By Scott Mayer
Rock Island Auction
Auction Dates April 20-22
Rock Island Auction Company (RIAC) is holding an auction later this month that it’s billing as “The Great Firearms Sale of the Decade.” That’s a pretty bold claim, even for the “nation’s leading auction house for firearms, edged weapons, and military artifacts,” so I did some checking to see what all the hype was about. I wanted to know not only what was going to be auctioned that makes this one so great, but also what the auction is like for sellers and buyers. Was this an auction just for well-heeled collectors and museum staff, or could an ordinary gun owner such as me simply find a deer rifle? Why would someone choose to sell a gun by auction in the first place, and of the major gun auction houses, what should I look for if I was going to sell off a collection?
The first thing that struck me as I browsed through the 3,158 lots is that 3,158 lots is a heck of a lot of stuff—most of which is guns! In fact, it’s so much stuff that this auction is going to take three days: April 20, 21 and 22. At first, I thought RIAC had sent me two catalogs, but the auction is so big that it takes up two huge spiral-bound volumes. Many lots contain more than one gun, so there are even more guns here than you realize.
The second thing that struck me was the variety of guns. RIAC is referring to this auction as an “encyclopedic selection” of firearms, and I’ll give them that and add it’s also encyclopedic regarding firearms development. Lots range from ancient Japanese matchlocks to modern machineguns with everything in between including modern sporting guns and some of the more curious gun stuff like alarm guns and miniatures. Specific areas of collecting that are heavily represented include Colt and Winchester, and the number of military guns is simply incredible including a mostly complete German collection and the finest Luger collection RIAC has ever offered.
For pure history buffs, pieces that really stand out to me include such things as a Georg Luger Model 1902 Carbine presented to Hugo Borchardt. Reportedly, those two were not exactly fond of each other (I’ve seen the term “bitter enemies” used) and it’s believed this DWM presentation gun in some way paid homage to Brochardt for his role in developing the toggle lock design used in the Luger.
I knew President Lincoln was a shooter, but I really think he is more appropriately labeled a gun nut. He used to shoot on the south lawn of the White House and even functioned as chief of ordnance by testing new weapons himself. Can you imagine the amazing array of guns he got to shoot as President during that period of rapid firearms development? In this auction, is a cased, three-barrel set Maynard single-shot percussion rifle/shotgun attributed to President Lincoln. It even has a fired target believed to be his with the initials “AL” on it. It’s a 10-shot group on a 3×3 ½-inch target, which is pretty darn good shooting.
If there is one type of man-made item through which the past 800 or so years of world history can be told, it’s guns, and there are more guns in this auction tied specifically to world history than I can list. There are guns attributed to Emperor Napoleon III, King George III, Viktor Lutze, and the U.S.S. Maine just to name a few.
I’ve been a gun technology nut for the past 30 years having researched and studied everything from semi- and fully-automatic muzzleloaders to electromagnetic rail and super high velocity light-gas guns and even I was surprised at some of the gun technology represented in this auction. For example, Surefire tactical lights and Crimson Trace laser grips are “new” products, but the Nazis were using similar technology. This auction includes a Hitler “Night Pistol” that I have never seen before. It’s basically a .30-caliber Luger pistol with a tactical light and battery mounted under the muzzle much like a modern Surefire. Wires go back to the right grip panel and attach to a pair of brass plates in the grip. When you grasp the gun, skin conductivity completes the circuit between the brass plates and illuminates the light!
If you’re interested in following the general development of firearms, this auction has several examples of guns along the procession. Just skimming the catalog you’ll find matchlocks, flintlocks, miquelets, percussion, pinfire, teat-fire, volcanic, and conventional cartridge guns. There are muzzleloaders, breechloaders, rimfires, rear-loading revolvers, front-loading revolvers, single-shots, bolt-actions, lever-actions (including pistols), semi-automatics, fully-automatics and even artillery.
It’s easy to get the impression that this auction is all about rare and collectible guns, but it’s not. While those are the emphasis, this auction is also chocked full of new, modern rifles, handguns, and shotguns. This could easily be a place for you to pick up anything from a new Smith & Wesson .500 Mag. revolver to a Benelli Super Black Eagle shotgun.
An Amazing Find
One of the truly rare guns in this auction is an exhibition engraved and cased Colt Navy cartridge revolver. It is serial number 1 and, in December 1871, Colt presented it to Lewis Sheldon who was Colt’s paymaster during the Civil War. The story of how this gun got to auction is one of those “once-in-a-lifetime” stories, and I was fortunate that RIAC put me in touch with the gun’s owner, Sheldon’s great, great, great, grandson, “Tim.” Thanks to Tim, not only did I get to hear the wonderful story of this gun, but also get insight into dealing with RIAC from a seller’s perspective.
Tim is not a gun collector. In fact, he’s not a gun guy at all and explained to me how all of his life, this gun had never been anything more than a family heirloom that his grandmother kept in her cedar chest. The boys played with it when they were young, and the family would get it out now and then to look at it. It has been in the family for 141 years, and has never been seen outside the family until now.
The gun’s “discovery” started in July 2010 when Tim and his wife returned home to collect the last of their belongings from their parents’ houses. “We were literally getting ready to leave when I remembered the gun,” Tim told me during a telephone interview. “I just jammed it in the back along with the suitcases. When we got home, I put the gun in our cedar chest, because, well, that’s what my family does with guns,” laughed Tim.
The story could have easily ended there were it not for one of Tim’s neighbors, Randy, who’s a competitive shooter with a healthy interest in guns. Once while Tim was visiting him, the subject of the gun came up.
“I knew it was a Colt, but that’s about the extent of it,” Tim said. “I started to describe it [to Randy] and the more I talked the wider his eyes got and by the time I was done his jaw was on the floor. We went over to my house to look at it, and he turns it over and sees it’s serial number 1. He didn’t know what the gun was either, but he knew enough to have it looked at.”
Tim started to search for more information about the gun and the man it was presented to. He knew Sheldon was his great, great, great grandfather, but didn’t know he had worked for Colt, much less why he was given the gun.
“It’s similar to an 1861 Navy,” says Tim during our phone call, “but not the same.”
Factory records that far back are sketchy at best and Colt’s historian wasn’t able to provide any information on the gun, Lewis Sheldon, or why the gun was presented to him. Not deterred, Tim turned to the Internet to see if anyone in cyberspace had information. The online community proved very helpful and directed Tim to the Colt Collector’s Association. He was also directed to a couple of firearm auction houses, including RIAC.
Kevin Williams and Dennis Russell from the collector’s association pointed toward the gun as being a transition piece. Rollin White’s patent on bored-through cylinders had recently expired and gun companies were taking advantage of it by coming up with different ways to chamber the new rimmed metallic cartridges. Williams and Russell also discovered that Sheldon worked for Colt.
Hoping RIAC might have additional information, Tim blindly sent a photo of the gun through their website with a message saying he didn’t know what the gun was.
“It was a Friday evening or Saturday morning…” when Tim emailed RIAC “…and on Sunday morning I got a call from them.”
Since that first call, RIAC, and in particular expert Richard Ellis, provided the most information about the Colt. According to Tim, often when Ellis turned up a new bit of information there were doubters who then went on and did their own research only to end up agreeing with Ellis.
Since Tim had initiated the contact, RIAC understandably asked if he was interested in putting the gun up for auction, but he was not. Instead, the Colt moved from its cedar chest to a safe deposit box where it sat for the next six months. RIAC was still keen on it, though, and its president, Pat Hogan, personally called Tim early on to see if he wanted to sell it. The answer was still no, but Tim assured Pat that if it were to go to auction, RIAC would get first crack at it.
In late 2011, Tim started to feel that keeping the gun was wrong. It certainly has great sentimental value, but Tim is the kind of guy who recognizes the importance of the piece as it relates to American history. I’ve seen it referred to as a “national treasure,” but stored away by Tim, it was just a gun in a vault.
“I want it to be in the hands of someone who will appreciate it at a level my family or I never could,” explained Tim.
In December, Tim contacted RIAC to say he “might be willing to do something,” and from there things went quickly. “The gun has been sitting with nothing happening for 140 years and in the past month and a half things have gone crazy,” Tim told me.
The gun was unknown to collectors at that point, so what better way to unveil it than at the Las Vegas Antique Arms Show. There, serious collectors would be able to see it and maybe more information would turn up, so RIAC flew a representative to meet Tim and get the gun for the show.
“We met in a parking lot at Wendy’s,” Tim said with a laugh. Up to then, the folks at RIAC had seen only pictures of the gun. “Richard Ellis told me he had to sit down when he saw it in person.”
Without question, the Colt has monetary value—probably significant monetary value. But as with any unique item that is “fresh” on the market, there is no buying or selling history on which to base a pre-auction estimate.
“I discussed selling the gun with my dad,” Tim explained. The Colt had always been a gun in a cedar chest to the family, but now with it’s potential value understood, it had become a gun in a safe. Tim and his father had to ask themselves if Tim’s grandmother had left them gun, or a chance to have a better life.
In a very selfless act of great benefit to collectors, the family chose the latter. “I kind of wish it had not been as valuable so I could show it at gun shows, but it’s too valuable for me to do that,” Tim said. A significant amount of money will likely change hands, but as Tim explained to me, “The real value is what it spurred us to do to find out about our family. If the new owners find a new tidbit about my family’s history, that’s priceless. I don’t think the auction is the end of the story for us.”
When asked what it was like dealing with RIAC, Tim said he couldn’t have been happier. “It would have been easy for someone to fleece us for $20,000…” Tim admitted, “…but RIAC didn’t do that. They were patient with us. They gave us our space. They were good to us, they were good to the gun, and they earned our trust.”
Consigning and Bidding
Tim’s story is certainly not the norm when it comes to guns going to auction, so I spoke with Pat and Kevin Hogan of RIAC to get an understanding of what usually happens on their end of things. They explained to me that there are several reasons people bring guns to auction. For example, a collector may sell off the more modern guns to make room for older guns in their collection. There is also the investment value of gun collections, and there comes a time for many collectors when it’s time to cash out. I had always considered an auction the best place for selling collectible guns, but not necessarily new ones that have a known suggested retail value. Pat disagreed and explained that a good auction house knows how to sell, and combines items into “lots” that inspire bidding and bring in more money to the consignor.
Major auction houses are “competitive” when it comes to commissions, so the Hogans were kind enough to pass on some consigning tips to help GunsAmerica readers choose the right auction house if they have a collection to consign.
For the most part, collectors know the value range for collectable guns. There are records indicating how many of a specific gun was made, and reference materials with continuously updated pricing. It’s important for the auction house to have realistic pre-auction estimates, and for consignors to set realistic reserves. “If the reserve is too high, I’ll turn you away,” Pat told me. If the reserve is set too high, bidders end up “bidding against the house,” and that’s not good for sellers or buyers as it results in items not being sold.
Another important consideration is how well and how much the auction house advertises an auction. Hogan explained that for the auction Tim’s gun is in, one of the things they’ve done is mail out 16-page mailers to more than 70,000 pre-qualified collectors–and that’s in addition to the massive catalogs sent out to thousands more collectors. They’ve even taken out ads in major city newspapers, because collectors are where you find them, and that includes high-rent districts like New York City and Chicago. If you have a collection of significant value, see if the auction house knows its regular bidders well enough that they might even make special bidder-specific catalogs.
When asked what he thought made RIAC different from other auction houses, Pat replied that he asks himself, “Can I get one more bid than them?” Part of my background is sales and I know the importance of making “just one more call” at the end of the day. In my experience, striving for that “just one more” makes all the difference in the world. As I think of Tim’s experience, his gun, and this auction, I’m anxious to see what that “one more” bid turns out to be later this month.
Like most of you, I won’t actually be there to see what goes down in person, but that doesn’t mean we can’t participate in the excitement. For starters, you can go to RIAC’s website and see all of the lots going on the block. In addition to detailed descriptions, RIAC has perhaps some of the best firearms photography I’ve ever seen and if you’ve ever tried to take a photo of a nickel-plated gun, you know that’s saying a lot! Along with the excellent descriptions and photography are realistic pre-auction estimates so you know if you’re even in the league to bid on certain lots and I promise you, you don’t have to be bankrolled by a major firearms museum to be a legitimate bidder on many of the lots. In fact, there’s one lot containing a Colt Official Police Double Action revolver in .38 Special teamed with a Colt Officers Model Match Target revolver in .22 LR that I may have go after myself. If you see something in the catalog that you can’t live without, be sure and register for the auction now, and make sure you read RIAC’s instruction on how to bid the way you intend to bid. I’d wish you good luck, but then, you just might like those same Colts, too.