What lies ahead for auctions?

0101 As another year of sporting gun auctions dawns, Diggory Hadoke assesses the biggest trends on the auction floor in 2014 and whether they’re set to continue in 2015

We saw some interesting developments in 2014, with auctions continuing to be a gathering point for collectors and trade buyers, especially international ones, still using them to find stock or projects for restoration. So what shape are the auction houses in for 2015?

The easy availability of information continues to cause problems with the old-style model of dealerships. Anyone expecting to buy a gun at auction, put it on the rack as it is, and sell it for a hefty profit has a tough job on their hands. A quick internet search will tell the prospective buyer what a gun sold for at auction in the last 10 years. There is no hiding it and it makes life hard for the old crew. Today, the names of the game are end user and added value.

Finding a gun for the end user involves having an idea what your clients are looking for and finding the gun at auction, probably in a state requiring work. Helping him make the right buy and managing the transformation of the gun into what he wants is the way to make auctions work. You make a small fee for advice, a small premium on the work and the overall service you provide, it is transparent and everyone is happy.

Holt’s heralded a new policy direction with its user-friendly bid calculator, which I covered in depth last month. The punters seem to like it – those I spoke to thought the added transparency was a useful simplification for them as buyers and removed any nagging doubts.

The Holt’s website has become a hub for more activity than simply illustrating and describing the lots in the next auction. The post-auction sale of unsold lots is now a major event in itself. One interesting side effect is the gambler among the punters holding off bidding to see if anything remains unsold, then scooting in fast to pick up any overlooked bargains before they can be put into the next sale. Theoretically, the after-sale could deter bidders on the day but in reality, those determined to secure a particular lot will wade in and get involved or risk losing out. Careful scrutiny of the unsold lots can, however, occasionally turn up a good buy.

The sealed-bids sale is another success story for the boys from Norfolk, with a nice income stream flowing in after each sale. Holt’s seems to have organised its activities to flow from one kind of sale to another, maximising the opportunities for bringing in income over a longer period than the cash injection that comes immediately after a main sale.

Gavin Gardiner is as busy as ever, offering a user-friendly website, a personal touch and a well signposted series of countrywide valuation days for the public to make use of. He is working to the three-sales-a-year model, as is Bonhams, while Holt’s manages four.

0202From a viewing perspective, I’m not alone in finding that the requirement to chain guns to racks, without their forends, is a significant inconvenience. It continues to be the case at Bonhams and Gavin Gardiner. Not the fault of the auctioneer, but the insistence of the Metropolitan Police. Were I in charge, I’d be agitating to resolve the matter as a priority, as the viewing public are now used to the more user-friendly displays provided in Hammersmith.

Regional auctions remain fluid, with some auctioneers, like Brightwell’s, dropping the sporting sale and subsuming it into the general or antique departments. Others, like Southam’s, seem to be maintaining a steady rise – though the common occurrence of a date clash with Holt’s means lot of potential buyers forsake the smaller auctioneer. In this respect, internet bids may make up some of the loss of attendance but one does wonder about the wisdom of such timing.

2014 saw changes in pricing policies for most of the auctioneers, invariably in an upwards direction. Fifteen years ago, everyone seemed to be happy to take 15 per cent. As the percentages creep ever higher, the punters moan and wonder when they will stop and what the natural upper limit may be before the model starts to suffer. The old compromise with an auction buy was that it may give no guarantees but it was likely to be cheap – but that’s fast ceasing to be the case.

We end 2014 with the oil price low and the dollar very strong against sterling. This has proven popular with American buyers and they are again bidding strongly from home. This cycle of currency swings is a constant issue for the auctioneers but one about which they can do nothing. For now, it favours the UK-based auctioneers and dealers, so one or two will be happy to see the trend continue. Meanwhile, for those of us who’ve gone to like SHOT and DSC in the US, our hotel bills and car rentals will take a bigger chunk of the budget than they did last year.

The issue of proof protocol instability still stalks the gun trade, and auctioneers are constantly paying close attention to what might emerge as a new development. This is only likely to become more of an issue in the months and years to come and it is one dealers and auctioneers need to pay heed to. As most guns in which the auctions deal are from the 1860s to the 1940s, retroactive application of 21st century proof testing protocols is going to continue to be a worry.

With Christmas barely over, it seems, we are already looking forward to the early year auctions, with Holt’s starting things off in March and Bonhams and Gavin Gardiner hard on their heels. I’m sure the year will bring some spectacular guns, a lot of business and I look forward to seeing the usual suspects at the next viewing.

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