Auctions, in my opinion, offer different things to different people. I have been writing about the London gun auction scene in magazines, both at home and in the USA, since 2003. There have been some significant changes over those fifteen years; and not just relating to the colour of my hair or the sharpness of my vision, neither of which have improved with the passing of time.
Greyer and blinder I may be, but the changes have been gradual and I’m still basically recognisable and functional. However, casting by mind back to those early years at the keyboard, passing comment on the guns that moved through Holt’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams and Christie’s, for Sporting Shooter and The Double Gun Journal, I recall slower, less open times at the sales. Back then, we had to rely on the printed catalogue for information and the telephone for the bulk of our communication.
The viewing room was still a closed-off, somewhat sanctified environment. My readers in the provinces and overseas were enlightened by my descriptions of the lots and the photographs I took of action in the room and details from the guns. Many would never be able to venture into the auction room and the mysteries of the process and the environment were compelling.
The internet changed everything. But not just the internet, firm’s fortunes wax and wane. When I began, Christie’s were the undisputed leaders of the gun auction scene, with their sales in King Street, overseen by the then pre-eminent Christopher Austyn. Then, in a relatively short period, he left Christie’s to take over at Bonhams before abruptly leaving not just the auction business, but the gun trade entirely.
Christie’s now barely feature in gun sales. Holt’s on the other hand, have risen from their, then, relatively impoverished beginnings to overtake all others and gain pre-eminence in Modern Sporting Guns, though Bonhams, under Patrick Hawes (who was at Christie’s when I met him) and David Williams, maintain a healthy presence. They have particular success in the Antique Arms & Armour department, which they hold slightly separate from their Modern Sporting Guns, at least for cataloguing purposes.
Sotheby’s moved out of the sector a few years ago, instead, opting to act as associates to Thomas del Mar and Gavin Gardiner, former department heads, now running their own businesses but still making use of Sotheby’s facilities and marketing connections.
Back to the subject of the internet. It has allowed everyone with a computer or mobile to see every gun advertised in every gun shop they care to look at. The world now knows how many of each type of gun may be on sale at any given time. Comparison can be done relatively easily and the availability and average asking price of certain makes and models is open and clear. Before this, one never really knew what was for sale anywhere outside your own immediate circle of friends or dealers.
Instead of relying on a single, flatteringly-lit photograph in a catalogue, we now, routinely, get web-sites with multiple, magnifying, images of each lot on offer. Wall thickness tables and bore sizes are prepared by the auctioneers. All this makes it easier for overseas or provincial buyers to get involved. The advent of internet bidding made it even more so. Instead of relying on their trusted dealer or representative in the room, many people now sit at their desk in an office in Detroit or Dordogne and bid directly with the click of a mouse, in real-time. So, auctions have become easier for the punter to participate in. They are increasingly habituated by end-users rather than dealers. As a dealer, I could argue about the pitfalls of hobbyists being romanced by the idea of a bargain and armed with a little knowledge, but I cannot deny that increasing numbers of people are getting involved in the auctions.
I have seen ‘ordinary guns’; be they boxlock, side-lock or hammer gun, take a tumble in the last five years or so. I have also seen the availability of good, new to market guns dry up significantly. What I see today is weak sales for the ordinary but strong auction prices for the extraordinary. Today, I think, an auction is the sensible destination to seek a sale if what you have to sell is very special or rare. I wrote last month about a Dickson 16-bore that Holt’s sold in the summer. It made £26,000 after fees and taxes, from a low estimate of £3,000. It was one of perhaps two examples of this particular permutation that Dickson made.
They also looked to be in very good condition. The last one Holt’s sold, in 2012, made £43,000. What price then, for this cased pair? Sadly, the guns are not being submitted for sale just yet. Poor old Nick often gets people waving lovely stuff under his nose, picking his brains as to the value and then having it snatched away again. Such is life; we all get that to a certain degree in the gun trade.Imagine, then, Nick Holt’s excitement this month, when, at The House of Bruar in Scotland, a customer walked in to the valuation day there and put a case on the table containing a composed pair of Dickson round actions. Not just any old Dickson 12-bores; these were triple-barrelled guns, of which the firm made only nine; between 1882 and 1900.
Late August is, traditionally, Gleneagles and Gavin Gardiner focussed. This year he did not display the guns in London before taking them to Scotland. He did offer viewing at his Pulborough premises for anyone who wished to make a trip to the south of England, rather than heading so far north.
With my interest in the old and unusual, I was intrigued to see a Perkes 1876 patent self-half-cocking double hammer rifle by Holland & Holland, built in 1877. It works on a Jones under-lever type mechanism, the rotation of the lever working to un- bolt the barrels from the action, but also to force the hammers back to half cock. Self half-cocking mechanisms were rendered obsolete by Stanton’s rebounding lock but the chronology shows how multiple ideas were hitting the patent offices of mid- victorian England at such a rate that it took a while for the best to dominate and the superfluous to fall out of use. Perkes’s patent came nine years after rebounding locks emerged, in 1867.
Gavin’s cover girl is a £40,000-£60,000 estimated side-lock ejector engraved by Malcolm Appleby and billed as ‘The Phoenix Gun’. It remains as it was made and represents a particular and interesting approach to gun-making by an engraver, with his aesthetic taking the fore and the gun makers being instructed as to their work in accordance with his plans. Guns of this singularity are very difficult to value, as the market is so heavily influenced by brand value and collectors having a certain maker as their main focus. This gun will have to sell on quality and uniqueness and the auction is, therefore, the best place to discover its value in the market.