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By Bruce Newman, San Jose Mercury News

PORTOLA VALLEY, Calif. — The tank took two direct hits at the end of the Cold War that hurt its reputation more than any battlefield defeat. The first blow was the image of Michael Dukakis grinning as he clung to a tank turret while running for president in 1988. Less than a year later, the standoff at Tiananmen Square between a column of Chinese army tanks and a lone man, who refused to let them pass, electrified the world.

But this week, the tank makes its triumphant return to glory — its big guns metaphorically blazing — when the majority of what is believed to be the largest collection of armored military vehicles on the planet is auctioned at the formerly private playground of collector Jacques Littlefield, a Stanford grad who turned his boyhood hobby into an obsession, and had the family fortune to make it possible.

The auction will feature upward of 80 tanks, although exactly how far upward, even Bill Boller, who has overseen the collection for the past five years, isn’t sure. “There are more” tanks, he says, “than I ever bothered to count.”

The auction — open only to registered bidders — will take place Friday and Saturday. And though there is no minimum bid required on most items, collectors will need an up-armored credit line to take home an M4 “Jumbo” Sherman tank, expected to fetch bids of about $1.6 million. A German Panzer IV has an estimated value of $2.6 million, the highest in the collection.

Auctions America declined to reveal the names of registered bidders — though Boller did say “there are some names you would know” — but if North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un is in the hair-trigger gallery Saturday, he might be interested in three pieces that were built to launch a nuclear warhead before being demilitarized. The Russian-made 203-millimeter Pion mobile cannon is the largest land-based gun ever built, able to lob a nuke 20 miles. And here’s a friendly reminder to post on Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook wall: a pair of Scud missile launchers in his front yard could turn Zuck into the “Scud Stud” of social media.

“We have a tremendous amount of interest from people who have never owned even a Jeep before, who are interested in a Sherman tank or halftrack,” says Rob Collings, CEO of the Collings Foundation, to which the entire collection was donated last year. Collings’ organization will build a 66,000-square-foot military vehicle museum in Stow, Mass., with the $10 million it expects to make from the auction. “These things stormed the beaches at Normandy,” Collings says, “and had a profound impact on the world we live in today.”

At the time of his death from cancer in 2009, Littlefield was building his tank corps so quickly that it appeared he might be preparing to invade Northern California. Huge trucks hauled German Panzers, American-made Sherman tanks, and the odd nuclear missile launcher to his hilltop ranch at a rate of one a week, forcing him to scatter some battle wagons around the 450-acre estate like armor-plated lawn jockeys. Most are operational, but some haven’t moved in more than a decade.

These are big boy toys, so size matters. The heaviest and widest tank in the collection is the British Conqueror, a mighty beast at 72 tons. Adolf Hitler touched off World War II by invading Poland with an armada of lightweight Panzers — also well represented in the collection — but der Fuhrer always seemed to be overcompensating for something. As the war widened, he pushed the size of some Nazi tanks to 120 tons. “It was a really stupid idea,” Boller says, because the Allies soon were meeting every German supertank with lightning quick columns of rolling thunder.

Some 75 to 80 vehicles from Littlefield’s vast motor pool will make up the core collection at the new museum. The jewel of the camo-colored crown, which is headed for the museum after Littlefield spent seven years restoring it, is a Panzer V that is believed to have been in retreat from the Russian front when it attempted to cross a frozen river that turned out to be less frozen than the Germans thought. It sank to the bottom of the river, where it remained for 50 years, until it was meticulously restored, down to its cloth-coated wiring. Littlefield only lived long enough to see it fired up one time.

Says Boller, “It was his pride and joy.”

Another 114 pieces of military history will be for sale, although those are hardly the collection’s castoffs. When everything else is gone Saturday, five special pieces with minimum-bid reserves will provide the auction’s closing drama.

Littlefield graduated from Stanford and after a short stint working for Boller’s engineering group at Hewlett-Packard, he retired to his ranch — once owned by San Francisco Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph — to oversee the family fortune, made in construction and mining.

In 1983, Littlefield bought his first Stuart tank. “A week later he bought a Sherman,” Boller says. “The way he described it, owning tanks was like eating popcorn — you can’t have just one. His collection philosophy was ‘yes.’ What he cared about was having something rare. He would say, ‘Rare is when there’s only one in the world and I have it.’ He did love that.”

Colin Rixon, a tanker who spent 32 years in the British army, then enlisted for another 15 years in the American tank corps when he was 55, spent much of the past year restoring the collection’s Centurions and Conquerors in anticipation of the auction. (Fun fact: British tanks are often designed with a small cubby for brewing tea next to the commander’s seat.) He considers Littlefield a hero. “Without him doing this collection,” Rixon says, “these things would be Coke cans.”

One of the highlights of Littlefield’s annual Fourth of July party was the moment he climbed into a tank, gunned the diesel engine, and purposely crushed a car. The party ended at age 59, however, when Littlefield lost a decade-long battle with colon cancer.

Photo via WikiCommons

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