It takes a mere ten or twenty seconds to dismiss most of the guns in a sale room. That is how it is possible to see hundreds in a single day and reduce the list of what you want to bid on to a sensible number.
Closer inspection is required, once your shortlist has been made. This is where the real work begins, as the viewer has to observe the gun in its entirity, identify any problems, calculate which can be corrected and what the likely cost would be, then plan a bid, plus costs, to establish a final figure and see if the venture is commercially viable.
Let’s step back a paragraph. How is it so easy to dismiss so many guns with such an apparently cursory glance? One word sums it up: ‘crispness’. Maybe not an especially elegant or technical term but it does capture the essence of the issue at hand. Upon opening a case or picking a gun from the stand, eyes first go to the action.
Turn it around and inspect the furniture, lock plates and other metal parts. While doing this, wood-to-metal wear and fit will also become apparent. If the view coming back to you shouts of polishing, buffing, excessive cleaning and re-finishing, the gun is of absolutely no interest. This visual information speaks of a tired gun that has been subjected to an over -aggressive ‘do-up’. There is nowhere to go with it.
In most auctions, this quick and simple first inspection removes 80% of the guns on view from my list. For these I have no time, no interest and will warn clients away from them. The only exception might be if a gun were at the less extreme end of this spectrum and other wise very sound and shootable; and very cheap. In that case, the occasional enthusiast on a budget may find such a gun provides an accessible route to owning a class of gun he could not afford if he were seeking really good example. Sometimes one has to fit expectations to budget. A view must be taken.
However, what the experienced eyes in the viewing room are looking for are guns of quality and novelty. Not those which have been to market several times in the last fifteen years, nor those that have been renovated to showroom condition, all shiny and resplendent with new chequer, blacked barrels and glowing stock finish. What they are seeking are the three or four guns in most sales which fall into a category known in the trade as a ’sleeper’.
A ‘sleeper’ has been in a case under a bed for thirty years, or it may have adorned a magnificent gun room in a minor stately home, having been put on the rack when the family changed to more modern guns, perhaps in the 1920s or after the last war. It might have languished at the back of a retired game-keeper’s gun safe, an old gift from his employer that he neglected, in favour of his trusty AYA ‘Yeoman’ and BSA ‘Sportsman’. Sleepers can be hammer guns, or rifles, sidelocks, boxlocks or many of the transitional guns that bridged the hammer/hamerless period of the 1870s and 1880s.
What they have in common is that they are new to market. They will not have been seen by anyone in the trade for sixty years or more. They will not have been renovated and they will not have been badly neglected. They may be dirty and they may look dull but these are the fabled ‘diamonds-in-the-rough’.
Many retail ‘punters’ frequenting London auctions will walk past these because they look old, dirty and in need of a lot of work. They often want a gun they can take out and shoot without too much extra effort or expenditure.
What serious collectors and trade buyers want is a blank canvas. With the grime cleaned gently off, the original finish shows through, blackened wood starts to glow, congealed oil and dirt lifts off the lock plates to reveal crisp engraving and sharp beads on the fences. Original chequer cleans out to reveal that it is clogged with ‘palm grease’ rather than worn smooth. Removal of the forend reveals original case hardening colours on the iron, the pin slots are not enlarged or burred from multiple ham-fisted strip-and-clean operations over the years.
When measured, the bores will be true and the walls thick, there may be some light pitting and the exterior may be dry and tarnished, perhaps with light rusting on the outside of the barrels but over-all sound and un-molested. Proof marks may well be original, either early nitro or black powder. Whatever we need to do to ‘lift the gun, we will be the first to attempt the job, which means we can preserve originality and we do not have to rectify earlier, badly-executed efforts.
The problem with the ‘sleeper’ at auction is that every keen-eyed professional in the viewing room has seen it. If there are only three or four in the sale, a number of these people will be keen to secure whet they want, in order to make the two or three days in London worthwhile.This can push the prices up. For this reason, auctioneers are very keen to get ‘sleepers’ into the catalogue.
Whenever I make one of my frequent calls to the head of one auction house for a preview of a sale, perhaps two or three months hence, I detect a note of excitement when one has uncovered a really new-to-market gem. It might not be a Purdey, it might not be an obvious highlight to the untrained eye but to the men who spend all their days looking at old guns in a professional capacity, these are the stand-outs that make the job exciting.
The last sale at Holt’s featured a side lock by Rosson. The name would attract few, the specification was of a ‘normal’ game gun. However, the quality was superb, the gun was unmolested and cased, with originality obvious for all to see. This was the ‘hidden gem’ of the auction, putting Woodward over & unders and pairs of London sidelocks in the shade. It was different, it was clean, it was quality and it was new to market.
If fortunate enough to buy one or two of the ‘sleepers’ the restoration process has to begin. Here one can get it very wrong. I have seen beautifully original guns turn up at Game Fair dealer stands, ruined by over-restoration. Original acid-etched damascus barrels, polished and re- browned rather than left in their black and silver, mottled glory; a finish very hard to replicate. Guns with nice, crisp actions and good hints of original case colours and charcoal blacking speaking through the years of their original quality and telling their story, brutally re-colour hardened with deep, thick, enamel-like modernity; ruined in the eyes of the connoisseur, forever lost in pursuit of a commercial edge to entice a part-educated but wealthy, enthusiastic buyer to whose eye ‘as new’ is the desired aesthetic and to whom many dealer will pander. Some cannot see, others will not see.
‘Sleepers’ lie in an ever diminishing seam of richness. There are fewer eery year, but still they do seem emerge, often from the most surprising sources and most unexpectedly. Whether you are an auctioneer, a dealer or the ‘friend of a friend’, when the ‘phone rings and a voice on the other end tells you “I’ve got this old gun that belonged to my grandpa and nobody in the family shoots anymore….” the hairs on the back of the neck start to prickle and the juices start to flow – could this be a sleeper? The questions start to formulate, the tinder box of the imagination ignites and another adventure begins.