‘Hidden gems’ are no longer so hidden, says Diggory Hadoke

Holt’s new room in Kensington is airy and pleasant

‘Hidden gems’ are no longer as elusive as they once were and, as Diggory Hadoke explains, lots from the provincial auctions may be worth the gamble

A surprising number of people seem to be buying guns unseen from provincial auctions and having them sent to me after the sale, for appraisal and storage, possibly for restoration too.

Most of the clients doing this are American and seem to be buying low-value lots on something like a ‘suck it and see’ basis; they seem pretty relaxed when it turns out that a gun is beyond economic repair, as they frequently are.

The auction site saleroom.com is making this kind of late-night speculative shopping very easy. and guns listed in far-flung provincial, non-specialist auctions are more exposed than they were, just a few years ago.

Southams is one provincial auctioneer doing rather well. They held another large sale in March, selling 90 per cent of their 1250 lots. The next sale in Bedford is in June.

The other March auction was Holts, of course, with a new venue and a changed format. The room in Kensington was a good deal smaller than recent venues but well-lit and pleasant, with sufficient space to display the selection of guns and rifles for sale.

The sale had a more focussed feel about it. By reducing the number of items on display, taking a proper look at everything was easier. You have to be very disciplined not to go ‘gun-blind’ when faced with hundreds of options to look through.

Happily, Holt’s have have managed to retain the permission they need from the police to display the guns with tags and a good door security policy, rather than have to remove the forends and chain the guns to racks, which is so much less convenient when trying to properly examine them.

Typical of the guns people are buying unseen in lower-value auctions. A customer paid under £300 for this George Smith converted pin-fire in Holt’s sealed bids sale

As an overall experience, I enjoyed the viewing and bought a historic Thomas Turner double 8-bore that featured in the Field Trials back in 1875, taking second place.

There is no parking at the new venue but there is a decent-sized car park in the vicinity, which is far less stressful than trying to dodge the packs of traffic wardens prowling the streets of Kensington.

The Sealed Bids sale continues to do well, despite not being displayed in London. Customers are apparently not deterred by the long drive (from most places) to the wilds of Norfolk to peruse the inventory and leave bids for the lower priced guns and ephemera. Treat it as a day out.

Whatever the reasons, times change and the big Holt’s sales of the last fifteen years may be a thing of the past. Having said that, it is entirely possible that circumstances may push some large collections back onto the market and we see a reversal of the recent decline in volume.

As a dealer, I get offered all kinds of oddities that fall way outside my usual remit of vintage sporting guns. These typically emerge from house clearances. One such item was a sectioned Luger automatic pistol, which someone found, while clearing out an old neighbour’s house after he died.

The pistol had been carefully cut to reveal the entire length of the rifling in the barrel and the feed spring in the handle. Many of the mechanical parts were still moving, so, while thoroughly put beyond use, it did not conform to the latest deactivation requirements to comply as a legally de-activated weapon. That being the case, it is illegal to sell, or offer for sale.

I wondered if an auctioneer with Section 5 authority might take it and sell it as such. It is an interesting and unusual piece. However, those I tried were not interested, finding it more trouble than it was worth.

In these circumstances, dealers are advised by the police to accept such weapons, in order to remove them from the streets, and to hand them over to the authorities in a timely manner (24 hours).

As the Luger was presented to me by e-mail, rather than in person, I advised the finder to take it to his nearest police station. It seems a shame that pieces of history like this are now being put through a chop saw.

This Luger turned up in a house clearance. Unfortunately, ‘defective deacts’ like this are a legal headache, even for Section 5 authorised auctioneers

Gavin Gardiner has a sale on 1 May. His catalogue, which arrived on 10 April, contains more high-condition, best pairs of guns, including pairs by Boss, Purdey and Woodward, including a very unusual pair of side-lever, round body single trigger Boss 12-bores, than I have seen for some time, along with notable single guns by Symes & Wright, Wilkes and Beesley.

He has a good range of reasonably priced boxlocks and some rifles that are worth a look, including a T.T. Proctor .375 and a Holland & Holland double ‘Royal’ in .375 Flanged. There is also an unusually good pair of Lancaster ‘Twelve-Twenty’, Baker-action, 12-bore, side-locks, made in 1933 and stored for some years.

Regular visitors should note that Gavin now requires advance booking and a Viewing Pass must be secured before showing up at the viewing room. Visit info@gavingardiner.com to order a copy at anytime leading up to the sale. Security at Sotheby’s is clearly getting tighter; as it has been with every other venue in recent months.

I can’t think of a single incidence of anybody doing any damage at a London gun viewing in my lifetime but the authorities seem to make a virtue out of making it increasingly difficult and awkward to display guns for sale.

Gavin has already announced his next sale at Gleneagles, on 26 August. Before that, Bonham’s have a sale in Knightsbridge, scheduled for 31 May but, as yet, no details have been made public.

Austrian auctioneer Springer has been busy, with a 28 March sale featuring a full range of firearms from modern pistols to a single barrel pin-fire shotgun by Firmin of Paris, which was a present from Emperor Napoleon III to his only son, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who was killed, while attached to the Royal Engineers, in a skirmish, during the Zulu War of 1879.

Springer had several pairs of British shotguns, by Watson Bros, Purdey, Cogswell & Harrison and the like. Single guns by Purdey, Greener, Lancaster and Grant and plenty of continental bolt-action, single shot and double rifles, as well as various drilling configurations, which should sell better in Europe than anywhere else.

Springer’s catalogue is large format and stretches to 207 pages, with every lot well photographed and described. Springer apply a 24 per cent (plus VAT) buyer’s premium, going up to 44 per cent for what they call ‘fully taxed’ lots. 24 per cent is roughly in-line with what most London auctioneers are applying to most lots.

This Thomas Turner 8-bore is historic, in a small way. Diggory bid £3,000 to collect it at Holt’s for an American client

Southams remains the cheapest place to buy your guns at auction. They have not yet reached the prominence of the more established London specialists but they do appear to be growing with every sale.

With European buyers asking, with some justification, if there would be problems exporting anything they buy in London before committing to bid at Holt’s in March, the uncertainty continues and that can only be good for the European competitors to our established auctioneers.

London has long been the hub for worldwide gun sales, with our firms bringing in guns from all over Europe, selling them in London and sending them to their new European, British or other owners. Moving firearms in and out of Europe has never been totally pain-free but the signs are that it looks unlikely to get easier.

With an extended deadline for the UK to leave the European Union now set for 31 October, our market is gripped by uncertainty.

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