AUCTIONS ALWAYS CONTAIN ONE OR TWO SURPRISES. Holt’s this summer had a cracker. The item in question was a round action, non-ejector gun by Dickson, the renowned Edinburgh gunmaker. It has to be said, it was not the best one I have ever seen.
The stock was cracked, just behind the top- strap and there were witness marks in the wood under the bar, indicating some rusty screws holding the bar to the wood, which had expanded and rotted inside.
Furthermore, the barrels were replacements, not of the quality the originals would have been. Overall, it looked quite restorable and the estimate of £3,000-£5,000 looked about right. In its favour were the size; a 16-bore Dickson is unusual. Also, the style of skeleton, wood-bar form, which is also very unusual for a Dickson, made it collectable. The addition of a side-lever, added a little more distinction. In fact it was one of perhaps two guns to exactly match the description, ever to have been made by the firm. Several of my clients expressed an interest. One wanted to bid up to £7,000, which I thought was quite enough.
Well, that just shows what I know! The hammer eventually fell at £20,000, with another £6,000 to be added for commission and taxes. That is a lot of money for a tired, non-original Scottish gun without ejectors, which needed a good £1,500 spent to make it presentable. That can happen when two wealthy collectors decide they must have something and are prepared to get into an arm wrestle over it. Happy vendor, happy auctioneer.
I was offered a similarly unusual piece a month or so ago, a gun-carriage-mounted, pin- fire punt gun by Pape, with six foot barrel and looking very original and different. Having never seen one quite like it, I found suggesting a value a difficult task. Such things are worth what someone will pay. I was prepared to pay £2,000 to display it in my show room. However, the vendor has decided to put it into auction to see what the public response will be. It will be sold at Holt’s in September. I have a feeling it might make £5,000, but it could, as easily, make £2,000 or £10,000.
The summer has been relentless with no rain here for two months. The lawn is dead, the newly planted saplings need daily watering and the barley crops in the fields look ripe, dry and ready for harvesting. Fish in the River Teme have been evacuated from some stretches, which have dried up. This is good weather for cruising around on a motor-cycle but it is starting to create problems. The Game Fair organisers must have an eye on it.
The Game Fair this year is at Ragley Hall in Worcestershire, the second time it has been used in rotation with Hatfield House. I liked the venue last time I went there but I have mixed memories of very hot Game Fairs in the past.
Heat may help the ice cream sellers but it does little for the displays or exhibitors. If it is too hot, people don’t want to go into the tents, as they turn into saunas. People also get tired and go home early. They certainly don’t buy tweeds or wellies! Dogs get thirsty and seek any bit of shade they can find. Doubtless, some idiots will leave a dog in a car and there will be the usual, outraged, Facebook messages and perhaps the odd smashed window in the car park.
We shall see if people can be bothered to drag in their old guns to show Holt’s, Bonhams, Southams and Gavin Gardiner. The auctioneers should all be there, hoping to drum up business and pick up one or two new lots for their forthcoming sales. A Game Fair is one of relatively few events where the auctioneers can interact with a wider section of the public than usually pay attention to what they do. As the name of the game is ‘new stuff ’, this is invaluable face time with people who may have an heirloom hidden away or a collection to dispose of.
November at Bonhams will be their next sale. It seems to soon to be talking about November! As part of a huge auction house, the Arms & Armour department, including Sporting Guns, sits alongside some hugely lucrative sales, the proceeds of which make our niche market seem tiny. Take, for example, the fact that we may get excited when a pair of Holland & Holland ‘Royals’ sells for £100,000, or when a good Purdey hammer gun makes £15,000.
To put this into perspective, Bonhams are selling a 1957 BMW, owned by legendary motorcycle and Formula 1 racer John Surtees, and the bidding starts at two million pounds!
That one lot exceeds in value the entirety of Holt’s gun sale every quarter. Too strong for you?Bonhams also have the 1965 Aston Martin that James Bond drove in Goldeneye, with a modest reserve of £1,200,000. Even the wine department gives pause for thought, with cases of claret selling for over £10,000 in what seems a fairly routine manner. So, when we shake our heads at the strong prices that guns can achieve, within the context of the collector’s markets for other commodities, they are, objectively, not stupidly inflated.
Perhaps the closest comparison would be with the vintage watch scene. Watches, like guns are personal mechanical items that can be collected or used. Ownership and maintenance are relatively inexpensive, though of the two, watches are definitely top trumps when it comes to ease of ownership, not having been handicapped by onerous licensing and security laws. Bonhams recently sold a rare Patek Phillipe for £265,000 and scarce Rolex models, like the Submariner ‘Comex’ sell for multiples of standard equivalents. One 1975 vintage example sold in 2016 at Bonhams for £72,000. By comparison, a new Submariner is around £5,000.
If the watch trend was mirrored in the gun world, a new Purdey, which is around £120,000 should be dwarfed by rare vintage examples in the auctions, changing hands for hundreds of thousands. The fact is, they don’t. So, when we wonder what the upper limit might reasonably be for vintage guns, the answer is that there isn’t one, it is purely incumbent on market forces. There is no reason that a superb vintage Purdey hammer gun that has royal provenance should not make a great deal more than such things have made in the past. It pays to keep an eye on trends, rather than nurture abstract ideas of what things should be worth.