Beechworth had Burke's gun in their sights

Robert O'Hara Burkes Gun

Beechworth had Burke's gun in their sights

The opportunity for a community to buy back a critical piece of its history comes but once in a lifetime. The Beechworth community found itself in this unique position on Sunday night.

The Collections Manager at Beechworth's Robert O'Hara Burke Museum, Linda Peacock, got a tip off last Thursday from amateur historian Matt Nola in NSW about an item being auctions in Dublin, at midnight on Sunday. It was a revolver given to Superintendent of Police Robert O'Hara Burke by his fellow officers when he left Beechworth in November 1858. 

Could this be one of a brace of revolvers given to Burke in 1858 that’s been unaccounted for 155 years?”, Linda said.

“The revolver has the inscription ‘Presented to R. O'Hara Burke Esq. Supt. of Police by the Officers of the district on his transfer from Beechworth, November 1858’. The auction house estimate of 600-1000 Euros, or about $1500, suggested its historical significance had been missed. From the condition report, it seemed to be an ‘unremarkable’ collectable firearm.

“The logistics of bidding at an auction in the middle of the night in three days’ time on the other side of the world, with little money, for an item we knew was so important to us, was challenging. And we wanted to stay under the radar in case our inquiries tipped off some of Australia’s biggest museums with much deeper pockets than us.”

Indigo Shire Council, recognising the value of the item, provided an initial amount of $2000, which was increased to $3000 over the weekend. Linda contacted licensed valuer and auctioneer Warren Joel who agreed this was a chance in a lifetime. He would act as agent at no charge and do the bidding over the phone in the late hours of Sunday night.

“But what if the gun went for more than that? We knew its potential value – a water bottle from the Burke and Wills expedition of 1861 was sold in 2005 for $200,000,” Linda said. “I called the firearms licensing board to verify that the gun could be imported if we were able to buy it. I called Bill Wilson, a local historian and we did some digging. Bill found a report in a Goulbourn paper of 1861 referencing this revolver. By this time on Friday afternoon we believed we were dealing with the real thing.

“I started to ring around local people I knew would be interested. Council agreed to increase its

contribution. Our museum manager is on leave overseas but he backed our instinct and offered a personal contribution. The Friends of the Burke Museum (the museum is named after the ex-police officer and explorer) made a donation as did seven other local people,” Linda said. By Sunday night the kitty had grown substantially.”

“And then, it looked like we had lost our chance. The Sunday Age had an article about the gun and the auction details, and so did the Sydney Morning Herald.”

“One thing in our favour was, this was Sunday and the auction was that night. Maybe we could still slip in under the radar. Then at 8.30 Sunday night, things changed. A late offer came and I knew now we were in the game. This was the offer that sealed it for us.”

Linda rang Warren, the auctioneer, with details of the new funding limit.

“Having done the valuation for the Burke Museum I am very familiar with the collection. I know what the revolver is worth both in terms of dollars and as a drawcard for the collection,” Warren said.

Donors knew the value of the gun to Beechworth and Australian history.

Ross Lucas, who runs the historic Nicholas Hotel, was delighted to be involved. “As Beechworth moves forward it is imperative that it does so in ‘sync’ with its past. It is our heritage that will cement our future.”

Anne Jovaras said she donated because the revolver is a valuable part of Beechworth’s history ‘which I believe needs to be brought home’. Bob Simpson and Rosemary English said Burke’s revolver belonged in Beechworth.

“An opportunity like this comes along but once in a lifetime, we had to be part of it.”

“Bill Wilson contributed because ‘this piece of history is priceless with links to Beechworth and our early Australian exploration”.

And the rest, as they say, is history. When the gavel fell about midnight on Sunday the gun was purchased for $18,000 – a real coup, thanks to the Beechworth community.