SAN FRANCISCO — Al Capone is infamous for having been a ruthless mob boss, but one of his granddaughters says his softer side will shine through when the family auctions the Prohibition-era gangster’s personal items — including diamond-encrusted jewelry with his initials, family photographs and his favorite handgun.
Capone's three granddaughters will also auction a letter he wrote to their father and his only child, Albert “Sonny” Capone, from Alcatraz, where the mobster served an 11-year sentence following his 1934 tax evasion conviction. In the letter written in pencil, Al Capone refers to Sonny as “son of my heart.”
The media dubbed him Public Enemy No. 1 after the 1929 “Valentine’s Day Massacre” of seven members of a rival bootlegger gang in Chicago by his associates.
But his granddaughter Diane Capone describes him differently.
“He was very loving, very devoted to family, very generous, and the letter that we have is such a poignant, beautiful letter from a father to his son. These are things that the public doesn’t know about,” said Diane Capone, 77.
Diane Capone and her two surviving sisters will sell 174 items at the Oct. 8 auction titled “A Century of Notoriety: The Estate of Al Capone” hosted by Witherell's Auction House in Sacramento.
Among the pieces are gold-rimmed porcelain fine china, ornate furniture, artwork and Dresden figurines that once decorated the Palm Island, Florida, villa where the Chicago mobster lived after his release from prison and until his death in 1947.
Also up for sale is the Colt .45-caliber pistol Capone always carried with him and used several times to protect himself, Diane Capone said.
“That particular .45 was used in self-defense, and it probably saved his life on a few occasions and so, he referred to it as his favorite,” she said.
Diane Capone said she didn't know if the gun was used to commit any crimes and said her grandfather, who she called Papa, was never charged with killing anyone.
“He was accused of doing that, but he was never found guilty of shooting anyone,” she said.
The pistol with elaborate etchings and a wooden grip will be the centerpiece of the auction and is valued at up to $150,000, said Brian Witherell, founder of Witherell’s Auction House.
“When you think about Al Capone, you don't think ‘Gosh, I wonder what his German porcelain figurine looks like,’ you wonder what his cigar humidor looks like, what his Colt .45 looks like," he said.
The sisters are also selling a diamond-encrusted pocket watch, an 18k gold and platinum belt buckle and a gold initialed “AC” money clip and home movies featuring Al Capone and his associates.
Witherell said he had no reservations about helping the Capone sisters and that he expects the auction to draw international attention because of the items’ historical significance.
“We want to handle things that aren’t objectionable to a lot of people, but we still can’t rewrite history,” he said. “He was a legendary figure. I think his judgment comes from somebody other than me.”
Sonny Capone’s daughters lived quietly for decades in Northern California after moving here from Florida in 1961 following their parents’ breakup. That changed in 2019 when Diane Capone published a book titled “Al Capone: Stories My Grandmother Told Me” using her maiden name.
She said her father faced constant challenges because of his last name, including men picking fights with him for no reason and not being able to find a job. In the mid-1960s, he dropped Capone as a last name and went by Albert Francis. He died in obscurity in 2004 in Northern California, where he had lived for decades, his daughter said.
The sisters decided to sell their grandfather's personal belongings because they are all in their 70s, they are the only people who know the stories behind the memorabilia, and they are worried about a wildfire destroying the collection, Diane Capone said.
“We were very fortunate that even after my grandfather died, we were very close to my grandmother and so, for years we’ve heard her talk about my grandfather and about their lives, and about a lot of these items that are going to be auctioned off,” she said.
Nina Salarno, president of the advocacy group Crime Victims United of California, said it is undisputed that Brooklyn, New York-born Capone headed Chicago's mob during Prohibition and orchestrated the deaths of many people. She called the sale of his personal belongings an insult to his victims.
“Those victims also have surviving family members, and now we’re glorifying what he did to them by selling his memorabilia,” Salarno said.
She added: “They say it was part of history, I would agree with that so, donate (his belongings) to a museum, but don’t profit off of the back of victims.”
Diane Capone acknowledges her grandfather led a criminal life but says that was not the person she knew. What she remembers is a doting grandfather.
“My grandfather certainly did some bad things during his life. That was part of his public life,” she said. “He went to jail, he served his time, he paid his debt to society and after he was released, in the last years of his life, he did everything to make peace with God and with his family, and with everybody,” she said.
James Finckenauer, a criminal justice professor at Rutgers University who has written extensively about organized crime, said the fascination with mobsters and organized crime in the U.S. started with Al Capone after his crimes attracted intense media coverage.
“The average person didn't know 99.9% of the people that might be involved in this, but they knew Al Capone. He became the poster boy for organized crime,” he said.
Finckenauer said some people are fascinated with real and fictional mobsters because they think of them as having exciting lives.
“Most people, from their perspective, live humdrum lives and they see these guys and their portrayal in shows like ‘The Sopranos,’ as people who demand respect and live their lives as they please,” he said.