Hard Assets

Loading tools and accoutrements for the Pope-Stevens include a false muzzle, bullet starter, and bullet mould.

by Terry Wieland

The Rock Island premier auction that ended yesterday was an object lesson in the effect of inflation — or fear of inflation — on assets that are solid, tangible, can be held in the hand, easily transported and, if need be, hidden away from the authorities and rampaging mobs.

Over the course of three days, about 2,100 lots were auctioned off.  These included guns old and new, samurai swords, antique knives, art works of various description, and other bric-à-brac that appeals to lovers of fine firearms.  Sitting in the audience, making notes, and occasionally raising my bidding card, my impression was that some seriously high prices were being paid, and not always for gilt-edged artifacts.

One example — and I have to get more details to give you the full story — was a Bowie knife.  Undoubtedly old, but of indeterminate origin and non-existent provenance, it was estimated to sell for $950 to $1,500.  When the gavel fell, it sold for $10,000 plus the 17.5 percent buyer’s premium — a total of $11,750!

In any area of collecting, there are eccentrics and obsessives who will pay ridiculous amounts for something that looks like junk to others, and that’s part of what makes it all fascinating.  When you sit in an auction hall and watch two of these guys go at each other, sometimes in person, sometimes at telephone distance through proxies, and bid some strange object into the stratosphere, it is theatre like no other.

Regardless of economic conditions, big-money auctions like Rock Island always have examples of this, but the last four days seemed out of the ordinary even by these standards.

It appeared to me that, for every item that sold under the low estimate, three or four exceeded the high, and sometimes by astonishing amounts.  A movie-prop gun carried by Harrison Ford (Han Solo) in one of the early Star Wars flicks, recognizably based on a broomhandle Mauser, was estimated to go for $300,000-$500,000.  When the smoke cleared, it brought $900,000 — more than a million bucks, with the premium.  (It’s Lot #1247, if you want to look it up at www.rockislandauction.com.

Broad impressions and generalizations?

Our infatuation with Colt Peacemakers continues unabated and, for some reason, anything that can be labeled “Texas-shipped” brings a premium on the premium.  An otherwise unexceptional Colt .45 originally shipped to Austin in 1923, and carried thereafter by a farmer on his John Deere, will attract more bids and more money than an identical gun sent to Minneapolis.

I’m not qualified to comment on the relative values of Colts, but it did seem to me that a few changed hands for what Garry James, gun collector and authority on antique arms, calls “stupid money.”  On the other hand, anyone who paid “stupid money” for the same gun in 1975, as inflation was about to take flight, would today be laughing all the way to the bank.  Historically, no collectible firearm has held its value like the 1873 Colt single-action army, so maybe I should have raised my bidding card when one of the lower priced ones hammered at a mere $3,750.

Another corner of the market that never seems to pall is pairs of English duelling pistols in cases with accessories.  No matter how tattered and torn, no matter whether they have been carefully stored away or bounced around in a dusty attic, trot out names like Manton, Wogdon, Egg, Nock, Twigg, or Mortimer, and the hands shoot up.

In this auction, there was a pair of Wogdon & Bartons in nice condition, followed immediately by an earlier pair of Wogdons that looked like they’d been through the wars.  The former’s high estimate was $9,500, surpassed easily at $11,000; the latter’s high was only $4,250, but still brought $10,000.  I had harbored thoughts of getting the battered ones for two or three grand, then spending some money to have them restored to fighting trim.  Well, dream on.

Still, I did not come home empty handed.  I managed to snag two pieces I particularly wanted:  a 1950 Colt Woodsman that may be the loveliest .22 target pistol in existence, and a Pope-Stevens Schützen rifle, complete with Pope tang sight, false muzzle, bullet starter, and a couple of other bits and pieces.  I’ll tell you more when I actually get the guns in my hand — they’re being shipped as we speak — but I did bring home the (presumably) Pope-made accoutrements.  The photos hardly do them justice, but they’re the best I can do.

Gray’s Shooting Editor Terry Wieland keeps falling for ancient Stevens target rifles. Now that he has a genuine Pope-Stevens with a false muzzle (the Holy Grail for Schützenites) it may come to an end.  But he’s not banking on it.