London's sole remaining Big Gun in the firearms auction business deserves a special trip when they put on a major sale, like the one in May.
When I first got involved in firearms auctions, the big news was the move from Christie's, who had been a big deal in the field, to Bonhams, of Christopher Austyn. Chris Austyn was at that time probably the most prominent name in the business. He was widely quoted in the sporting press and the author of at least two books of sporting guns at a time when the subject was far less widely covered in print than is the case today.
After Chris Austyn's departure, the Sporting Guns Department was taken over by Patrick Hawes, who followed him from Christie’s and is now working for Holland & Holland. Patrick's position is now held by Will Threllfall, overseen by Department Head and veteran expert in Arms & Armour, David Williams. Chris Austyn, by the way, disappeared from the scene and left the gun trade abruptly, to the surprise of many.
Throughout these tenures, Bonhams have maintained a steady catalogue of Sporting Guns and Arms and Armour sales, which cover a wide range of related items, from broad swords through duelling pistols to Fabbri over & under shotguns.
The headquarters, in the heart of London's shopping district, just a rifle-shot from Harrods, is beautifully presented and convenient, with impressive security and administration systems. Walking through the glass double front doors, up the steps to Reception, you will be directed to the appropriate room, where, behind a secure door, with a polite doorman, you will be asked to present your credentials and be allowed into the viewing room to peruse the contents.
It is something of a ritual and a warm tingle of anticipation builds as you pass through each stage, culminating in a well-lit room full of wonders. Over the years I have watched some fantastic, historic items go under the hammer. I have even bought several!
If one stands proud in the memory, it must be the .577 Westley Richards double rifle that once belonged to James Sutherland, the contemporary and fellow elephant hunter of John 'Pondoro' Taylor. These rooms give you the opportunity to connect with history, to actually touch and hold items connected to people and exploits only otherwise read of and imagined. I was far too poor to be in the bidding for Sutherland's rifle but getting to handle it was thrill enough.
So much for the past. Following COVID 19 restrictions and enforced habit changes, I found myself driving down the M40 towards London for the first time in almost three years (I don't count the sole in-and-out trip to Twickenham for a rugby international). The destination was Montpelier Street. For some reason my Google Maps and my other Sat Nav systems never manage to find the street in a search, so I just put 'Knightsbridge' in and once close, know my way around.
Parking is typical London - drive around the block in hope and eventually find a secluded pay-to-park parking space among the residents’-permit-boasting Ferraris and Bentleys, in one of the off-shoot residential blocks off Kensington Gore.
A short walk to Bonhams in the unseasonal drizzle, having re-mastered the joys of pay-by-phone parking, invested a small fortune in the process and secure in the knowledge that I had two hours to get stuck- in, and I was ready to focus.
The sale date was set for May 27th and David Williams had, very kindly, set-up a private early viewing for me as soon as the room was dressed. Jamie and Will were on hand and demonstrating all the enthusiasm for the upcoming auction one would expect from a pair of young chaps surrounded by the suff they love. Working in the gun trade for a young man obsessed with guns and shooting is a dream come true - a real lifestyle choice and a job that only true believers can thrive in.
It was refreshing and encouraging to see there is a generation behind me and my like, just as interested and just as enthusiastic about the old craftsmanship, history and gun lore that stimulated me from childhood. Will gave up a job in the City to join the team at Bonhams and looks very much at home among the packed cases and display units, ready to provide a condition report or field a question from a punter.
Of course, today, those requests are as likely to arrive by 'phone or internet as they are to be delivered vocally by an attendee. It is the modern way. We have all become used to buying stuff on-line and even old gun buyers have fallen into this habit. Chatting to Will and Jamie, their opinions concur with those of Gavin Gardiner in that Section 58 obsolete calibre rifles, collectable pistols and rare items of good quality dominate at present. Fortunately, the sale was well stocked with all of these.
David seems to have the edge over other auctioneers in his ability to gather top-drawer pre 1860 pistols and rifles. The number and range of flint and percussion pocket pistols, target pistols and duelling pistols, many cased with original accessories, as well as obsolete chambered service revolvers was astonishing.
Names like Manton, Egg, Nock and Wogdon emblazoned on case labels that are approaching two hundred years old yet remain remarkably well preserved, should really touch a nerve for students of firearms. They were the pioneers of excellence and development who really dragged gun-making into the modern era.
Leafing through a catalogue, in print or on-line, does not do justice to the historic pieces in a room like this There is no substitute for hands-on, eye-to-eye contact with the objects themselves. Like animals seen in the flesh rather than on-screen, live contact delivers a different understanding of what they are. If you live in London, as I did for twenty years, and you are interested in sporting guns and antique firearms, there is no excuse for not putting the dates in your diary and devoting a morning or afternoon to experiencing the wealth of history, history that you can literally touch, here.
It may look a little intimidating but closer inspection reveals that with just a few hundred pounds anyone can pick up something interesting and decorative. Percussion muskets dating back to the 1840s and 1850s started at around the £300 mark, while best, cased, duelling pistols were expected to scale the heights at over £25,000.
Sporting guns ranged from the interesting to the sublime. Among the former, a W&C Scott 10-bore wild-fowling gun with characteristic engraving of herons and other water birds and foliage caught my eye. Built on the 1878 Scott & Baker back-action patent, it had not seen much work on the action and locked up nicely, though the forend and butt-plate were less well preserved. The central integrity of the gun was all here and a starting bit of just £1,000 for a gun that was as expensive in its day as a best Purdey was too tempting not to have a stab at.
A very rare pair of Boss side-lever 12-bore side-locks with Damascus barrels looked sure to create some excitement among collectors and a Pair of Dickson's which Will picked out as among his favourites of the sale.
These were engraved by John 'Jack' Sumner in 1916 and the intricate scroll work is stunning. Dickson is best know for 'round action' trigger plate guns but the firm did build side-locks to order as well as disguising some round actions to look like side-locks.
This pair appeared in very good order, with probable replacement stocks and barrel wall thickness above the preferred minimum 20 thou', though with a length of pull of just 13 3/4" they will require extending for the majority of buyers. Estimated at £14,000 - £18,000, plus 30% commission, a nice pair of side-locks by a desirable maker will act as a useful measure as to where the 12-bore side-lock market stands at this point in time.
As with all auctions, Bonham's had several pairs of guns with at least one measuring thinner in the barrel walls than the retail trade likes to handle. This 'preferred minimum' is always highlighted by the cataloguer and will act as a deterrent to some buyers. However, auctions always seem to find the people willing to overlook the shortcomings of things like thin barrels in favour of the reduced price which enables them to buy and own a pair of guns far superior in quality than they could afford were the barrels in rude health. The reality is that, if in otherwise good order and cared for properly, and used for normal sporting purposes, these guns will still outlast most fifty-year-old sportsman.
Among these we can include a very rare pair of Boss 12-bore side-lever side-lock ejectors with Damascus barrels, one of which was measured at 19 thou'. The woodwork was restorable and the metalwork remarkably fresh, with a nice ouch of original finish all over. The £15,000-£25,000 estimate provided a decent margin for error but unusual things like this are notoriously hard to predict in an auction room.
Boss side-lever guns with Damascus barrels are so rare that anybody wanting a pair who does not buy this pair will be waiting a very long time before the chance arises to buy another.
Not only was Boss represented (more than once) in the sale, all the top London makers names were listed in the pairs section, Rigby Holland & Holland, Boss, Purdey, William Evans and James Woodward all featured.
British boxlocks, which still represent incredible value at the low prices they are currently achieving, were well represented. Immaculate Webley & Scott 700 models estimated at £600-£800 are priced the same today as they were when I had mine valued and put into storage when I went to work abroad in 1988. That is thirty four years ago, when a new Triumph TR7 cost less than £7,000!
The fact is, if you have a thousand pounds to spend and a good eye, you can buy a boxlock ejector in very good condition that would cost over £20,000 to build new. Even those shopping with half that money can buy a gun that will last a lifetime.
Bonhams’ sale is on May 25th & 26th, in Knightsbridge.
Published by Vintage Guns Ltd on