Big Guns Come Out

Diggory Hadoke reports on Southams’s Bedford debut and the latest fare on offer at Holts.

Southams started May with a sale at their new premises near Bedford. I was curious to see how it looked. After an early start, and an hour extra on the journey negotiating the awfulness of the M6 in its current state, I arrived at the stylish, modern building that now houses the sales. Branded as ‘W.H Peacock’, with whom Southams have merged, the site was easily found, being exactly where the GPS suggested the postcode would be. Parking was simple – right outside the entrance, more than enough spaces for the viewers and bidders.

Inside, there was just time to register and get into the viewing room, which is open on the day of the sale, until midday, as well as on the previous two days. Bidding takes place in an adjacent room, with Nigel Croskill kicking things off, and then three auctioneers working in rotation and a couple of chaps operating the internet bidding system from nearby.

There are a lot of improvements. The guns are now housed on spacious gun racks, making each lot easy to find and look over. No cumbersome chains or missing fore-ends, like some of the London auctions have to impose to keep the Met happy. Access in and out of the bidding room is easy, which was important, as the sale proved to be a long one. Bidding started at 10.30am and I was still waving my paddle after half past eight that evening.

Breaking the day up was made pleasant by the very well appointed café upstairs, serving excellent cooked breakfasts and homemade cakes until six in the evening. When I finally headed home that evening, I had a lovely Jeffery boxlock non-ejector that cost just £130 and some ammunition and decorative blades, but I had missed the lot I went to buy. It was a Holland & Holland 28-bore sidelock ejector, made before the First World War for an Indian prince.

While it was in good condition and would definitely attract American buyers, it was not a recognisable Holland & Holland model. It had back action locks and a through-lump and was presumably made for H&H by one of the outworkers they used for guns other than the ‘Royal’ models they built in their own factory at the time. With one barrel at 20 thou’ I thought the £18,000 it made on the hammer was a strong price. I had dropped out at £12,000.

Southams only charge 15 per cent commission, so the final bill was a good bit less than a London auction would have charged, but it still adds £2,700 to the total, plus VAT on that figure (£540), totalling £21,240 for the gun. I did pick up a pair of Bertuzzi over & unders for a friend, so my efforts were not entirely wasted.

The oldest pin-fire by Purdey known to still exist was sold on the day, making a good figure just under £5,000, and there was a brisk trade in modern rifles and shotguns, with prices from a tenner up to several thousands of pounds.

So, Southams are heading up in the world of gun auctioneers. I thought prices were strong for many items, with accessories and gun cases making especially good money.I had hoped to pick up a nice vintage crocodile-skin case too, but a rival was prepared to pay that bit more, the hammer going down close to £400 from an estimate of £80. I’ll definitely be back – even if I don’t come away with much, the trip is worth it for the cake.

The unusual still appears regularly at Holt’s and it, like many of the other London auction houses, remains a valuable learning resource as well as a place to buy guns. The June sale is no exception, with examples of some guns that many of us will never have seen ‘in the flesh’ before. If you are a student of firearms, the value of being able to operate and inspect real examples of historic patents is invaluable. So many people express opinions or write about guns when their experience is limited to reading the opinions of others. There is no substitute for access to wood and metal and, while not all of us can afford to buy a collection of every interesting patent and variation, the auctions at least give us enough access to fill in many of the knowledgegaps.

So, if you have never handled a Cogswell & Harrison ‘Certus’, looked down the barrels of a Lancaster ‘oval bore’ rifle or hefted a Winchester 10-bore lever-action shotgun, Holt’s will certainly give you the opportunity. This alone, is worth the price of admission – which, by the way, is nothing, and they even provide canapés and wine.

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