Who has the real fake Dillinger gun?

Texas auction house says it has the wooden pistol used in C.P. jail escape
2009-10-08T00:00:00Z Who has the real fake Dillinger gun?Susan Erler - susan.erler@nwi.com, (219) 933-4183 nwitimes.com
October 08, 2009 12:00 am  • 

The fake gun John Dillinger wielded, or didn't, to escape the Lake County Jail in Crown Point in 1934 is again firing debate.

Northwest Indiana tourism czar Speros Batistatos believes the real fake gun is in the possession of the John Dillinger Museum in Hammond.

Yet a Texas auction house plans to sell to the highest bidder the painted wooden pistol purported to be the one jail guards felt pressed to their ribs during the daring escape.

The gun is part of a collection of Dillinger items that Heritage Auction Galleries will offer in December.

Dennis Lowe, director of arms and militaria at Heritage, said the collection of Dillinger items, which he expects to sell for $600,000 to $800,000, is significant because the items come from Dillinger's family.

Among the items are a wool hunting suit in red-and-black plaid along with a pocket watch and a dollar bill Dillinger had on him when he was shot to death by federal agents outside Chicago's Biograph Theater on April 22, 1934.

The guns is the lone disputed item.

"We have authenticated our gun," said Batistatos, the president and CEO of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority, which houses the Dillinger Museum in a section of its Visitor's Information Bureau in Hammond.

The convention and visitors bureau acquired Dillinger artifacts from the former John Dillinger Wax Museum in Nashville, Ind., in 1997, paying about $417,000 for the collection.

"(Dillinger's) full-blooded sister, Audrey, provided us with a letter authenticating the gun" at the time, Batistatos said.

"At no time has anyone ever stepped forward claiming we don't own the gun," Batistatos said. "Now all of a sudden, they are."

Heritage Auction Galleries' Lowe said Wednesday the wooden gun set for auction turned up in the belongings of Dillinger's brother, Hubert.

A fake wooden gun had been passed on to Audrey by the siblings' father, Lowe said.

But according to Dillinger family members, Audrey was unable to locate the gun when relatives asked to see it several years ago, Lowe said.

"Then it turned up in Hubert's possession," Lowe said.

"We're making no claims beyond what we know to be true," Lowe said. "The wooden gun that we have was in the personal effects of Hubert Dillinger on his death in 1974."

While Johnny Depp wielded a wooden gun in the 2009 Dillinger bio-film "Public Enemies," there are those who say the real gun no longer exists, if it ever did.

In some Dillinger lore, the gun was carved of soap, while others said he carried a real gun.

Anthony Estill, son of Dillinger prosecutor Robert Estill, said from his Valparaiso home in 2008 that his father kept the gun as a souvenir.

The younger Estill said he played with the gun as a child but that it was lost in a house fire in the mid-1940s.

Regardless, "I'm going to say we have the real gun," the convention and visitors bureau's Batistatos said.

"We're comfortable with our custodial chain," he said. "My response (to the auction) is buyer beware."

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