Spring Gun Auctions

From Holt's to Gavin Gardiner's

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Auctions & Markets|May 2024

Sporting guns disappeared form the sales repertoire of one of London’s biggest auction houses this spring.

Bonham’s, like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, used to be one of the major forces in sporting gun sales. Christie’s closed their department in the early 2000s, Sotheby’s farmed theirs out to Gavin Gardiner, who is now fully independent, while Bonham’s carried-on in Knightsbridge, with sales that became less frequent but which were often very good in terms of range and quality.

Bonham’s was, over the years, a training ground for many of the people who have since become well-known elsewhere in the gun trade. Patrick Hawes (now at William Evans), Nick Harlow (now at Purdey) and Nick Holt (no explanation needed) all started their careers in the underground bunker where sporting guns were collected, stored and catalogued.

I remember the furore when Chris Austyn, then the biggest name in gun auctions, moved from Christie’s to Bonham’s at what must have been the height of the London auction houses’ period of dominance, before Holt’s bulldozed them rudely aside. Chris Austyn did not last long at Bonham’s and disappeared from the scene entirely when he left.

The London houses never really recovered from Holt’s expansion. Only Gavin Gardiner has managed to live with the new order; making a good business by moving to West Sussex and holding three quality sales each year.

In fact, as Gavin prepares to release the catalogue for his sale on 1st May, news has come from Bonham’s that their Sporting Guns Department is to close. A swath of redundancies were announced in March and their last sale of Modern Sporting Guns will be the next one, scheduled for May.

Bonham’s retain a licence to sell sporting guns but the department staff, Harry Godwin-Austen and Will Threllfall have left. When I enquired about the current situation, Bonham’s Global Director of Communications told me; “ Bonham’s is streamlining the Arms & Armour department and will continue to offer the finest sporting guns within the existing sales of Arms & Armour.”

The next of these sales starts on 13th May and any consignments or enquiries for future Bonham’s auctions should be directed to David Williams, who has been in charge of Arms & Armour for many years and whose range of expertise includes modern sporting guns and rifles.

Bonham’s have started to load items from this sale on their website and they can be viewed here: https://www.bonhams.com/auction/30319/antique-arms-and-armour/

This really does mark the end of an era...

This closure of the Modern Sporting Guns Department brings to an end dedicated sporting gun sales in London. All the other major and minor sellers are now in the provinces. This really does mark the end of an era and takes London off the map as a major centre of commerce for gun collectors and the trade.

Outside the capital, Holt’s still leads the pack but Gavin Gardiner, Southams, Wilson55, Harper Field, Horners, Cadmore, Ryedale and Lonsdales are all holding regular sporting gun sales of note.

Lonsdales are the newest kid on the block and held their second sale in Cumbria on April 11th. It featured a useful listing of full bore and small bore hunting and target rifles, as well as a good range of shotguns valued from £70 upwards, with a few London side-locks by the likes of Purdey and Grant among the BRNOs and Parker Hales.

Holt's had another big success, netting £2,200,000 in total.

Holt’s website is mopping-up the last of the March auction, with some remaining items listed for post-sale purchase on-line. The Sealed Bids sale continues to take bids until April 11th, then the results will be sent out.

The two-day live auction sold a remarkable 90% of lots on the day. Most auctions are happy with 70%. I picked out some notable lots that I thought interesting. A W&C Scott 10-bore Premier that was reserved at £1,000 made £3,900, which shows the strength of the obsolete calibre market right now.

A surprise reject came in the shape of a beautiful pair of Stephen Grant 20-bore sidelever side-lock ejectors made during the Cyril Adams and Ron Solari era. They were superb and had nice long stocks and 29” barrels but didn’t make the £18,000 reserve.

To manufacture today, they would cost over £150,000 and they were little used. Someone will pick up a bargain post-sale if they have both money and sense. Side-lock game guns, like boxlocks, are currently very hard to sell for what they were worth a few years ago.


historic and unusual items do attract strong bids,

It is a buyer’s market once you step outside the rare and collectible antique guns sector. However, interesting, historic and unusual items do attract strong bids, which shows there is money available from buyers for the kind of items they want, rather than some widespread poverty in the customer base.

Holt’s have shown quite clearly that if guns are set-up for sale with modest reserves, then they do sell. Buyers are there but they won’t pay high prices in a falling market.

Of course, in a volume business like Holt’s, every sale represents money in the bank and with three auctions a year, each now netting over two million pounds, there is a good living in those average 25% commissions.

Gavin Gardiner’s catalogue landed on doorsteps in mid April and his 1st May sale numbered 296 lots, starting with a Webley .320 revolver and ending with a 16-bore over & under by Luciano Bosis.

A couple of J.Roberts & Son magazine rifles looked good value: a .416 Rigby with a £1,000 reserve and a 2001 .270 valued at £1400-£1800, both little used and both ‘scoped.

For collectors a Charles Lancaster slide and drop action .577/500 No.2 double hammer rifle was a very nice example of a number of Lancaster’s patents, including self-retracting strikers.

Several pairs of best side-locks, priced from £2,500 to £20,000. I thought a nice pair of Baker action Blanch assisted openers looked very nice at the £4,000 reserve. Pairs of 12-bores have not been netting big money lately. Gavin sold his best pair of 1947 Boss sidelocks made £17,500 on the hammer.

The used gun market is a funny thing. It values originality abut one often finds evidence of a previous owner spending a fortune on a gun, only for it to to be valued later at a fraction of that cost.

For example, Lot 170 was a James Woodward 12-bore side-lock ejector made in 1901. It was re-barrelled in 2000, which would then have cost about £8,000. It was also re-stocked, which would have cost around £4,000 - £5,000. The replacement forend wood would have cost £1,000. The rest of the gun was also restored, probably adding another £1,000 to the bill. So, even assuming the then owner was given the gun for nothing, he has at least £14,000 invested in this gun, which Gavin has put a £3,000 reserve on. A potential buyer looking for a lovely gun to shoot might consider that. To a collector, it is a Woodward action with barrels and stock by someone else.

More ‘ordinary’ fare was also on offer, with thirty or so foreign over & unders by Beretta, Browning et al and priced at a few hundred pounds. Notable was an early Browning Superposed, made in 1931 and given the serial number 69. At £600-£900 that looked to me like it could be fun.

My sole purchase was a Bissell 12-bore...

One of the other notable lots was small bore by B.E. Chaplin. Interestingly, it was made for Lord Rank in 1979 and looks unused but the left barrel wall thickness is listed ‘well below minimum’. This does happen sometimes, with guns re-barrelled in the 1970s and 1980s, when buyers were largely ignorant of an unconcerned by wall thickness. often, they were simply made that way and of they passed proof, nobody paid any attention.

At £2,000-£3,000 and engraved by Geoffrey Casbard, who was once very much considered the equal of Ken Hunt and was often used by Purdey to engrave special guns.

Nick Holt already has another sale in July starting to take shape.

Of historical interest is a Schneider that was in the Eley collection and probably used to develop the new centre-fire loads in 1861, around teh time that Daw introduced the same gun to England, having bought the rights to Schneider’s patent. This could be the first centre-fire hammer gun ever used in this country.

There was also a good example of a Thomas Horsley wood-bar hammer gun with his slide-back top lever valued at £1,400-£1,800. My sole purchase was a Bissell 12-bore hammer gun. It is the earliest serial number Bissell yet to emerge to my knowledge and is a great memento of the man who invented Rigby's 'Rising Bite'.


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Auctions & Markets|May 2024

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