Note: This article originally appeared in the 35th anniversary issue of Sporting Classics under the title “Quality Without Reserve.” Click here to purchase a copy of this important issue in the life of the magazine!
There’s something electric about an auction’s bidding process. Watching an item you’ve patiently searched for make its way to the auction block; seeing the like-minded stranger across the room shoot you the stink eye—or worse, the competitor that sits beside you in plain sight without your knowledge, waiting to snatch your dream away like a child’s lollipop; the masses of prospective buyers all waiting to raise their hand, paddle, or voice to make their move on a particular lot. These and a thousand other factors go into making an auction a thrilling experience. From a priceless painting to rare gold coins, the desire to obtain a peculiar treasure—maybe even for a steal of a deal—makes an auction appealing on many levels.
Firearm auctions are no different. Rifles, shotguns, muzzleloaders, and handguns are generally mass produced, but even one owner removed from the factory they become one-of-a-kind objects with stories all their own. So when a gun reaches the block and all eyes turn its way, savvy buyers prepare to make their move.
A whole sub-industry has developed around the auctioning of guns, with some auctioneers turning away from furniture, artwork, and the like to focus entirely on the firearms side of their businesses. Some of the niche’s major players include James D. Julia, Inc.; Rock Island Auction Company; Morphy’s Auctions; Cowan’s Auctions; Gavin Gardiner Limited; Poulin Antiques & Auctions; Holt’s & Company Auctioneers, Ltd.; and Amoskeag Auction Company. Each provides an important venue for sellers who want the most for their firearms but don’t want to handle the sale themselves, as well as a chance for bidders to find rare and unique firearms with relative ease.
Who attends a firearms auction? A varied lot, no pun intended. Experienced collectors make up the largest demographic, those looking for a particular firearm or just for something to strike their fancy. Heirs of estates that include firearms are another, uncertain of what they’ve inherited and looking for a professional to turn steel and wood into cash or check. Newbies wanting in on the collecting game, enthusiasts trying to find something their friends will likely never have a copy of—auctions bring together all the different strata of the collecting world.
In short, auctions are for the upper echelon of the shooting world, those jaded by mass production and looking for a gun with a story behind its serial number . . . and hopefully a low number, at that.
Collecting firearms is not a new idea, but rather an old one revisited. As Kevin Hogan, second-generation president of Rock Island Auction Company said, “This was the hobby of kings, noblemen! Kings collected arms, suits of armor, swords. You name it.”
Today’s buyers don’t require blue in their blood to make a purchase, but they’d better have a brain in their head. A successful 21st century bid often requires using the Internet, both to do research on a buy and to place a bid. Unlike yesteryear’s auctions of cramped rooms and straight-backed chairs, modern bidders can sit at home on their computers, pulling up multiple tabs on their web browser to read relevant articles while the online auction is up in another. All the while the bid amount is up-to-the-second accurate and posted for the entire world to see, meaning you’d better do your homework quickly and accurately.
“Today, the kid can work, and on his lunch hour he can go on the Internet and see what’s for sale,” said Jack Lewis of Cowan’s. “If he sees something he likes, boom, he can bid on it.”
That’s not to say you must do your bidding online. While technology has certainly revolutionized auctioneering, some companies are focusing on their brick-and-mortar auctions more than ever. Morphy’s, for example, has turned the in-person experience into, well, an experience.
“We have the guns on display, showcased for at least four weeks if not more,” said Jennifer Belz, Morphy’s marketing director. “We’re open seven days a week, so people are able to come in at any time and preview the pieces and really spend time with them. They’re not rushed to hurry up and get into the auction room. Our buyers really appreciate that.”
Even if you do attend an auction in person, technology can still help you place a better-educated bid when something catches your eye.
“Years ago, the auction process was always handled by caveat emptor, ‘buyer beware,’ where a seller would say, ‘I don’t know what it is; you go ahead and pay what you think it’s worth,’” explained James D. Julia. “Some nefarious auctioneer very well knew that it wasn’t right, but they put it up nonetheless and hid behind caveat emptor.”
Those days are gone, swapped for the immediacy of a smartphone’s Internet search engine. Now a buyer can find out which ballpark their bid should be in and choose their offers accordingly, going outside the real value of a firearm if, and only if, they choose to do so.
Like the in-person/in-building viewing experience, technology hasn’t made the print catalog obsolete; it just made it better. In keeping with the old ways done new, several companies still offer catalogs of their firearms months before the auctions take place.
“If you go back to the early sales, they would put five guns in one photo and they’d all be numbered and you’d have to read the description,” Hogan said. “They had black-and-white catalogs, then they started printing in color, but they were still doing the big group photos. We switched to digital photography and began printing in full color—the first company to do either.”
Today’s RIAC catalogs require upward of 25,000 images, resulting in visually stunning artwork in its own right.
Cataloging isn’t easy, though. Putting them together requires staffing, and any old staffer won’t do. They have to be among the best and brightest in a particular field to give an accurate estimate of a firearm’s worth, both for the company’s records and the public’s instruction.
“The most cash-efficient way of cataloging goods is to have three or four full-time employees working for you, and all they do is catalog. That’s the efficient, inexpensive way,” Julia said. “But there’s no one person that knows everything about guns, so our approach has always been different. We hire a number of different specialists, each specializing in a certain niche—it might be Colts, it might be Winchesters, Lugers, Class III, Civil War, or fine sporting arms.”
But are those firearm categories still popular with modern buyers, or have the times changed the items sold as much as the way they’re sold? Yes and no. While an especially rare firearm will always be coveted, it’s not always the oldest gun that gets the bids. In fact, the guns that are taking auctions by storm right now aren’t that old at all.
The experts all agreed on which era currently ruled the auction roost:
“The greatest upward movement in firearms right now tends to be in the more contemporary guns—the firearms from the Second World War, military firearms from the 20th century, ‘black guns’ from the 1960s and 1970s,” Julia said.
“World War II is very much alive,” Lewis said. “People love World War II items, and it’s beginning to get into the Vietnam period. Sniping rifles, especially Marine Corps sniping rifles, are very popular. They’ve become this generation’s vintage antiques.”
“Colts and Winchester have always been blue chips of collecting, but where we’ve seen a really big boom, if you will, would be on World War II U.S. and German military,” Hogan said. “There’s no question a generational connection. Dad was in the war; Grandpa was in the war; I’ve seen Saving Private Ryan; I’ve played the video games . . .”
Hogan described it as a sales wave. Like the chop of the ocean’s surface, trends develop over time in the auction industry and come to an eventual cap, then lull away while a new trend takes its place. Right now it’s a WWII trend; tomorrow, apparently, Vietnam.
“We call it the ‘Model A’ or ‘Model T Syndrome,’ like in cars,” Hogan said. “If you go back forty, fifty years ago, Model Ts and Model As were bringing a lot more money than they are now. That’s because there was still a generational connection. You move away from that and a few generations later, yeah, everyone knows what they are, but there’s not the appeal. There’s not the intrigue or the lust to own one.”
Sporting arms also undergo changes in popularity. Flintlocks succeed to lever actions, levers to bolts, and bolts to semiautomatics. Sporting arms are not tied down or tied to a particular time period as strictly as a military arm is. Instead, its demand is even more related to what the user’s personal background with a model is.
Lewis said the same impetus that made your grandfather crave a Duesenberg will make your grandson want a Challenger—it’s what they grew up with, and by owning a firearm like their grandfather carried into the Michigan deer woods or their dad taught them to shoot doves with in Georgia, the collector can have a little moment of nostalgia each time they shoulder the gun. Or they can be links to historic hunters, like the American “buffalo” hunters of the 1800s, the tiger hunters of British-ruled India, or the elephant hunters of 20th century Africa.
“You can look at them as wonderful pieces of history, and not just American history, but world history,” Hogan said.
Two recent firearm sales reveal just how much history plays in a firearm’s price, especially when it comes to sporting arms. Rock Island recently sold the most expensive firearm ever purchased at auction, a Winchester 1886 in .45-70. It was Serial No. 1 and in near-perfect condition, but the background of its owner is what really caught buyers’ attention: The gun was presented to Capt. Henry W. Lawton for his capture of the Apache leader Geronimo the same year the rifle was produced.
Historical context was equally important with an A.H. Fox shotgun once owned by Theodore Roosevelt. In 2010, James D. Julia, Inc., sold the 12-gauge fowling piece for $862,500, making it the most expensive shotgun ever auctioned—and at the low point of the recent recession to boot. Roosevelt took it on his famous African safari when he left the White House in 1909, using it to take smaller species for museums back in the U.S.
Roosevelt wrote a thank-you letter to Fox upon the gun’s arrival in 1909:
“My dear Mr. Fox: The double-barreled shotgun has come, and I really think it is the most beautiful gun I have ever seen. I am exceedingly proud of it. I am almost ashamed to take it to Africa and expose it to the rough usage it will receive. But now that I have it, I could not possibly make up my mind to leave it behind. I am extremely proud that I am to have such a beautiful bit of American workmanship with me.”
He penned an article while in Africa saying, “I had a Fox No. 12 shotgun; no better gun was ever made.”
While it is certainly an ornate gun, it was Roosevelt’s historical presence and passion for hunting that made the firearm so highly desired.
So is the future bleak or bright for firearms collectors and the auction industry? Is it filled with ARs and 1911 clones marching one after the other across the stage and computer screen?
When asked, the autioneers’ response was a collectively humorous “You tell me and that’s what we’ll invest in.” No one knows for sure what trend will crest next, no more than which baseball card will fetch a million in a decade or so. But there will always be a next big thing, and thoughtful buyers should be looking at the current fads to determine what will be in vogue with the next generation.
Like everything else economically driven, the firearm auction industry took a hit in the recent recession, with firearm values lower than they were in the reported heyday of the 1990s and early 2000s. Those glory days saw important guns come out of the shadows of private collections and hit the auction block, with the sale of numerous icons taking place before they dove back into the darkness.
The periodic resurfacing of important pieces occurs every few decades as various collectors divest themselves or pass away, bringing the important firearms of the past into the hands of new owners. This passing of the baton is a special event in the collecting community and part of the reason collectors frown on guns being willed to museums to simply stagnate behind glass. It’s not to hoard or prevent others from possessing; it’s to keep the items in the collecting family. With various major sales taking places in the ’90s and the fears of the recent recession ending, those firearms are much overdue for their next turnover—something that’s exciting for auction houses and collectors alike.
And those collections will be sold, regardless of the sums they could have drawn if they’d been auctioned pre-2009. “Lower” values don’t mean low, and the sales figures are already beginning to rebound as the recession fades into history.
“If I had to go back to 2005 and make a decision that all my assets be invested in something in the collectibles world, it would have been firearms, knowing what I know today,” Julia said. “Today, the rate of return is better than what it is in almost all of the other old collectibles, but it’s still less than what it was . . . That’s why I say if someone is interested in buying guns today, this is the time to be buying. You can get more gun for your dollar than what you could have in 2006, 2007.”
What should you expect from a sale, either as a buyer or seller? These auction companies didn’t make it to the top of the industry without a reputation for honesty, and with the technology mentioned earlier, it’s even easier to get an accurate estimate of what a firearm will bring at auction. But what if the estimate is off?
“The terrific thing about an auction is, if I tell you a Winchester is worth $20,000-25,000 and I’m low, guess what, it’s going to bring more,” Julia said. “I have to tell you the truth up front, and you have to be realistic with your expectations, but if you are, you’re going to sell this stuff.”
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