BILLINGS, Mont. — Thomas Minckler has spent most of his 40-year working life helping other people acquire rare and valuable artifacts, most of them related to the American West and early Montana history.
Some of his clients have been major collectors, some of them very rich, and Minckler's job as either a seller or consultant was to help them assemble whatever items were needed to build or round out their collections.
At the age of 64, he has come to a realization.
"I'm finding I'm one of the big boys, too," he said. "I don't have the money, but I have the materials."
That he does.
Brian Dippie, a historian of the American West who has written extensively on Custer and C.M. Russell, among other subjects, said Minckler has "a personal collection now that will be unmatchable."
Minckler's hope is to place discrete parts of his collection in various public institutions, or even to house the whole collection in a private museum. For now, though, his focus is to keep expanding his collection of books, artwork, photographs, manuscripts and artifacts related to the early history of Montana.
Among his treasures is a document written by Frank Linderman, biographer of Chief Plenty Coups, to which the Crow chief affixed his thumbprint in lieu of a signature. He has an original tintype bearing the only known photo of James Kipp, the fur trader and builder of Fort Union.
He has the original drawing of the Great Northern Railway's familiar logo, created by the artist Joseph Scheuerle, a friend of Charles M. Russell. He also has a book from Russell's library — Linderman's "Bunch-Grass and Blue-Joint," inscribed by Linderman to Russell.
One of the prizes of his collection is a unique copy of Agnes Laut's "The Blazed Trail of the Old Frontier," illustrated by Russell. Russell had his friend, a calligrapher, write a special invocation for the book, and he created a watercolor illustration. The calligraphic invocation and Russell's watercolor were both inserted in the book and the book was rebound.
Minckler says the volume is, beyond question, "the rarest and most desirable Russell book" in existence. Words like "rare" and "desirable" are scattered throughout a conversation with Minckler. So is the phrase "the only known copy in private hands."
In that category is a battered copy of the second book printed in Montana Territory, published in 1867. The book is J. Allen Hosmer's "A Trip to the States by Way of the Yellowstone and Missouri."
Hosmer was only 15 when he wrote, edited, printed, bound and distributed the book himself. His father, Hezekiah Hosmer, was the first chief justice of the Montana Territorial Court, appointed by President Abraham Lincoln.
A first-edition copy of "The Vigilantes of Montana" by Thomas Dimsdale, the first book published in Montana (1866), also sits on Minckler's shelves. It is signed on the first page of the text by one of the vigilantes, N.P. Langford.
Minckler says his collection is the only one that has first editions of both Hosmer's and Dimsdale's books.
Dippie, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, said Minckler has been known for decades as a leading dealer in Western books. His niche was providing collectors with a pristine copy of some rare work, often inscribed by the author or illustrator, or by a famous former owner of the book.
Minckler was also savvy enough to know that when he had that perfect or unique copy of a book, collectors would pay whatever price he asked for it, Dippie said.
"He had amazing stuff," Dippie said. "He was always the dealer with the most magical wares."
Minckler had several galleries in Billings over the years, but he has been without a storefront business since 2002, when he started splitting his time between New York and Billings.
"I rarely sell anymore, but I'm constantly buying," he said. "I just bought five letters, fur-trade letters, talking about Jim Bridger."
Minckler has also partly sold and partly donated items or collections to numerous public institutions. His uniquely large collection of frontier photographer L.A. Hoffman — including photographs, letters, documents and studio equipment — went to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., as part of a seven-figure sale and donation.
When the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls acquired the Frederic Renner collection of Russell books, catalogs and other materials, Minckler was brought in to appraise the collection.
And when the federal Bureau of Land Management bought Pompeys Pillar from a private party, Minckler appraised the value of that family's collection of rare books and historical materials.
One of the great joys of his collecting is seeing all the connections between people and institutions and the artifacts they left behind. Minckler said the collection is like a giant jigsaw puzzle in which each piece has its place.
He has an ornate certificate signed by Lincoln, appointing as a private aide to Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher the soldier who saved the general's life during a Civil War battle.
Meagher would later become acting governor of Montana Territory. In that position, in 1865, Meagher granted a pardon to convicted murderer James B. Daniels. Daniels unwisely bragged about his pardon in the taverns of Helena, whereupon a mob of outraged citizens dragged him out and hanged him, with Meagher's pardon stuffed in his jacket pocket.
Minckler has an original photo of the hanging, one of the earliest in Helena.
"I found that in Gettysburg," Minckler said. "I can't believe I found that."
John Esp, a member of the Montana House of Representatives from Big Timber, has a large collection of Montana books and is slowly working on a book of his own — a history of printing in early Montana.
He has bought items from Minckler and has made use of Minckler's collection while working on his book. Esp said he knows lots of collectors, some of whom might have a better collection than Minckler in regard to some individual subject or historical figure.
But, he said, "not many of them know as much about as many things as Tom. He probably knows more than anybody in the state on such a broad base."
A second-generation Montanan, Minckler was born in Cut Bank. He still has a few arrowheads he found as a young boy, and he collected stamps and baseball cards for a time, but he didn't become seriously interested in collecting until taking a job in San Francisco after graduating from the University of Montana.
He had studied history, political science and philosophy — "You know, all the things you make money on" — and went to Frisco in hopes of being a writer. Instead, he found a job hand-coloring old lithographs for a company called Burger & Evans.
How did he get that job?
"Charm and wit," he said with a laugh. "And, I don't know, bum's luck."
Burger & Evans specialized in American paintings and manuscripts, and one of the owners, J.B. Burger, became Minckler's first mentor. Minckler started on the path of serious collecting.
"It was just natural," he said. "It was inbred in me."
He spent a few years in San Francisco before a friend called him in 1976 with a simple proposition.
"Come to Billings; it's booming," he said. Minckler got a job writing for an oil and gas magazine and lasted a year before quitting and going into the business of buying and selling books and art prints. Another mentor was Billings businessman Dale Hawkins.
There were lean years, but as Minckler's collection grew, so did his knowledge. He was always interested in artwork and books and eventually he expanded to photographs, manuscripts and documents.
From a space in his house on Poly Drive he moved into a business on North 30th, then Second Avenue North and finally Montana Avenue. That was the location he closed in 2002.
In addition to collecting and buying in recent years, Minckler spent 12 years doing research for a book he published in 2010 — "In Poetic Silence," an examination of the floral paintings of the Western artist Joseph Henry Sharp. Dippie wrote an introduction to the work.
Minckler does not have one grand plan for the fate of his priceless collection, just a variety of proposals, hopes and dreams for discrete parts of it.
He said he would love to assemble some of his finest pieces that illustrate the history of Montana and mount exhibitions at three institutions — perhaps the Montana Historical Society, the Denver Art Museum and the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Okla.
He envisions pairing key manuscripts and documents with early photographs of the people involved. He would like to gear the exhibits toward schoolchildren, to spark in them an interest in history. For the Montana Historical Museum, he said, he would arrange transportation so children throughout the state could visit Helena for free and view the exhibit.
He would also like a standalone museum to house his collection, but he acknowledges that it would probably cost $10 million to $20 million, well beyond his capacity to finance it.
Other options include selling and donating specific parts of his collection to public institutions, including the state historical society, the Western Heritage Center in Billings or the University of Montana.
Parts of his collection that would warrant their own exhibits include a large archive of stagecoach and transportation documents; an archive of early-19th century ranching materials; and an archive of research materials on Custer, put together by Charles Francis Bates, who was a good friend of Custer's widow, Elizabeth.
That's all in the future. For now, Minckler's passion is simply expanding his collection, and bringing important pieces of Montana's history to Montana.
You can hear the excitement in his voice as he describes some of his coups. He found the original drawing of the Great Northern logo, for example, at an auction in New York earlier this summer, and he was thrilled.
"So I brought it back to Montana," he said. "I don't know if anyone gives a damn about the stuff I'm bringing back, but it's here."
Information from: Billings Gazette, http://www.billingsgazette.com