Auction View: Access Denied

Looking back on historical traditions in the auction world, Diggory Hadoke explores how changing times have affected the relationship between auctioneers, traders and members of the public

What is the true essence of the modern gun auction? Is it a wholesale, trade-focused environment or a retail shop by other means? What the auction scene was – and what it is – may be the subject of often heated debate, but that it is an ever-changing entity is undeniable.

I started attending gun auctions in London religiously in the late 1990s, so my observations stretch back only 15 years or so. I often discuss ‘the old days’ with fellow dealers, writers and gun makers, and there is no doubt that significant shifts in public perception have taken place over the past two decades.

“There used to be a little cabal of dealers who got together and decided who would buy what. If you had the temerity to try and buy something they wanted, they got very upset. They seemed to have the opinion that nobody else had a right to get involved,” reflected a veteran of the trade recently.

Certainly, the old auction room was once a less perceptibly accessible place to the public than it is now. Certain members of the trade frowned on ‘punters’ getting involved in buying at auction. Their business model was to buy at auction, (perhaps) clean it up, mark it up strongly and sell it in their shop. Why would they welcome their customers into the wholesale room to bid against them?

A lovely Purdey from Gavin Gardiner’s – again, snapped up at full retail money. A great gun but hard for a dealer to make a margin on it

When I started writing about auctions for the shooting press, around 10 years ago, I was more than once approached by a dealer whose motivation was, effectively, to shut me up. My articles that covered gun auctions were seen by some as a threat to their monopoly of new-to-market stock, making the public more aware of how auctions operate and how they could become involved.

The same dealers were also making grumpy noises in the direction of the new kid on the block at the time: Holt’s. The realisation that, in the computer and internet age, auction rooms could be opened up to become far more of a retail environment had taken hold and Holt’s was at the forefront. It was also scouring the globe for stock and treading on the toes of dealers who felt they had ownership of particular territories. As with so many other areas of life, easily transferred information democratised gun auctions and we now see end-users far more involved.

So where does that leave things for the trade and the retail buyer at a modern gun auction? I recently watched progress at a sale conducted by Gavin Gardiner in Bond Street. Among the lots that caught my eye was a Boss hammer 12-bore with Purdey patent thumbhole operating lever. It was what we call a ‘sleeper,’ in that it had not been through any repair or restoration and, though worn in some areas (like the chequering and stock finish), was in good condition for its age and of very high quality.

01 Dealer Toby Barclay of Heritage Guns shopping at Holt's for his speciality of unusual patents and quality guns by lesser known makers01

Dealer Toby Barclay of Heritage Guns shopping at Holt’s for his speciality of unusual patents and quality guns by lesser known makers

Knowing what I do of the current market, I considered the gun in retail condition to be worth in the region of £8,500. At auction, one must factor in the sales commission to the auctioneer (in this case the 20 per cent Gavin applies, which is the lowest in London) and VAT on the commission (also currently at 20 per cent). So, I expected a bid of £5,500 to be about right to secure the gun, allow a little to be spent on necessary work and a margin for a small profit at the retail end.

The Boss came up and the bids came thick and fast. They sliced through my mental barrier and continued upwards until the final figure (all commissions and VAT included) reached £9,000. What angle does a dealer have with such a gun at such a price? None, in my opinion. A private collector bought it, effectively as a retail buy.

What does this mean to the auction attender? Well, it very much depends on your motivation and ambition. There has long been a school of thought that whatever a gun made at auction, it was worth it. This was because there was always someone willing to pay almost what you paid on the day – so you can’t go far wrong, regardless of how much you spent. This can be dangerous. If you are a trade buyer bidding against retail customers, you risk paying more than allows you to add any margin if you follow them up the bidding ladder to its expensive conclusion.

Retail customers have been encouraged to take part, largely by means of internet facilities. Every auction house now has a live internet bidding service. Auction catalogues are now online, many with sophisticated viewing features on the photographs and far more photographs of details than ever before.

British people, who were once shy of buying without trying, are now used to shopping online for everything. They are also used to auctions because of eBay. Americans are used to buying at a distance, because their distances compel them to. London is not much further from New York than it is from Las Vegas. I believe these factors all contribute to the greater participation of Joe Public in modern gun auctions, and the trade has had to take note of this fact.

I have, in recent years, become aware that some dealers who were once ever-present at the viewings and sale days no longer attend. They tell me that they cannot compete with the retail buyers, and the bigger dealers take anything they want, which does fall into the traditional category of trade do-up. For many, the auctions no longer work as a source of new material.

Meanwhile, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. I fear many a punter walks in off the street flush with enthusiasm and that very dangerous ‘little bit of knowledge’, only to end up with an over-priced gun, a big dose of buyer’s remorse and a hefty repair bill.

With the spring sales now over, all the auctioneers will be preparing for the CLA Game Fair and crossing their fingers that the weather is kind this year. There will be major auctions in the summer from Bonham’s, Gavin Gardiner (at Gleneagles this time), and Holt’s.

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