When I was a troublesome teenager, writes Diggory Hadoke, my mother despairingly said: “Why don’t you go to Sotheby’s or Christie’s and see if they’ll take you on as a trainee in the gun department?” She had observed that the youthful Diggory had little that really motivated him other than guns and shooting, and thought his natural home would be within the panelled walls and musty rooms of a famous auction house where, surrounded by beautiful guns and keeping the company of the experts and enthusiasts in his area of interest, he would discover purpose and contentment.
Well, I eventually came around to seeing it her way, though it took me another 20 years to slip into the world of vintage guns full-time, by a circuitous route. At around the same time, for we are of an age, a younger and more hirsute Nick Holt must have been contemplating his future with similar sensibilities. Nick did join an auction house and worked his way up through Bonhams, eventually to break out on his own and found what has become the premier gun auction house in Europe.
Reflecting on this induced me to dig deeper and examine how the heads of the current sporting gun departments achieved the positions they now occupy. Perhaps their stories will indicate the path that future generations of enthusiastic kids with a passion for the best guns can aspire to.
Chris did what he describes as a ‘totally useless degree in fine art’ and then joined Christie’s as a receptionist part-time. He scrounged as much extra work as he could in other departments to meet the costs of living in London, and gained experience in a number of sectors of the company, from post room to accounts. He eventually became personal assistant to the commercial director.
Being inside the company and gaining insights into the way it works is a definite benefit to aspiring specialists. Chris also got to know everybody in the building, and when a vacancy in the sporting gun department became available, he was in line to grab it with both hands. It was the old truism that you need to be in the right place at the right time.
Some time later, Nick Holt offered Chris a job, when Holt’s was still a three-man operation and looked to be expanding. He joined the team and has not looked back since.
Howard, now head of sporting guns at Christie’s, was a contemporary of Chris Beaumont at the same company after leaving university. While Chris was answering the phone and making coffee, Howard was driving the van. Their stories are a good lesson in deferred gratification to today’s aspirants. You have to do the lousy jobs with a smile on your face and play a long game. Both men are now at the top of the tree.
Patrick was naturally inclined towards the gun trade as his father, Robin, now working for William Evans, was involved with Holland & Holland and Christie’s in senior roles over the years. Through him, Patrick got to know Chris Austyn, then a director at Christie’s, and volunteered to work at Holland & Holland during his university breaks.
While working at Christie’s, Patrick offered to help out with a viewing for a gun sale and was asked to stay on temporarily. As staff changes took place, Patrick gained stability with a fulltime junior role, then became more senior when Chris Austyn left Christie’s to join Bonhams. A little later, when Austyn left Bonhams abruptly, Patrick found himself moving from Christie’s, who closed the department, to take over at Bonhams’ sporting gun department.
Now 12 years into his auction house career, he is managing the gun sales in tandem with the antique arms and armour sales, and has his own junior in the form of Nick Harlow. Nick joined Bonhams from university as a porter, and after a year in the role was taken on to assist Patrick in the sporting gun department.
Sporting gun departments are perhaps unlike the fine art and other ‘megabucks’ departments at the big auction houses. They are less oversubscribed by highly qualified and ambitious specialist wannabes, so internal promotions can still be had. By being in the building, showing yourself to be capable, personable, hard working and able to learn, you have a chance of promotion when an opportunity arises.
Holt’s, while being the biggest gun auctioneer, is slightly different to its rivals in that it only sells guns, rather than being a department in a bigger organisation. However, the path to becoming a gun specialist is a similar one. Invariably, new staff come when a need is found for a driver or someone to help with packing or paperwork. Word of mouth leads to a local friend of a friend coming to help out and, as necessity dictates, more opportunities take the neophyte further into the specialist role if he shows aptitude for the work. Holt’s latest incarnation is Nick Bongers de Rath, who is rapidly advancing into more responsible roles as his experience and knowledge allow.
So the message to anyone considering a future as a gun specialist is to get into one of the auction houses by any legal means, do whatever is available, do some serious internal networking, learn as much as possible and pester or wait for an opportunity to get a foot in the door of your department of choice. The old path of working for nothing as an intern, taking on peripheral roles and becoming part of the furniture will still work. In the end, the person who wants it the most will get the job through persistence and desire. It is an odd system, but it does produce people who truly love their specialist subject and have the enthusiasm to carry their departments forward and make them successful.
All our subjects will now be hard at work in the lead-in to the spring sales. Holt’s starts the season with a 21 March sale and Bonhams follows on 3 April. Reports from the build-up are promising and valuation days have been well attended and productive.