The Viennese faults

Diggory Hadoke explores the possibility of European auction houses usurping classic British sales.

the emergence of Vienna’s auction houses, such as Springer, would have seemed unlikely five years ago.

An interesting letter appeared on my desk recently. It was from a European auction house and it was asking for consignments from the UK. The auction house in question was Springer in Vienna, and they clearly smell an opportunity.

In a very straightforward manner, Springer – styling themselves as ‘Purveyor to the imperial court of Austria, Vienna, since 1836’ – spelled out their reasoning for targeting the UK market: Brexit and the likely fallout to follow.

“Sell your back stock and protect yourself from a trade slump in weapons after Brexit,” they suggest.

“With Brexit fast approaching, now is the time to consider what measures you can take to protect and insulate your business. Exports, as well as sales of weapons, is (sic) expected to become much more difficult following the separation”.

Is this opportunism, exploiting the effects of what one faction have always called ‘Project Fear’? Perhaps. Does the Springer letter tap into some general perception that there is a degree of pessimism and anxiety around the gun trade in the UK, in the face of annexation from the European trading block? Maybe.

What is apparent is that Springer’s emergence as a bigger player on the auction scene, targeting British consigners, over the last three years would have seemed very unlikely five years ago. Has the spectre of Brexit made the British auctioneers look vulnerable? Springer have copied Holt’s model quite closely. They offer a live auction, and a silent auction for their lower value goods.

They claim to be Europe’s largest auction house for firearms, selling around two thousand guns per quarter and tout their unrivalled access to the American and European markets. However, British auctioneers have been selling into Russia and the States for years and most seem to have well-oiled systems to facilitate the transfer of bought and sold lots to anywhere in the world. However, one cannot easily shrug off the aggressive targeting of the British market by overseas firms.

One should remember that Rock Island (based in Illinois, USA) now has Howard Dixon, once of Holt’s, and a former head of sporting guns at Christies, representing them in the UK and Europe. It once looked like Holt’s, Bonhams and Gavin Gardiner had the bulk of the UK market sewn-up. They were also very successful in bringing goods into London for worldwide sale. With Brexit, is London as the hub of sporting gun sales in Europe under threat, as is its status as the hub of financial services?

It seems a very long time ago that I attended an evening event at Purdey’s shop in South Audley Street and Richard Purdey, who I both like and respect, replied, to some comment, that we should all go out and vote UKIP.

I recall being quite shocked: the thought ‘What that bunch of nutters?” certainly crossed my mind. I certainly didn’t take UKIP seriously then and thought that no right-minded person did either. They were a fringe group of single issue extremists with their heads in an imaginary past. I had no idea that a few years later they would have been so successful in achieving their aims and the UK would be facing such an uncertain and self-inflicted economic future as a result. But here we are. The vultures are circling.

Any historian of the gun trade in this country will have seen enough case studies of the demise of many great gun-making firms in the years following the Second World War to recognise that economic isolation and uncertainty can decimate the ranks in short order. The last 30 years have been quite kind, by comparison.

Old firms, like Watson Bros, resurrected and once-again independent, established gun makers; like Purdey and Holland & Holland, pushing their image and expanding as ‘lifestyle brands’; new start-ups, like Longthorne, flourishing. Auctioneers, especially Holt’s, proving that London was the centre of the gun-collecting world and expanding their reach through a network of overseas agents.

However, the signs of stress are already apparent. Some major players are shedding staff on the gun side of business and focussing more on clothing, London auctions are facing competition from Europe and America, Boxall & Edmiston have closed their doors in the face of diminishing orders and noise from around the trade suggests sales are slow and confidence low.

What is selling? Turkish guns that cost less than £500. The signs don’t look good to me. However, auctioneers report that sales of mid-range guns are still taking place, albeit at lower prices than was the case a few years ago. If priced right, everything finds its market. In this respect, the auctioneers have a better time of it as they don’t own the inventory, they just take a percentage of whatever it sells for. Fluidity is the name of the game.

Holt’s figures for December were down on their average, slightly. The percentage of unsold lots was a little higher. As always, the good stuff sold well, the tired, or ordinary, guns proved harder work and prices are down on what they were three or four years ago across the board. Holt’s still sell most of their guns to UK buyers, which makes things better from the border issue – you don’t have to cross borders when you ship to a British buyer from Norfolk.

Bringing consignments in from Europe could be more tricky post-Brexit but only 25 per cent of Holt’s kit comes from overseas. A lot of the European rifles and guns that come to London from Europe, for sale, are sold back to European buyers. That negates the effects of VAT imposed on imported goods sold in the UK.

Bringing consignments in from Europe could be more tricky after Brexit but only 25 per cent of Holt’s kit comes from overseas

Of course, there are counter-punchers bucking trends in the trade. Rigby and Westley Richards both look confident and ambitious. The British Game Alliance is pushing the image of game meat as a mainstream, healthy alternative, the spectre of a lead ban seems to have receded, for now. I truly hope that the trade withstands the present, and coming, economic uncertainty relatively unscathed.

The pro-Brexit bulls will have us believe that everything will be rosy whatever happens, but they have been changing their story daily, as the reality of an exit from Europe looks ever more remote from the one they promised back in the early days of campaigning. We may be looking at a no-deal, suck-it-and-see strategy – if one can call that a strategy.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world seems to be expecting a windfall from the anticipated storm that Brexit will unleash on the UK economy. I remember the 1970s and early ‘80s. I certainly hope we are not heading back in that direction.

Chatting with one of London’s prominent auctioneers, he suggested that much of what I have been picking up is perhaps overly pessimistic. “I’m hearing what I heard twenty years ago.” he told me. ‘Good stuff is hard to find”. There are still buyers in the thirty-to-fifty age bracket asking for classic guns like Purdeys or Dickson round-actions and they have a sensible budget.

What we may be missing in the younger generation is an interest in ‘weirdo’ patents. That seems confined to the older collectors but the aspirational thirty-something with some cash to spend does still want a pair of Purdeys, much as my generation did a quarter of a century ago.

I, like most people in the country, am tired of thinking and writing about Brexit. We are being popularly referred to as ‘BOB’; for ‘bored of Brexit’. Yet, until we have some certainty, the subject dominates daily life for Bobs and everyone else with a business to run, especially one that crosses borders.

So, happy 2019 to everyone. May it be prosperous and pleasant. I’m sure the fact that this year is the centennial of the worldwide influenza epidemic that wiped out more people than World War One and the Black Death combined is merely a coincidence.

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