the one-person town of Buford, Wyo., in April. The town sold for $900,000 to a buyer from Vietnam.
As Williams explained it, the plan Wednesday was to sell the town and the archive together, with a starting bid of $500,000, or separately, with starting bids of $250,000 each.
But, he said, those bids were simply starting points and “should never have been considered a base price.” The actual value of the property and the archive was “far, far in excess” of the starting bids, he said, “in the millions of dollars.”
Kortlander did not have a stated reserve price, Williams said, but he would not have been obliged to accept any bid.
The town of Garryowen, established in 1895 as a railroad water stop, is just across the Little Bighorn River from the National Park Service’s Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.
Garryowen is near where the first shots were fired in the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876. In that most famous battle of the Indian Wars, five companies of the 7th Cavalry under the command of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer were wiped out by an allied force of mostly Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. The town was named for an Irish marching song that was adopted by the 7th Cavalry.
On the 50th anniversary of the battle in 1926, a commemoration that drew 50,000 visitors was staged at Garryowen. Earlier that year, the headless remains of a trooper had been found by a road crew, and during the commemoration the remains were buried in an elaborate tomb of the unknown soldier.
The auction was to have taken place in front of the tomb.
Kortlander has owned Garryowen since 1993. He is still locked in a battle of his own with the federal government, which conducted a five-year investigation into his alleged dealings in fraudulent artifacts and eagle feathers in violation of federal law.
The investigation was dropped in 2009 and no charges were ever filed, but the government still has not returned some artifacts. Kortlander subsequently filed motions for the return of the seized items, as well as a tort claim seeking $188 million in damages.
Auctioneer Williams and four or five assistants flew in from Oklahoma for the auction, and two Sundown Security guards were also on the scene. Among the dozen or so onlookers was Billings resident Jim Court, a former superintendent of the Little Bighorn Battlefield.
After Williams announced the cancellation of the auction, Court jokingly asked if the auction house could reimburse him for the gas he used driving down to Garryowen.
“You came out for the entertainment value, and that’s what you got,” Williams said. “I’m not going to charge you anything.”