Old Tucson founder’s movie memorabilia collection going up for auction

A treasure trove of Old Tucson movie memorabilia belonging to the Wild West attraction and film studio’s founder, Robert Shelton, is up for grabs in an online auction over the next week.

RR Auction, a company headquartered in Boston, has more than 70 lots listed from Shelton’s estate, the majority of which originated from Old Tucson Studios, a prime filming location for decades for Westerns ranging from “Rio Bravo” to “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.”

The auction, which runs from Friday, May 17, to Thursday, May 23, includes costume design mock-ups from the 1967 film “El Dorado” and a petticoat skirt worn by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1987 television Western “Poker Alice.”

A Winchester Centennial ’66 rifle, gifted from John Wayne to Shelton during the filming of “Rio Lobo” in 1970, has an estimated value of at least $8,000, according to the RR Auction website.

The Winchester was given in response to a similar rifle Shelton had given Wayne years earlier, said Carolyn Shelton, Robert’s widow.

“They were good business partners and truly good friends,” Carolyn Shelton said.

The decision to auction off Shelton’s collection was made by Robert Shelton himself, before his death in 2016 at age 95, according to Carolyn.

Known as “Mr. Old Tucson,” Shelton first leased the property, an Old West set built in 1939 by Columbia Pictures for the feature film “Arizona,” in 1959, according to the Old Tucson website.

Over the next several decades, Shelton was instrumental in turning Old Tucson into a highly sought movie location, home to more than 300 films and television productions, and a theme park visited by people from all over the world.

“He helped put Tucson on the map,” Carolyn Shelton said. “He always said Old Tucson was Arizona’s second-biggest attraction, after the Grand Canyon, but only because the Grand Canyon had a better designer.”

Robert Shelton retired from Old Tucson in 1992.

In the years following, Shelton tried several times to open a museum dedicated to his Western film memorabilia collection, but plans always fell through, Carolyn Shelton said.

“This is what he wanted,” Shelton said. “If stuff wasn’t going to go into a museum, he said an auction would be fine with him.”

Carolyn Shelton was referred to RR Auction by Geoffrey Notkin, owner of Aerolite Meteorites in Tucson. Notkin had consigned through the company in the past and serves as its exclusive meteorite dealer.

RR Auction has been in business since 1976. Its specialty is autographs and manuscripts, but it has branched off into other areas over the years, including music and space memorabilia.

In 2015, it auctioned a Bulova chronograph watch that Apollo 15 commander David Scott wore during a lunar walk for $1.625 million, the highest sale ever made through the company.

Tricia Eaton, chief marketing officer with RR Auction, said the Shelton estate was a great opportunity.

Eaton spent time at Shelton’s home in December, conducting an inventory at the house and in a warehouse space, off-property, where the brunt of the pieces were stored.

“The facility where Bob had a lot of this stuff was like a mini-museum,” Eaton said. “The amount of items was overwhelming.”

While RR Auction deals primarily in paper, Eaton said the auction house felt many of the oversized items in the Shelton estate were worth transporting from Tucson to New England.

Some of the biggest pieces included four 7-foot-tall guidon poles, one from Wayne, used on the set of his Texas-filmed project, “The Alamo”; and a large fiberglass boot, measuring 46 x 36 inches, that is similar to the one used to signify a boot repair shop in the 1969 Robert Mitchum film “Young Billy Young.”

“We took the things that were going to be most interesting to collectors and garner the most money at auction for Carolyn,” Eaton said.

The items related to Wayne are expected to bring some of the highest dollars.

“John Wayne is still very popular,” Eaton said. “Some of the Hollywood stuff has taken a downturn, but John Wayne is still strong, still an icon. That hasn’t changed. People are still passionate about collecting his stuff.”

Shelton’s collection is part of a bigger Hollywood-themed auction of more than 600 film industry collectibles.

Carolyn Shelton said she believes the auction will put these pieces of Old Tucson history into the right hands.

“I know how much these things meant to him,” she said. “If any collectors or movie buffs get that same enjoyment from these items, they should have them.”

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