March is here – the month when the auction scene wakes up again after a brief post-Christmas hibernation. Diggory Hadoke considers what is making a splash in the sale rooms
I remember Nick Holt back in 2003.
I was sitting in the chilly outbuilding of an impressive country house somewhere in Bedfordshire. Nick and his sidekick of the day were offering valuations to local gun owners, while the snow fell in flurries outside and I took photos and notes for an article on the up-and-comers.
Even then, Nick was putting 45,000 miles a year on the clock of his transit van. These days he is as likely to be jetting off to Geneva or Johannesburg as plodding up the M40 to Birmingham, but he put in the hard yards when it mattered and he now has a business that is the envy of the auction world.
I love visiting Holt’s in Hammersmith. There is simply no place like it for getting to grips with the quality, the mechanisms, the oddities, the repair attempts (good, bad and butchered) and the huge array of historical data that is literally at your fingertips. Over the years, I have been lucky enough to handle, assess and compare thousands of examples of hundreds of patents and scores of variations on the sporting gun.
The viewing room is an educational environment, a place to gain real understanding of how things work and what they look and feel like. This adds depth to any knowledge gained through reading. There is simply no substitute for this exposure in terms of becoming a good student of sporting gun history. What is more, it is free, and if you come on the right day, Glynn or Kerry will give you a glass of wine and a cheesy Wotsit. But enough of that.
Now, every sale room will have a Holland ‘Royal’ or two, probably a tired Purdey and a smattering of second-quality sidelocks. It will also have a lot of third- and fourth-grade boxlocks in varying conditions. These are always worth paying attention to. Watch a professional like John Farrugia of the Cheshire Gunroom go through the room. Every serviceable gun has a value, as John has a client base for everything from a BSA Snipe to a Boss sidelock at the right money.
However, to the student of firearms, the oddity is what gains the most attention. The era spanning 1850-1890 perhaps throws up the most unusual and visual patent variations. One can read about them readily, but how many of the writers have actually held, swung and dismantled the object in question? In my experience, very few. To me, this always seemed a bit like getting marriage guidance from a celibate priest. No substitute for hands-on experience, in my book.
Holt’s never disappoints. The highlight of the March sale for any serious scholar is a remarkably clean example of Charles Lancaster’s patent four-barrel gun. Made in 1857, the gun came out of India with a complete set of original scale drawings of the gun, which are an artifact in their own right. The gun is a .40-calibre smooth-bore rifle, using Lancaster’s patent ‘oval bore’ rifling, which was designed to minimise fouling.
The catalogue describes the action as “with pull-back catch to allow rotation of the barrel-group, scroll engraved standing breech-face with applied scroll engraved nipple-protector and push-fit cross-pin for take-down.” This explains nicely how the rifle was used: fire barrels one and two, rotate them underneath, and fire barrels three and four.
I remember reading J G Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, set during the Indian mutiny of 1857. One character used such a firearm on the besiegers to good effect. These were the days of slow reloading, so getting four shots off in quick succession must have been novel – though one then had to take longer to reload, of course.
The quality is as exceptional as one has come to expect from some of the best gunmakers of the era, and the gun is complete with original case and a whole set of accessories and bullet moulds. A classic that could easily be made to work and take out hunting – I’d love to try it on driven boar.
While the ‘big ticket’ unusual items often grab the headlines, the sealed bids sale is one to have a careful look at. It’s a real jumble sale of rough old artifacts with some useful stuff mixed in. It is a good place for finding donor rifle actions for projects, unusual objects for decorating a gun room or study, or just an odd gift for a shooting friend. The trick is to bid what you want on a wide range of things. You won’t get most of it, but sometimes you will pick up a pleasant surprise at a good price.
This was a clever move by Nick, as it enables Holt’s to get into the territory of the provincial auctioneers and deal in lots that are not worth the auctioneer’s time to sell on the day. It essentially extends the sale beyond the time constraints of a single day in London.
Holt’s begins to allow access for viewing on the Tuesday before the sale. It extends to Wednesday, and the lots are all on view on the day of the sale – the auction going on upstairs, while viewing continues in the downstairs rooms. The online catalogue builds well in advance of the sale and is added to daily, while the printed version is mailed out about two weeks before the auction.