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Cash-strapped Harrisburg cleared to sell "Wild West" items

By Hilary Russ

(Reuters) - The city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is gambling that Wyatt Earp's poker table and other Wild West artifacts will ante up some cash to help the city get back on its financial feet.

The fiscally distressed Pennsylvania capital got the green light on Friday to auction off thousands of Wild West artifacts painstakingly corralled by its former mayor for a museum that was never built.

The future of the artifacts has been caught up in a legal dispute between Mayor Linda Thompson and City Controller Dan Miller, who is challenging Thompson in the Democratic primary in May.

On Friday, Miller signed a contract between the city and auction house Guernsey's after a Commonwealth Court judge denied Miller's request to delay the auction. Miller claimed that the City Council never approved Guernsey's commission.

Ex-mayor Stephen Reed, who served as mayor for 28 years before losing to Thompson in 2009 and amassed the collection that includes saddles, Doc Holliday's dentist chair, and stagecoaches. He once dreamed of Harrisburg as a museum mecca.

He opened a Civil War museum and planned a slew of others, including a sports hall of fame and a Wild West museum to celebrate Harrisburg's role in America's historic westward migration -- even though the city is about a thousand miles east of the Mississippi River.

Reed traveled around the American West as often as he could, hand-selecting items for the museum.

He told Reuters in 2010 that the city had spent $15 million on museum artifacts -- including $45,000 for a tomahawk that may or may not have belonged to Crazy Horse, chief of the Lakota tribe. (The chief fought at the Battle of the Little Bighorn; his connection to Harrisburg remains unclear.)

The city already sold some of the items, netting $1.66 million in two auctions in 2007 and 2008, just as the city backed troublesome new debt to repair its incinerator.

That debt has now ballooned to more than $340 million. Harrisburg filed for bankruptcy in October 2011, only to have a judge later throw out its petition. It is now in receivership and is selling its parking garages and other assets.

Remaining in the Wild West collection are the saddles and stagecoaches, the dentist chair, and a table where Wyatt Earp once played poker.

The auction is expected to net the city "several million dollars," Thompson said in a statement.

(Reporting by Hilary Russ; Editing by Edith Honan and Bob Burgdorfer)

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