We all know the downside of auctions for the buyer and the seller. Basically, the auctioneer bites a huge chunk out of the transaction. Simply put, a gun that sells in a typical London auction and requires the buyer to write a cheque for £7,000 will net the seller only £4,500. The auctioneer gets £1,750 and the VAT man gets the rest. Chances are, you take the same gun to a dealer and he will be happy to pay you £5,500 for it and sell it for £6,500 if he has a quick buyer lined up. The seller gets more, the dealer takes a fair cut and the buyer pays less.
However, the trick is for the dealer to have the right buyer in hand to make the quick sale. Nobody wants to hold stock indefinitely and sellers don’t want to be told it might take years to sell.
Auctions find buyers. They also find buyers for odd kit, which many dealers will not have a clear sale strategy for. Taking whatever is up for sale and showing it to the world, in the way that the big auction houses do, definitely generates interest, awareness and publicity. After all, I’m writing about a load of interesting things Holt’s is about to sell. I’m not writing about what, say, Mike Ladd has on the shelf in his gun shop. It may not be fair, but it is a fact.
So, what kind of thing best suits an auction environment? Well, it can be the gun that has been in stock for a while. I remember a dealer telling me he couldn’t sell a Westley Richards ‘Fauneta’ for £5,000. He put it in Holt’s and got £10,000. The odd little shot-and-ball gun needed a special kind of buyer, and the auction flushed him out. I was offered a Watson Bros boxlock 20-bore with two sets of barrels (one for ball) for £4,000. I had no obvious client for it. Bonhams sold it a few months later for around £9,000.
Holt’s on 19 September showcases some typical examples of where an auction can drum up interest and generate bids for the unusual and for things rare enough that judging the market value is far from scientific. Show a clued-up dealer a 1925 H&H ‘Royal’ and, judging by condition and confi guration, he will have a very good idea what he can sell it for and what he can pay for it to make it worthwhile. Show him the first ledger used by Charles Lancaster, the London gunmaker, and I think the best he could come up with would be a wild guess. It is worth £50 or £500 or £5,000? Only the auction room will tell the truth about what the buyers in the market will pay on a particular day for a rara avis like this. Better to let big bad Nick have his chunk of £5,000 than get it wrong and take 100 per cent of £500.
So what does the September sale throw up in this particular arena? There are several pieces, and I knew about them well in advance because Holt’s made sure I did. See? The publicity machine working – this is what you pay for when you hand over your seller’s commission.
First in line was the ledger I mentioned earlier. Charles Lancaster, famed barrel maker to Manton, founder of a firm that navigated the most inventive period of 19th-century gunmaking development and made it into the 20th, famous for the ‘Twelve Twenty’ (unfairly as it happens) lightweight game gun, purveyor of Beesley’s spring-opening boxlock and adopted by HAA Thorn, who carried on trading as ‘Charles Lancaster’ and wrote the multi-selling book The Art of Shooting.
The item on sale is his first order book. I’ll let the catalogue description take over: ‘Covering dates from 8 June 1826 to 5 April 1847, listing his customers from when he started his gunmaking business at 151 New Bond Street, London W1. The ledger measures 15 in x 10 in and has 897 pages with a 24-page index of customers’ names. The first entry in the sales ledger is dated 8 June 1826 and the last entries are dated 5 April 1847, the date of Charles Lancaster’s death, when accountants closed the books and required clients to settle their accounts.’
What a fascinating piece of original history. I am interested to learn how much it will make. Certainly, the current owners of the firm will want it – but will a private enthusiast with a fat bank account outbid them?
Another lot, notable for its rarity, is by Frank Clarke of Birmingham. To my untutored eye it is a grubby, un-prepossessing pressed-metal toy. To the right buyer, however, it is the Holy Grail as Holt’s puts it. A superrare example of a collectable, of which only six examples are known to exist: the ‘Titan MK1’ air pistol, dating to 1916. Owing to its rarity, it really is a case of showing it to interested parties and saying, “How much will you give me for this?” That is exactly what an auction does, except it all happens on one day. There is no other reliable means of accurately gauging its value.
While on the subject, we can examine an item that perhaps was a gift from a Maharajah to a minister in his government. It is a revolver by Webley in .450/.455 calibre, cased with appropriate inlay and in excellent condition. Valuing the revolver on its merits, one could suggest a likely value. However, the provenance adds a dimension difficult to predict. Is there someone out there who really has to have this revolver, and for whom no other Webley revolver will do? Are there two such people, or three? What will this do to the bidding on the day?
The answers to these speculative questions are impossible to give until, as Nick Holt told the presenter of Antiques to the Rescue in a recent television broadcast, “when the bees come to the honey, the hands start to go up”. I’ll be in the sale room to find out. Maybe I’ll see you there.