Investing in Joy

Holt’s have found a new location in London to replace the MOD premises at Princess Louise House, in Hammersmith, where they have been auctioning guns for a decade. Bisley was a possibility but the final decision to stay within London is, I think, a sensible one.

The new location is Holly Hedge House, Blackheath. It is another MOD building and, while very like Princess Louise House internally, enjoys extensive grounds and secure parking for any visitors likely to attend. It’s in Lewisham, 14 miles east of Hammersmith, or 10 miles’ drive from Marble Arch if you prefer. December was the last sale at Princess Louise House. The next one, in March 2018, will be in the new premises. It all looks settled and Blackheath should prove a good venue.

The spacious interior of Holly Hedge House

Gavin Gardiner will have a sale on 13 December and another on 18 April, both at Gavin’s usual London haunt, Sotheby’s in Bond Street. In December he listed guns with political provenance: a pair of Purdey 12-bores once the property of Paul Channon, a minister in Thatcher’s government, and a pair of Atkin sidelever side-lock ejector 12-bores that were made for one-time Tory MP Viscount Chelsea. Also listed is a Rigby .275 that was once the property of the Earl of Clarendon. I have a well worn old Chanel cartridge bag, made from leopard skin, which has ‘The Earl of Clarendon’ Embossed on the back. They probably date from the same era, circa 1927.

Bonhams’ catalogue for 30 November arrived in good time, listing 194 lots. Little-used bolt action rifles were in good supply, with some nice items, like a Hartmann & Weiss .243 at £6,000-£8,000 or a Daniel Fraser .375 H&H) for £2,500-£3,500; both rifles represent big discounts compared to new prices.

Purdey made only eight hammerless 8-bore guns, the first sold in 1884. This one, with Beesley action and 34-inch damascus barrels was for sale at Bonhams with a reserve of £15,000. Big bores are not making what they were a few years ago, but this has rarity, quality and brand value. The gun has not been messed around with and its condition looked decent. I have a feeling there will be interest in this.

Boxlock prices are on the floor these days, making them excellent value for money but not a buy for the speculator. People should be buying these to use. Good sidelocks by makers outside the ‘top four’ for brand value are bottoming out in value at present. You can buy a great gun for £5,000. A William Powell offered at Bonhams shows what can be had for cheap money now. Made in 1915, the gun is of high original quality, with 30-in barrels and a nice long stock. It’s listed at under £2,000.

The unusual still attracts attention, like a disguised back-action sidelock by Hartwell with engraved with stylish game scenes and scrolls looking like the work of of Morris. Made in the 1920s, it has a replacement stock and unfashionable 26-inch barrels, but the action is lovely. The estimate of £4,500-£6,500 looks right in theory, but it needs the right customer. Auction is probably the best chance it has of finding them.

More tired sidelocks still have the potential to do a little work and are good value if they can be had low-to-mid-estimate. When the work is mechanical and cosmetic this can work out well, but when barrel walls measure in the teens (as is often the case) there is not much you can do commercially other than sleeve them. That can be challenge when trying to price the guns for retail. Still, when a Purdey sidelock is listed with a £2,500 reserve it always gets attention.

Good Purdeys in need of a service and cosmetic clean-up but with decent barrels are comfortably sitting in the range of £7,000-£10,000 plus commission. This means they could cost £14,500-£15,000 for retailers to put on their shelves, even before their margin is considered. That doesn’t make the job easy for gun dealers at auction, which is perhaps why I invariably act for end-users, rather than go there to buy stock.

The Desenzani over-and-under sidelocks that brought Bonhams’ auction to a close

Bonhams wrapped up its sale with a pair of ‘as new’, game scene engraved, 12-bore Desenzani over-and-under sidelocks, estimated at £30,000-£40,000.

News from colleagues in the United States is interesting. Over the last 20 years guns there have tended towards higher prices than in the UK. However, recent sales seem to be splitting into distinct sections. Record prices are being achieved for really good, rare guns, like a pair of 16-bore Boss over-and-unders sold last month at auction for just over $160,000. At the same time, the market for ‘ordinary’ sidelocks is weaker, with many lots at Julia’s and Rock Island going unsold.

One wonders how the next generation will move in to fill the boots of the old men who are now passing their collections on, often through the auction houses. One MD told me he has been offered some impressive collections recently, but everyone wants to sell their entire collection to one buyer for top retail prices. That is never going to happen. Either you have to work to sell individual pieces to end users one at a time, effectively becoming a retailer and taking on all the work that entails, or you have to chuck the entire collection into an auction and give 30 per cent of the value to the auctioneer.

Another dealer told me that the market for boxlocks was dead and would never recover. New buyers are just not materialising. That certainly seems to be the case in the UK.

The key to the market appears to be condensed into the highest quality, best condition pieces by the best known brand names, the small-bore shotgun and the big double rifle sectors. It looks like the days of buying guns as medium-term investments are over. This is bad news for those who have a lot of money invested in gun collections, but perhaps it is good news for shooters. Maybe, once again, the shooting man who wants a gun he likes and that suits him can go and buy himself a Purdey for its own sake and not have to compete with the investors.

Most things we buy for ourselves to use during our sporting activities or hobbies are things we expect to depreciate. We have become too used to expecting our guns to make us money. Perhaps we should just enjoy them.

People often ask me about how to prepare for the cost of restoring an auction bought gun to optimal condition. It is too easy to see a bargain and find out later that putting it right will double the purchase price. As a rule of thumb, I tell people to budget £1,400 for a ‘full do-up’ to best standards. This gives them a figure to work with when calculating the eventual cost to them of taking a gun from the auction room and putting it in pride of place in their gun cabinet.

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