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Personal Provenance

A Short Story of Provenance

The issue of provenance in determining the value of a gun is a very difficult one to pin down. Ownership by someone of historical note can become something of a sensation or pass without comment, depending upon who the person was and how many people now alive (and interested in guns) care. Should you be lucky enough to find a gun which once belonged to King Edward VII, Lord Ripon or Jim Corbett, you might expect to make a considerable premium on the value of the gun over and above what its original quality and current condition suggest is reasonable.

Gerald FitzGerald 5th Duke Leinster.

Gerald FitzGerald, 5th Duke of Leinster.

Sometimes, however, provenance can be a personal thing. Finding a gun made for an ancestor can become a beguiling mission to re- absorb it into the family. This is something that happened to me recently.

Charles FitzGerald, 4th Duke of Leinster, was born in Dublin on 30th March 1819. On 13th October 1847, he married Lady Caroline Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, daughter of the 2nd Duke of Sutherland, and owner of Kilkea Castle. They were clearly rather happily married, as they had fifteen children.

Among those children were Lord Gerald FitzGerald and Lady Alice FitzGerald. Lady Alice married Col. Sir Charles FitzGerald. They were my grandfather’s grandparents, while Lady Alice’s brother, Lord Gerald FitzGerald became the 5th Duke of Leinster.

In 1867, exactly a century before my birth, Purdey made a 30” barrelled 12-bore hammer gun on their 1863 ‘second pattern’ thumbhole-lever action for Lord Gerald FitzGerald, who would have been sixteen that year. Perhaps it was a birthday present?

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The Purdey was displayed in London for the world to see.

Having been passed through some honourable hands in the form of decorated army officers Capt. R.H Fane de Salis DSC, OBE and Capt. H.R Westmacott, late of the SAS and a posthumous M.C, it appeared for sale in London at Holt’s auctioneer’s.

I wonder how and when the Purdey passed into the hands of Capt. Fane de Salis, who was born in 1890 (three years before Gerald FitzGerald’s death) and, presumably, un-likely to have got his hands on the gun until he was an adult; around 1910.

How the Purdey was passed to the next owner, Capt. Westmacott, is clearer, as he was Fane de Salis’s great nephew. The Fane de Salis family were, like the FitzGerald’s, Anglo-Irish landowners, with estates in Limerick in the late 19th century, so the families would have known one another.

The Dukes of Leinster used Carton House, about fifteen miles west of Dublin, as their main residence and also owned Kilkea Castle in Kildare. However, by the early 20th century they had lost most of their wealth and lands. Carton was sold in the 1920s and Kilkea Castle (where my grandfather was born in 1910) became the family seat under the 8th Duke until it was sold in the 1960s. It may be that during one of these moves that furniture and other items were sold off locally, the Purdey perhaps being among them.

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Prior to bidding, I tried the gun for size.

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The Purdey belonged to Capt. H R Westmacott until he was killed in action in Belfast in 1980.

I’m not one for superstition or numerology but there are some co-incidences in this story which are quite notable. 1867 and 1967, exactly 100 years apart are the dates of Purdey 7580 being delivered to Gerald and my own birth year respectively. May 2nd was the day in 1863 when the patent for the Purdey bolt was registered. This was four years into its patent when Gerald’s gun was built. It is also the day on which Capt. Westmacott was killed in action in Belfast in 1952. It also happens to be my birthday. I headed to London on St Patrick’s Day 2016 hoping this old Irish Purdey might find its way ‘home’ with little bit of old Irish luck.

The sale takes place over two days of viewing with an auction on the third day. Lot 1800 was among the last items on sale that day and a few die-hards remained in the room as the evening gloom began to descend. Bidding began at £700 on the commissions bid sheet on the auctioneer’s podium. I got my bid in next and the struggle was on. I had to fight off the bids on the book before it would be opened to the room to get involved. I went into auto-pilot. The decision had been made. I was gong to buy the gun.

Had someone brought the Purdey to me in the state it is currently in and asked me to buy it from them, I’d have paid them £1,500. I may have offered £2,000 if I were feeling enthusiastic. That is without the provenance. With it, the figure was almost irrelevant. You get a chance like this once in a lifetime and I wasn’t going to let it get away.

Eventually, the commission bids were exhausted and the room was opened to another bidder. For what seemed like an age the auctioneer appealed for more interest, finally, the gavel hit the block and I blinked. Bidding had ended at £2,700. By the time all fees and commissions were settled, my bill was £3,500.

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The 1863 Purdey bolt.

I also got the tatty old percussion gun case in which the Purdey was housed, all internals broken and detached but with a Purdey trade label and some hand-written notes starting, ‘December 1867, Purdey gun No.7580…’ in best copperplate handwriting. The two have clearly been together for some time.

So, having procured the old gun, what to do next? One can hurry into such ventures but really they deserve some contemplation. The barrels are shootable. They have some external pits and the browning has all but gone. There are some nasty gouges and dents but they will clean up tolerably. Someone thought to re-proof for nitro a few years ago and the action is sound, with good original hammers and island locks.

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With Chris Beaumont of Holt’s, having successfully out-bid the competition.

The gun was clearly re-stocked in the past and the job not quite right. This will bear a little attention as I have a feeling the setting of the trigger guard in the hand will cause me to bruise my middle finger in use. In an ideal world, I’d re-stock it to my requirements but that is an expensive job. I may be able to work with what I have and make some adjustments. I certainly intend to use the gun. It currently sits in my study, on the workbench, opposite a Georgian oak wardrobe which once resided at Carton. I have a feeling they may have seen one another before.