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Al Capone's revolver sells for over $100,000

By Laura Allsop for CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A revolver once owned by Al Capone sells for over $100,000
  • Estimate was between $80,000 and $110,000
  • Value lies in Capone's continuing appeal in popular imagination

London (CNN) -- Al Capone, or Scarface as he was popularly known, remains one of America's most notorious gangsters.

With his custom-made suits, fedora and spats, the mobster cut an impressive figure in 1920s gangland Chicago -- and won him legions of fans, despite his many criminal activities, which included bootlegging and racketeering.

Now a revolver once owned by Capone has sold at Christie's auction house in London for $109,080, just shy of its upper estimate of $113,000, despite it being a fairly commonplace model for the time.

"It's a small-frame, narrow-grip, short-barreled revolver which would have been the perfect accompaniment for the dapper gangster about town, slotted under a jacket without making a bulge," explained Howard Dixon, a specialist in Arms and Armor at the auction house.

It's a small-frame, narrow-grip, short-barreled revolver which would have been the perfect accompaniment for the dapper gangster about town
--Howard Dixon, specialist in Arms and Armor, Christie's auction house, London

The Colt. 38 Police Positive double-action revolver was manufactured in 1929, the same year as the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre, in which seven members of Chicago's North Side Irish Gang were shot and killed, allegedly at Capone's orders.

The revolver was passed to Capone's brother Ralph upon his death in 1947 and then onto his sister-in-law, said Dixon. It was put up for sale by a private collector and came with an affidavit sworn in 1990 by Ralph Capone's widow that the gun belonged to Al Capone.

"It's certainly had some shots fired through it, looking at the general condition," said Dixon. "One can suppose that, yes, it could have seen some action somewhere."

Personal articles of Capone's rarely come onto the market, Dixon said, and when they do they tend to generate heat in the salesrooms. The reason, he said, has more to do with Capone's notoriety than anything special about the objects themselves.

"A firearm like this, where you can place it in a particular moment in history, and more importantly, to an infamous person's own hands, is going to appeal not just to gun collectors but people who collect the cult the celebrity," Dixon said.

So why does this mobster, who reigned Chicago's ganglands for a comparatively short period in the roaring 20s, continue to be such a cult figure?

According to Lorcan Otway, director of the Museum of the American Gangster in New York, Capone was adept at creating a public image that captured the imagination of Americans, a feat helped greatly by new media outlets of the time.

"He did horrible things, he was certainly a dangerous criminal thug, but he's a much more complicated figure than has come out in the films and such. He was actually extraordinarily generous and promoted the idea of the businessman criminal who spreads the money around," said Otway.

You see that he had this movie star status
--Lorcan Otway, The Museum of the American Gangster, New York
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Capone's legacy as an urban Robin Hood figure is mitigated by the fact that "he did things that Robin of Loxley would have hated himself for," Otway said.

"But when you see newsreels of hundreds and hundreds of people following him from the court house to the car, you see that he had this movie-star status," he added.

And Otway believes that Capone continues to speak to the American psyche. "We see ourselves as the individual against society and Capone feeds that view of American individualism," he said.

And the fact that Capone's one lengthy spell in jail was only for tax evasion cements his status as the successful outlaw.

Capone's notoriety has dogged his family for years. Deirdre Marie Capone, his grandniece and author of the book "Uncle Al Capone: The untold story from inside his family," told CNN that she hid her heritage for years.

But in spite of his infamy and the pain it once caused her family, she said would never sell any of his effects at auction.

"When his mother died, she gave me a tie-tack of Al's and I made it into a bob that goes onto a necklace, but I wouldn't part with it for anything," Capone said.

Speaking before auction, Dixon said he beileved that the revolver could well reach its upper estimate.

"One the one hand, the fact that it's a firearm might have a slight stigma to it," he said. "On the other hand, the fact that it is a firearm is part of the appeal."

Otway -- whose museum is housed in a former speakeasy -- believes that interest in Capone is soaring again, a fact that he puts down to the economic realities of the present day.

"I think people feel nostalgia for that time, when Prohibition was causing the beginning of the shaking of the American economy, and you had people just partying their way into the Depression," he said.