Why John Dillinger is a 'most wanted' investment in the collectibles markets

Today, in 1934, the Biograph Theatre in Chicago witnessed the shooting of John Dillinger, the bank robber who came to be known as "Public Enemy Number One" during his short criminal life.

Dillinger's exploits saw him cast as a Robin Hood figure amongst the Depression-hit public, with stories surrounding him becoming the stuff of urban legend.

In 2010, Dillinger's fame is just as legendary, thanks to a unique array of historical items relating to his criminal life that have seen remarkable returns for collectors and investors alike.

Items connected with the criminality of Dillinger have offered up some visually iconic collectibles.

For instance, this Wanted Poster issued on June 23, 1934, offering a $10,000 dollar reward for his capture, sold at Sotheby's in New York in June 2008 for £2,870 ($4,375).

The "Wanted" Poster sold
for £2,870 ($4,375)

The piece has additional significance, given that Dillinger would be killed just 29 days later.

A New York sale in December 2009 featured the collection of his sister Frances Helen Dillinger. It brought several highly personal collectibles on to the market, like John Dillinger's prized pocket watch.

The classic watch was originally given to Dillinger by his father. The timepiece, an American Waltham, gold filled, Model 83 in an open case, also featured a tiny crack at the 12 o'clock mark, possibly caused as Dillinger fell following his fatal 1934 shooting.

Having been returned to his sister following his death, the classic watch sold for £2,940 ($4,481).

Collectibles from the early part of Dillinger's life are also highly sought after at auction.

The December 2009 sale in New York featured a collection of five guns used by three generations of the Dillinger family.

Three of the guns were used by Dillinger himself, including the first gun ever fired or owned by the notorious bank robber.

This pre-woodsman Colt. 22 automatic was given to his brother during a family reunion in April 1933, just a month after Dillinger's daring escape from jail. It fetched £5,880 ($8,962).

The market also offers unique and often macabre memorabilia of the 1934 shootout which resulted in Dillinger's death.

A blood stained dollar bill, in the original envelope given to his family from the FBI, was among the highlights in the December 2009 sale.

An FBI marking on the envelope reads "John. Dillinger/ 7-23-34/ $7.81", which added to the provenance of the piece, as did a note from Frances Dillinger explaining:

"My father received many letters from people that were at the scene of the killing, and stated there was a large amount of money taken off the remains by the FBI."

The unique and historic collectible sold for £9,410 ($14,340).

Elsewhere, one of the most sought after John Dillinger pieces, which highlighted the daring escapades that made him an urban legend of his era, is undoubtedly his famous wooden pistol.

John Dillinger wooden gun
John Dillinger wooden "gun" sold for £8,000 ($12,0000

Said to be made from a combination of washboard and shoe blackener, along with a copper tube to simulate the barrel, the "Colt 38" (as Dillinger carved on the side of the piece) was used to escape from prison in March 1934.

Coming directly from his family estate, the wooden pistol carried an auction estimate of £8,000 ($12,000), but sold for 50% more at £12,400 ($19,120).

And what makes the perfect collectable accompaniment to the "gun" used to escape from prison? John Dillinger's getaway car, of course...

In June 2008, Sotheby's New York placed the 1932 Studebaker Commander, Dillinger's trusted getaway car, up for auction with an estimate of £20,000 ($30,000).

Featuring front beam suspension and a three speed manual gearbox for a quick escape, the car was used prominently in the notorious career of Dillinger, carrying him and his loot from the scene of many a crime. It proved a steal at the auction as well, rolling all the way to £22,600 ($34,500).

For collectors more interested in memorabilia related to the long arm of the law that dealt with Dillinger, the guns of Sgt Martin Zarkovich and Captain Timothy O'Neill also offered a unique investment.

The officers split a $5,000 federal reward for "information that led to the slaying of Dillinger" after they opened fire on Dillinger in 1934, fatally wounding him.

While in November 2007, Zarkovich's gun sold for £11,500 ($17,550) at auction in San Francisco, it was O'Neil's Colt Army Special .38 revolver - thought to have been the one which fired the lethal bullet into Dillinger's face - realised the higher value.

The piece reached £24,400 ($36,675) at an auction in New York, in July 2009.

However the most valuable investment grade collectibles, relating to Dillinger, are also his most personal.

Dillinger's getaway car

A rare hand written letter, dated December 18, 1932, came up for auction in September 2009 in New York with an estimate of £2,600 ($4,000).

It was written to his niece, and discussed his desire to spend time with his family at Christmas and that he would need to borrow money. Less than two years later he would escape and then be shot dead.

With this letter being one of the last and few hand written documents signed by Dillinger, the auction set the World Record price for an autographed Dillinger document, bringing £40,000 ($60,000).

Yet the ultimate World Record price for a piece of Dillinger memorabilia is reserved for the most deadly Dillinger piece on the market. In Los Angeles, in June 2009, the Remington .41 caliber double derringer - carried in his sock - fetched £62,700 ($95,600), more than double its pre-auction estimate.

John Dillinger's collectibles maintain their value partly because of his historical significance. As Dennis Lowe, Director of Militaria and Civil War Auctions at Heritage points out, Dillinger was:

"The first, and only man ever to be declared by the FBI as "Public Enemy No. 1."

And the public's fascination with one of America's most notorious criminals has certainly stood the test of time.

To date, there have been eight film adaptations of Dillinger's life, with the most recent coming from acclaimed director Michael Mann, with Hollywood A-lister Johnny Depp starring in the role.

The film grossed over $214m worldwide, proving that public interest in the life and death of Dillinger is very much alive and well.

Furthermore, the market has seen growing interest from institutions like the Historic Auto Attractions Museum in Roscoe, Illinois, which bought Dillinger's getaway car.

With John Dillinger memorabilia seeing impressive prices, we could soon see the famous criminal going from "Public Enemy Number One" to a number one investment for collectors and enthusiasts.


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