Buying and selling guns at auction

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holts auctioneersBuying and selling guns at an auction can seem daunting, but if you know how the process works it can be highly enjoyable. Selena Barr looks at what you need to know before placing a bid or consigning an heirloom.

Ever wondered the value of that old hammer gun at the back of your safe? Or have you recently been bequeathed some ancient-looking shooting-related antique that’s now just collecting dust? Buying or selling a gun at an international auction offers several advantages. The most obvious is the vast number of firearms on sale at any one time, giving buyers a wide choice of calibres, types, ages and brands from all over the world. 

In addition, an auction may feature several guns of the same type enabling buyers to choose, for example, the best John Dickson & Son shotgun out of several rather than just looking at one or two that may be on the shelves of a provincial gunshop. The seller can take comfort in the number of eyeballs seeing their gun. Holt’s Auctioneers promotes lots via several platforms – its website, smartphone app, paperback catalogue, social media and press releases that are sent out to the press worldwide.

Auction houses today also go to great lengths to discover the provenance of guns, as Nicholas Holt of Holt’s Auctioneers explains: “We go to huge efforts to discover the individual background of firearms and this plays an important part in the auction process as buyers love to know the story of the gun they are interested in. The wonderful thing about guns is that they have a serial number and you can trace them and find out with 100 per cent certainty who they were made for and when. That makes them so much more valuable, not only in terms of the prices they fetch, but also in how buyers relate to them.”

Established in 1993, Holt’s Auctioneers specialise in the sale of fine modern and antique guns, with a worldwide network of 43 agents, three of which are based in Scotland. They sell around 10,000 firearms each year – almost half of which are bought and sold overseas. The live auctions are held quarterly in London with a wide range of firearms, accessories, taxidermy, edged weapons, militaria, and Section 5 firearms. To meet new vendors and buyers, they exhibit at numerous game fairs each year including The GWCT Scottish Game Fair at Scone Palace in Perthshire. At each show, their experts value items free of charge, with no obligation to consign the item to an auction. 

As well as visiting shows, the team holds 14 free valuation days around Britain every quarter, visiting two venues in Scotland: Game and Country in Selkirk, and Goldsmith & Co. in Edinburgh. The Antiques Roadshow-style days are informal and informative, and are primarily intended as points of consignment to the next sale. Having had the chance to closely examine the items first-hand, and discuss any known history, they will then suggest a realistic catalogue estimate and reserve together with a likely hammer price.

holts gunsAs for disadvantages of buying at auction, the main one is that there are no guarantees: caveat emptor applies and it is up to buyers to ensure they are happy with a gun’s condition. To avoid problems and disappointment, auction houses are at pains to describe the guns they are offering for sale accurately. “As well as our reputation for valuing well, we are zealous about providing comprehensive condition reports which give buyers confidence,” explains Nicholas. “If there is a hairline crack or bruising on the stock, we are completely honest. There’s little point in selling a gun to someone who lives thousands of miles away only for them to be disappointed.”

Buyer confidence also comes from viewing the guns prior to the sale, and those who don’t know much about firearms would do well to ask someone knowledgeable to ascertain the gun’s condition on their behalf.

Viewing usually takes place a couple days prior to the auction and on the morning of the sale, but while most large auction houses close their viewing prior to the sale, Holt’s is different. “What I have found is that the buyers who come to our auctions want to go away with something,” explains Nicholas. “So we keep our viewing open all day and if a buyer doesn’t win their preferred lot they often go back to pick something else to bid on. We also televise the auction in the viewing area so they can keep an eye on when lots are coming up. Yes, this does mean the auction room is always to-ing and fro-ing, but people like the relaxed atmosphere, it works, it keeps people involved, and it is good for both buyers and sellers.”

As to bidding itself there are several ways of doing this, the easiest of which is to turn up in person on the day (check what ID is required beforehand) and bid for your chosen lot using a ‘paddle’. The advantages are of course feeling part of the auction itself, with its range of interesting bidders and charismatic auctioneers who can still a room with the rise of an eyebrow. It is certainly great for people watching and combines tension and fun in equal measure.

For those that can’t attend a sale, telephone bidding is an alternative and simply requires registering. A member of auction house staff will then telephone the buyer on the day of auction, a few lots in advance of the one in question, and act on the buyer’s instruction in the saleroom. For those that want to be part of the auction themselves but can’t attend in person, bidding via the internet through a live online bidding portal from the comfort of home or office may suit. 

Buyers who think they may get over-excited and go over their budget or who find the process daunting may like the idea of a commission bid. Here the auctioneer bids on the buyer’s behalf, after he or she has registered the maximum hammer-price they are prepared to pay. It is also possible to place a commission bid electronically. After registering, the buyer leaves the lot number and their maximum bid, with auction house staff doing the rest.

Once you know the ropes, buying and selling guns at an international auction can certainly be both rewarding and enjoyable. And you can be safe in the knowledge that you paid a fair market price for a firearm that may well also have an extremely interesting story to tell.

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