by Terry Wieland
Anyone with an ounce of humanity would sympathize with the evaluators of guns and compilers of catalogues for huge auctions like Rock Island, which runs an average of one auction, of some description, every month, and three big “Premier” auctions a year.
Catalogue deadlines roll in relentlessly, like waves on a beach. It’s no wonder the odd error or discrepancy creeps into the detailed descriptions and evaluations. One can sympathize, but one can also capitalize: One man’s error is another man’s opportunity. The opposite of caveat emptor is “vendor be careful.”
In my last post, I discussed some of the preparations to make before attending an auction such as the one coming up in mid-September, in which 2,000-plus fine guns and artifacts will be auctioned over a three-day period. I mentioned that errors are made and must be guarded against, but did not have room to give examples.
My own biggest windfall came at the very first auction I attended. Not yet being accustomed to the way it all works, I was taken by surprise when a Stevens Schützen rifle popped up on the big screen at the front of the auction hall. I hadn’t looked at it ahead of time, but having an interest in such things, I quickly ran my eye over it, saw nothing off-putting, and since the price was low, I bid and won.
Here’s the catch: Had I read the description, I probably would not have bid. It was described as a Stevens 44 action — the older, weaker, less desirable one — when in fact it was the later, better, and hence more desirable 44½. As well, the description mentioned a mechanical problem, when the only problem was, the evaluator did not understand how the half-cock mechanism worked.
All of this obviously put off prospective buyers going by the catalogue entry (hence the low bidding) and I lucked out, big time.
Two years later, a W&C Scott side-by-side pigeon gun came up. It was a beautiful thing, but the entry said it had a 2½-inch chamber (the English standard) rather than the 2¾-inch usual in live-pigeon guns. I loved the gun, but if I was going to have a long-barreled, tight-choked, eight-pound SxS, I wanted the longer chamber. Fortunately, I was carrying a chamber gauge and found the description was wrong. There was only one other serious bidder (possibly because of that error) and I landed it.
It can, of course, work the other way, with bidders over-paying because a description makes a gun out to be more desirable than it really is. Then, all you can do is watch the bidding go out of sight, and hope the winner will realize the mistake later, get a refund, and the gun will reappear in a later auction and sell (to you, with any luck) for a lower price.
Rock Island goes to great lengths to eliminate such errors. The vast warehouse where the evaluators toil has a solid wall of bookshelves containing hundreds of reference works. But the world of fine guns is so ancient, with so many arcane corners (to say nothing of centuries of deliberate counterfeiting) it’s daunting just to imagine putting together catalogues on the scale they do, and have them 100 per cent accurate.
Any errors caught after the catalogue is printed are listed in correction sheets which are distributed at the beginning of any auction. And a buyer can get a refund should any show up after the item is sold. That, however, costs everyone time and money.
In the end, as with any auction, for anything, anywhere, caveat emptor is the essential principle.
Having benefited from some errors in description, and lost by one or two others, Gray’s shooting editor figures it all averages out. There’s no doubt it adds to the fun and it’s educational. The true gun nut never stops learning. Nor wanting to.