The Game Fair 2021 – unearthing hidden gems

Diggory Hadoke unearths hidden gems from the Game Fair, and from even farther afield.

The Game Fair has to be the highlight of July, in fact, of the summer. Auctioneers, like the rest of us, were keen to get in front of the public and start making contacts again. The Game Fair also saw a return to Gunmakers’ Row of Holland & Holland, after the takeover by Beretta. 

New chief operating officer Nigel Stuart is definitely worth singling out for a chat. He has lots of ideas about bringing the company back to its former glory. We have to remember that Holland & Holland is still one of the best names in the industry and 30 years ago was perhaps the healthiest of them all in gun-making terms. It is a company with a truly great heritage; one that enthusiasts revere and are rooting for.

Other brands, once much diminished through hard times, have re-emerged stronger and better, and now have dedicated followings and customers willing to back their ambition with solid orders. This is the way forward. Consolidate the core ethos of the firm, build great products that excite and involve the clients, and rebuild the mystique surrounding the company. In terms of brand value, Holland & Holland is remarkable, its history and pedigree is almost unsurpassed.

It is good to see the company customer-facing so soon after restructuring has begun. Change is painful and upheaval is inevitable but the prospects are hugely exciting if the fortunes of this great gunmaker can be turned around. It needs a man with a plan, and that man is Nigel Stuart.

Fair game

Newly acquired by George Juer and Tom Cosby, the Charles Lancaster Group made a splash with a big stand, lots of booze, plenty of ambitious plans and shelves heaving with stock. However, the best stand award has to go to Rigby, with its enormous safari tent, fire pit, club chairs and specially kitted-out ‘Kinsmen’ edition Land Rover. 

Right next door was Fieldsports Journal, which became the natural social hub for the trade, with a first-class barbecue, a bar, good seating and even a covered lounge area with a big screen on which to watch the Lions beat South Africa.

I had a slot chatting to Charlie Jacoby of fieldsportschannel.tv on their its stage and delivered a talk on the prospects for users of vintage guns in the face of switching to lead-free ammunition in the near future, on the GTA stand.

Bonhams had a good-sized stand, with an Aston Martin acting as a draw and some very nice teasers from the upcoming sporting guns sale, including an elaborately engraved Purdey hammer gun, which had tongues wagging around the mobile bars.

The ping tone

COVID interrupted Holts weekend, with the firm having to bailout at the last minute as one of Nick’s young minions had been pinged. However, Holts was ably represented by roving ambassador for the weekend Simon Reinhold. And with three very good recent sales behind them despite COVID-19, a move out of London and not being able to exhibit at the game fairs and country shows they normally attend, life looks pretty good from Norfolk for the auctioneers.

Nigel Ward & Company in Pontrilas, Herefordshire, was an unlikely venue but that is where I found myself this month, on the trail of a Stephen Grant hammer gun. It was listed amongst a catalogue of general furnishings and machinery, along with half-a-dozen other guns.

For days, it sat on the Saleroom site, which shows bids as they are made online. The bidding sat at £1, so I thought I had better make the trip and have a look. Inspection found it to be a neglected and badly stored 1878, 12-bore hammer gun. The bores still measured close to .729in, as made, and walls were close to their 30 thou minimums.

There were some stubborn-looking pits but the barrels were worse on the external surfaces, which were dented, scratched and battered. The woodwork was worn and dirty but restorable. The action and locks were pretty good. So, I decided to bid online later, from home. It cost me £1,100 on the hammer, which means £1,400 in actual money. Now the challenge is to see how well it responds to some restoration.

I passed on three other guns that were good buys: a Holland & Holland ‘Dominion’ with a nicely figured stock and excellent barrels made £1,400; a Webley 700 in 12-bore with a nice long stock and 25in barrels was a bit dirty but essentially unused and made £450, which was a good buy; as was £320 for a very decent AYA No 2 12-bore, also with a long stock.

I found out later a few acquaintances were bidding against me but many were bidding ‘blind’ and hoping the barrels would be okay, something I’d never advocate. However, it does highlight the fun and the occasional good buy that can lurk in out-of-the-way auctions.

Upcoming sales to watch

Southam’s in Bedford had a good June sale, with lots ranging from under £40 to £5,000. The firm’s site is now user-friendly and online bidding is easy. The next sale closed entries on 28 July and will show shortly.

Gavin Gardiner’s traditional August bank holiday sale at Gleneagles will not take place this year. For the first time in my memory, Scotland-bound sportsmen will be unable to peruse the saleroom while awaiting their day on the grouse moor. 

I have been told that many estates have declined bookings from overseas parties due to uncertainty over flights, quarantine and the status of COVID-19 restrictions later in the year, which remain uncertain. So, there may be a smaller number of potential buyers affected by Gavin’s absence this year than would normally be the case. The sale reverts to Pulborough, in West Sussex, where Gavin has his HQ, and it will be online, via Invaluable.

Nothing to see here

I’m not sure the market at present is teaching us much. The widely touted collapse of the price of English game guns hasn’t happened, despite widespread whining about the need to swap to bismuth and the associated cost, once the anticipated lead ban takes effect.

One could argue that prices were already depressed and there was not far to go to reach rock-bottom. Historical comparisons are always interesting. Perusing a 1967 issue of Shooting Times, I noted an advertisement for a Boss 12-bore, sidelock ejector with 27in barrels. The asking price: £600. In today’s money, that is £11,166. Why not have a look in upcoming auctions, imagine you have that figure to spend on a good Boss sidelock and see if you can buy one?

We are certainly not seeing the kind of price inflation we saw back in the early 2000s, when I bought a Purdey at Holts for £6,500, used it for three or four seasons, then sold it for £12,000. However, house prices are rising once more, the predictions of a post-COVID boom and a lot of pent-up desire might just be good news. 

I don’t think we can totally dismiss the impact of a lead ban, given our tendency to wait until the last minute before acting. We could see a panic and the market suddenly glutted with English shotguns, but I somehow doubt it. I do get collectors on the phone every week or so asking if they should sell some of their guns in case prices fall, but they are mostly talking and not acting.

Making the right decision is difficult. Had you seen the approach of the 2016 restrictions on de-activated guns and dumped your collection, you would have dodged a costly bullet. Likewise, this year’s removal of seven calibres from the Section 58 (Obsolete) list; a collection of .44 Colt Russian revolvers is now a liability rather than an asset.

From an auctioneer’s point of view, there is a silver lining to all these clouds. As long as they can sell guns and take their commission, they can (and do) make money, even in a falling market. Such events often lead to activity, which is the crucial thing. What the trade dreads above all else is a stagnant market. If nothing is moving, nobody is making money.


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