Auction View: Antiquated Law?

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This Woodward 16-bore went for £14,000 at Gavin Gardiner’s

Diggory Hadoke questions the proportion of after sales at auctions, and looks into the implications of a firearms law review on the value of guns at auction.

September is a busy month for auctions. I missed Gavin Gardiner’s Gleneagles sale due to safari commitments in Tanzania but as I returned, I noted he was doing a good job of publicising the event in the local and national press.

Later in the month, we have a sale by Holt’s in Hammersmith and it looks likely to be a decent showing. One does hope so, as the summer auction was disappointing by Holt’s high expectations. You can’t have your best day every day, so blips are to be expected and factored into the year’s overview. Still, everyone will be watching to see how buyers line up this month and an eye will be kept on price expectations. World economic factors are often mooted when prices seem to falter, be they Greece’s meltdown, the crash in the Chinese stock exchange or other global indicators of instability. However, good kit at sensible estimates will always find a new home.

When one observes a sale failing to reach the low estimate on lot after lot and relying on post-sale bargaining to secure deals, it suggests the estimates are creeping above the price point the market will accept. Perhaps an attitudinal adjustment is required when the percentage of unsold items rises to an unacceptable level in the room. After all, these are auctions and the idea is to auction the kit on the day, not arrange private sales afterwards. If you put stuff up on a website with a fixed price, you are gun dealer, not an auctioneer.

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Top lot at Gavin Gardiner’s 24 August sale was this pair, which went for £32,000

One can’t help but wonder, in such circumstances, how retail law would apply in the case of a challenge to such a post-auction sale; for example, if a previously unseen fault was discovered in gun purchased by post-sale arrangement. Could the auctioneer then claim to have auctioned the item and therefore hold to the ‘sold as seen’ clause in auction sales, or would more stringent after-sales legislation, aimed at retailers, be applicable, as the exchange was a de facto retail sale between the seller and the buyer?

While such after-sales bargaining has always been a factor in balancing the sales book for an auction, when it rises in numbers to perhaps a third of the total sales figure, one might question whether there is actually an auction going on.

While on the subject of legal issues relating to gun sales and ownership, the Law Commission are conducting a consultation into the current, rather messy firearms legislation, with a view to new, tidier laws with proper definitions for such things as ‘antiques’. In fact, the legal definition of ‘lethal’ is not even clear in the current acts, many of which date back to the 19th century.

For auction-goers interested in older sporting guns, especially those covered by Section 58 as ‘obsolete’ or ‘antique’ by definition, it may come as a surprise that the Home Office ‘List of Obsolete Calibres’ is not definitive in law. It is just guidance, and could therefore be ignored or rejected by a jury in the case of a prosecution. In such a case, the trial will determine what is and what is not an ‘antique’ in the particular case under examination.

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With ‘antique’ not even defined in law, the ramifications of reform could be huge

The consultation paper explains the current situation: “Given that the Guide does not have the force of law, when determining whether a firearm is an antique, the jury remains free to conclude that something is an antique even though the Home Office believes it should not be classified as such. The converse is also true. This could be potentially unfair to those who possess what they believe to be an antique, having relied on the Home Office’s Guide.”

The 1968 Act’s wording relating to restrictions on pistol ownership is: “Nothing in this Act relating to firearms shall apply to an antique firearm which is sold, transferred, purchased, acquired or possessed as a curiosity or ornament.” However, neither ‘antique’, ‘curiosity’ nor ‘ornament’ are defined in the Act.

We also have the anomaly that the UK Border Force and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, until recently, applied a different criterion when considering ‘antique’ firearms in relation to import/export controls. They considered an ‘antique’ firearm to be one that is at least 100 years old, regardless of other considerations. In March 2015 they applied the Vienna protocol definition of ‘antique’ as ‘any firearm manufactured before 1899’.

One can see how this is an unsatisfactory state of affairs and appreciate the quest for better, clearer legislation to make everyone more confident of what is within and without the law.

The particular issues selected for scrutiny and clarification are:

  • The failure to define ‘lethal’.
  • The failure to define ‘component part’.
  • The failure to define ‘antique’.
  • The failure to impose a legal obligation that deactivated firearms be certified as being deactivated to an approved standard.
  • The failure of the law to keep pace with technological developments in relation to whether an imitation firearm is ‘readily convertible’ into a live firearm.

 

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Rifles in ‘obsolete’ calibres evade licensing law – but the list of obsolete calibres isn’t officially maintained

 

While hoping this consultation will lead to sensible, helpful changes, one can’t help but wonder if the anti-gun pressure groups, such as the Gun Control Network, will use it as an opportunity to add further restrictions on gun owners. They are listed as among the parties involved in discussions.

The charge that antique or obsolete calibre guns can, and have been, used by criminals is often heard yet rarely observed, and this is an important sector of interest for auction buyers and collectors of obsolete and antique firearms. Any changes in the legal status of these guns could affect the market values
quite significantly.

Full details of the consultation can be found on the website of the Law Commission www.lawcom.gov.uk under ‘Firearms’. The consultation process is open to comments from any interested party until the end of September. Get involved if you have something to say, or put your views forward to the Gun Trade Association, who will represent our interests.

We have to wait until 2 December for Bonhams’ next sale and can expect Holt’s and Gavin Gardiner to be operational as usual that month as well. So September will be focused on Holt’s, with the catalogue building online. I noted a couple of interesting hammer guns, one a pigeon gun that Purdey built for some now deposed North African royalty, and a Holland & Holland self-cocker. Even if you are not buying, popping in to have a good look at unusual guns and rare patent actions is always an education. We can look forward to a social event in pleasant surroundings with some very interesting guns to peruse.

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