It’s Bonhams’ turn to put in a powerful performance this month, with its May auction making sales from £50 to nearly £50,000, as Diggory Hadoke reports
Bonhams dominated the gun auctions calendar in May, with the biggest sale of the month held alongside its antique arms and armour. The departments are now headed respectively by Will Threlfall and David Williams, with the May sale combining older firearms with modern sporting guns.
With Bonhams manfully carrying on through the pandemic, collecting lots for sale, the catalogues for both departments were large and variety wide.
The catalogue came online in early May and with every lot nicely photographed. The modern sporting guns and accessories started at Lot 351 with some vintage books on guns and hunting, ran through taxidermy and ephemera such as duck decoys and gun slips, moved on to cartridge magazines and gun cases before getting to the sporting rifles.
There was something for every pocket in this sale, from a Ruger 10/22 with a laminate stock to a nearly new Purdey Sporter over-and-under 12-bore. Being something of a sucker for custom-built stalking rifles, I noticed a David Lloyd .25-06 (Rem) built on a Mauser action and rebuilt by TT Proctor.
With a starting bid of just £700, including a Habicht 4 scope, this had the potential to be a clever purchase for an end user, though the retail market for these things is challenging at present. I was surprised that it did not sell.
There were some notable oddities in the big-bore section, with a chamberless side-lever 4-bore by Frederic T Baker the most unusual, carrying an estimate of £5,000 to £8,000. Clearly in need of a specialist with a gap in his collection, it did not sell, reflecting a problem for big-bore sales at present. One major collector is liquidating a lot of these and there does not seem to be the interest that there was 10 years ago.
Of more recent manufacture was a MacFarlaine 10-bore, triple-barrelled gun, engraved by Phil Coggan, with a modest reserve of £7,000, considering what it cost to build. Again, an oddity that will not appeal to many people. The trick is to find the few people who really want it and get them to bid against one another. Auctions can be exactly the right place for this type of rarity. Not on this occasion, however: it also failed to sell.
Some inexpensive hammerguns included a nice 12-bore by William Powell, which made £510. There was also a .410 converted rook rifle by Hepplestone, which was almost certainly made by Samuel Allport and represented a lot of quality for the modest £200 low estimate and was a real steal at £153 all fees paid.
A Greener G3 model looked good value for £500, but the relatively low resolution of the website photos is something of a barrier to confident purchase at times like these when in-person viewing is either not possible or difficult. It sold for £573 including commission; again very good value.
Bonhams provides condition reports, but larger images would help potential buyers at the early stages of shortlisting. I noticed some of the later lots did have bigger images, so I’m not sure if the limitation was restricted to certain lots only, or if bigger ones would load later.
Sidelocks and sporters
For the collector, there was a Gibbs & Pitt 1873 patent trigger-plate gun—sold for £637—and an 1871 patent ‘mousetrap’ hammerless gun by T Murcott. This was the first workable hammerless breechloading gun to emerge in Britain and represented a step-change in gun design, which culminated in the Anson & Deeley and the Dickson ‘round action’ and the popular hammerless sidelocks we now recognise. It made £573, which was not a bad effort considering its condition, but there are thought to only be about 200 of these ever made.
Of the sidelocks, I noted a nice example by Thomas Perkes, a man more associated with patents than his own guns. This was a 12-bore with very nicely figured wood and a good bar-lock action, retaining about 40% of its original colours. At £382, it was a good buy for someone.
Lancaster’s Twelve-Twenty was intended to be a lightweight 12-bore, based on the patent of William Baker. It was sold by several makers, including Grant, but only Lancaster used the model designation ‘Twelve-Twenty’, hinting at a 12-bore with the weight of a 20-bore. At 6lb 2oz, this one at Bonhams was certainly that. We can forget, in these days of 36g loads and 32in barrels, that lightweight guns were once all the rage.
There were several sidelocks by Boss, ranging from £5,000 to £15,000 in estimate—the best of them made £11,500—and a 1964 pigeon gun by Purdey, with 29in barrels, engraved with large scroll by Ken Hunt, carrying an upper estimate of £30,000 and making just over £25,000.
At the end of the sale, a Purdey Sporter single-trigger over-and-under made £16,500—a big saving on the new price of more than £60,000. A pair of Holland & Holland’s Sporting model, in 20-bore and with sideplates, made £47,750. So, buyers were active across the price spectrum.
Auctions are more accessible than ever, with The Saleroom working as an online means of finding anything of interest that may be coming up for sale anywhere in the country. Hugo Marsh of Special Auction Services in Newbury got in touch to alert me to the upcoming sale of an interesting lot in his 27 April auction. It consisted of a bundle of letters—four in total—and photographs from the late 1920s.
The letters were written by tiger hunter Jim Corbett from his hunting camps and relate the ongoing struggle to shoot the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag, as well as two tiger hunts, including his last one. Another letter was by Sir William Ibbotson recounting Corbett’s hunt for the Rudraprayag leopard and recommending him for official recognition for his exploits.
As far as I am aware, these letters are previously unknown and add some useful context to Corbett’s hunting adventures. From a reserve of £200, they beat my bids easily to finally sell for £1,700. However, I did manage to get copies of everything and have been publishing the letters as I transcribe them. Interest in Corbett remains strong, with a much-anticipated new biography of the man about to be published by Merlin Unwin Books, penned by Duff Hart-Davis.
Another auction, Fonsie Mealy in County Wicklow, featured a few items of furniture from Carton House, where my grandfather was born, including some plates with the family crest painted on them. It is at once interesting and frustrating when old family items come up for sale. It is nice to see them emerge but galling when I fail to buy them. The six plates made 560 euros, which was way out of my budget.
This sort of thing illustrates the importance of auctioneers discovering provenance where possible. I once paid close to £4,000 for a tired old Purdey hammergun at Holts because it was made for my great, great, great, great, great uncle in 1867. Without that being the case, I would not have bid £1,000 for it.
In the provinces, Ryedale Auctioneers in Yorkshire had a few interesting hammerguns, including examples by Charles Golden, J Burrow of Preston, Carr Brothers and Patstone. These remote auctions can throw up a ‘steal’, but you have to be very careful bidding unseen on anything.
Elsewhere, Wilsons had a lot of deactivated rifles, shotguns and pistols for reasonable money, the cost of deactivation alone representing the reserve in many cases.
Gavin Gardiner has announced valuation days around the UK between 16 June and 1 July in advance of its Gleneagles sale on 30 August. For exact dates and locations, visit gavingardiner.com
Southams also has several auctions going on through early July, with live-bidding and timed-bidding sales, from its Bedford headquarters. Business is brisk and there are deals to be had as well as buyers looking for kit.