Rock Island Auction Company

Lot 18: L.D. Nimschke Engraved Silver Winchester Model 1866 Rifle

Auction Date: December 3, 2021

Louis D. Nimschke’s Tour-De-Force, Signed Seven Times by the Masters Hand, Semi-Relief Panel Scene Engraved, and Monogrammed, Solid Silver Frame Winchester Model 1866 Lever Action Rifle Special Ordered for Presentation by President Jose Balta of Peru to President Mariano Melgarejo of Bolivia

Price Realized:
Estimated Price: $400,000 - $650,000

Louis D. Nimschke’s Tour-De-Force, Signed Seven Times by the Masters Hand, Semi-Relief Panel Scene Engraved, and Monogrammed, Solid Silver Frame Winchester Model 1866 Lever Action Rifle Special Ordered for Presentation by President Jose Balta of Peru to President Mariano Melgarejo of Bolivia

Manufacturer: Winchester
Model: 1866
Type: Rifle
Gauge: 44 Henry RF
Barrel: 24 3/8 inch round
Finish: blue/silver
Stock: highly figured walnut
Item Views: 9486
Item Interest: Very Active
Serial Number:
Catalog Page: 22
Class: Antique

In our opinion, this rifle is unquestionably the most incredible and distinctive of all firearms engraved by legendary German-American Master Engraver L.D. Nimschke and certainly the most extravagant Winchester ever created. It features solid silver bands, solid silver mounts, and most extraordinarily: cast solid silver frame, carrier block, butt-plate and end cap. The elaborate engraving patterns from this rifle are immortalized over pages by smoke pulls in Nimschke's iconic pull book on pages 20 and 22. The pulls are dated 1868, and Nimschke's notes state "PERU. Engraved on solid Silver frame Henry's Patent Rifle." Nimschke also recorded the silver bands on the barrel and made smaller notes recording his work on the rifle. Under meticulous magnified study and comparison of the rifle and smoke pulls, every minute detail is identical including the placement of several conspicuous and inconspicuous signatures, with seven in total observed on the rifle. In his captions in "L.D. Nimschke: Firearms Engraver," R.L. Wilson notes it as "one of Nimschke's most striking masterpieces." He also notes the other coordinating monograms shown along with the engraving, were likely plaques on a case. On page 44 of "Winchester Engraving" by Wilson, he notes, "The Solid Silver Winchester, Model 1866 rifle, deluxe engraved by L.D. Nimschke and fully documented in the Nimschke scrapbook. A unique example of custom gunmaking at its most exquisite and exclusive level.” Unquestionably Nimschke himself regarded this rifle as the finest and most deluxe and significant of all his guns. So proud was he that he signed it seven times, including on the bottom of the frame...Made as a presentation from the president of Peru, Jose Balta, to the president of Bolivia, Mariano Melgarejo. The frame, forend, buttplate, and carrier block are all of solid silver, believed to have been supplied to Winchester from the rich mines of Peru." The rifle is also featured on the dust jacket cover and opposite of one of the title pages of the same publication and on page 33 of "Winchester: An American Legend" also by R.L. Wilson. In addition to Wilson's books, this rifle is featured and discussed on pages 356-357 of "Winchester Repeating Arms Company: Its History and Development from 1865 to 1981" by Herbert Houze, and singularly on a page in “Steel Canvas”. A cased privately printed text on the rifle titled "The Solid Silver Winchester Deluxe Engraved by L.D. Nimschke and Fully Documented in the Book L.D. Nimschke Firearms Engraver..." from Wilson is also included and includes photographs of the rifle, copies of relevant pages from Wilson's publications, and more. On the cover he notes it is "a unique masterpiece of an American gunmaker with a combination of features found on no other gun. Signed by the engraver more times than any other gun in his 50 year career." Inside, Wilson reiterates some the same points as in his publications discussed above and notes "the Solid Silver Winchester - only solid silver Winchester ever built - stands unquestionably as one of the premier firearms in the history of American gunmaking. The ultimate in fine guns are those which feature a combination of history, craftsmanship and artistry, mechanical superiority and romance. The Solid Silver Winchester excels in all of these comprehensive themes." He then breaks down how this rifle is exceptional in each of those categories. Among the peculiar details he points out aside from Nimschke's incredible work, the history, and immense rarity of the silver construction is the lack of serial number which he notes "makes the Rifle even more important, and rare." He also discusses his plans to include the rifle prominently in an expanded edition of "L.D. Nimschke: Firearms Engraver" with Dr. Richard Marohn along with "The Art of American Arms." He concludes, "It is the writer's firm opinion that the Solid Silver Winchester Model 1866 Rifle ranks as a unique example of the per-eminent position of American gun making in the 19th century. This is not only a masterpiece of the work of Nimschke, but also a triumph of American ingenuity as the world leader in combining the perfection of the factory with the perfection of the hand craftsman. It is the decorative artist sharing his talents with the masters of the American system of manufacture. With the magic of the name Winchester, the distinction and artistry of the engraver Nimschke, the historical identification of the distinguished donor and recipient, the solid silver parts, the uniquely extensive signatures of the engraver, and more: the SOLID SILVER WINCHESTER is worthy of the most distinguished museum or private collection - and is, indeed, an arms collection unto itself." The most prominent signature is "L.D. NIMSCHKE ENG. NY." signed in the scroll engraving on the bottom of the frame between the cartridge elevator and lever. Wilson notes this as the longest inscription on a Nimschke engraved firearm. The barrel, profusely engraved at the muzzle and the breech is double signed "L.D.N." to both the left, and right of the rear sight. Additional more discreet "LN" or ""N" signatures are found on the bottom of the forend cap, right side of the frame, left side plate at the left edge of the scene, and rear of the lever. The left side of the frame has the "MM" monogram for Mariano Melgarejo, and the left side of the butt-stock has an inlaid plaque with scroll engraving and what appears to be a double “LDN” monogram that can be read horizontally from top to bottom, regardless if the shooter is left or right handed. Wilson also notes that this may actually be a double "LDN" monogram. The blued barrel has double silver bands at both the muzzle and breech, panels of scroll engraving, twist patterns, borders, interesting panels on the sides with figure 8 designs along with stars and floral blooms, and an arrow along the top ahead of the notch and folding ladder rear sight with "HENRY'S PATENT- OCT. 16. 1860." and "KING'S PATENT- MARCH 29. 1866" hand inscribed to either side. The silver action also features primarily Nimschke's iconic Germanic scroll and floral engraving. The left side plate has a fantastic scene of a pair of dogs subduing a stag. The right side has a disgorging bestial face inhabiting the scrollwork at the front, and the right side plate has an open panel with a floral bloom at the bottom. The casehardened hammer has a winged beast design with a snout like an alligator or crocodile on both sides, and the casehardened lever features scrollwork, border designs, a checkered panel, and floral accents. The silver forend cap and buttplate have scroll engraving, floral designs, and attractive borders. The loading gate and screws are niter blue, with all screw-heads engraved. The latter mainly have floral blooms designs. Even the lever catch is engraved, including along the narrow edge as is the countered lever prominently signed with an "N". Other than its solid silver components, the lever itself is probably the most unusual feature, being custom hand-forged to a shape never previously found on any Winchester Rifle, fashioned into a flat and gracefully widening form around the trigger, engraved en-suite. The deluxe stock and forearm are varnished walnut, and the butt has fine figure. A silver Winchester Model 1866 would have been a particularly well-suited presentation piece for exchange between two South American dictators, particularly a presentation from the Peruvian president to the Bolivian president. Silver has been mined and used by human beings since antiquity and has been a particularly important natural resource in Central and South America for centuries. Under the Spanish Empire, Mexico, Bolivia, and Peru accounted for more than 85% of the entire world's silver supply, and they continued to be major sources of silver after independence despite excessive political and civil turmoil. Today, Peru remains the world leader in silver production and accounts for nearly 20% of the entire world's production. Following the American Civil War, American firearms manufacturers looked to the various now independent countries of Central and South America for markets to sell their wares, and the often corrupt military and political leaders of these countries also ordered or received many high end Winchesters. The Winchester Model 1866 was very popular in the region. Mariano Melgarejo (1820-1871) was the president of Bolivia from 1864 to 1871 after serving in the Bolivian military and participating in multiple coups and rebellions against prior Bolivian leaders. After a rebellion in late 1870 and early 1871 involving the country's indigenous population, he fell from power in a coup in January 1871 and fled to Peru. In the included text, Wilson notes that Melgarejo also owned a fine pair of Colt Model 1860 Army revolvers engraved by Nimschke and fitted with Tiffany grips that were presented by Jose Balta and have "BALTA-MELGAREJO" on the case lid (see L.D. Nimschke: Firearms Engraver, pages 2 and 3). Jose Balta (1814-1872), like Melgarejo, was a soldier who became president after participating in coups against the country's prior leaders and was a corrupt leader. He was prime minister of Peru in 1868-1871 and was elected president in 1868 and planned to step down after the elections of 1871 to allow Peru's first civilian president to take power. However, in July 1872, Defense Minister Colonel Tomas Gutierrez and his brothers organized a coup and arrested Balta and proclaimed Gutierrez "General of the Army and Supreme Head of the Republic" on July 22nd. Exactly who then ordered the execution of Balta is not clear, but it is believed to have either been Tomas Gutierrez or his brother Marceliano. Balta was shot in his bed. RIA auctioned Balta’s French presentation combination pinfire revolver/dagger in 2012.In our opinion and that of other experts, with its major components fashioned from solid silver and exhibiting a one of a kind forged lever, this is unquestionably the rarest Winchester in the world.

Rating Definition:

Exceptionally fine. All solid silver components exhibit a pleasant even aged patina, the engraving and signatures are magnificent. The loading gate shows strong niter blue as do the smaller component parts and the vast majority of the original case colors remain on the hammer, lever, and trigger. There are some occasional light handling and storage type marks mainly at the edges. The barrel was expertly refurbished for preservation purposes some time ago and shows 98% blue finish on the barrel and magazine tube and attractive aged patina on the original silver bands. Miraculously, there seems to be no appearance or any evidence of detail loss to any of its engraved scrolls or punch-dot background during this process. It was reported to us by a previous owner that the rifle was discovered in South America in the 1980’s by a member of the staff of French President Francois Mitterrand during an official state visit, and that said staff member retained this rifle by gift or purchase. It’s therefore possible that this restoration was then done in France. We were unable to verify this story as of this writing. The stock also shows evidence of some restoration, likely at the same time as the barrel and shows ark patches on the right side of the forearm at the edge and the toe of the butt-stock. The stock also shows a faint hairline crack coming back from the upper tang on the right, and some scattered light dings and scratches from handling and storage. Mechanically excellent. All in all, this is certainly the most extraordinary Winchester rifle ever discovered and arguably the rarest of all Winchester Rifles. The solid silver frame on this rifle alone is an incredible rarity. Once you add in the custom lever, silver butt-plate and forend cap, the historic presentation by one South American President to another, and the extraordinary quality of the engraving by L.D. Nimschke, you truly have a high class investment grade firearm and piece of art. When you then consider the extensive signatures and the fact that Nimschke documented his work on this rifle heavily within his famous pull book, you have a one of a kind icon.

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