Collecting antique and vintage firearms and militaria can not only satisfy our boyhood fascinations, but can make sound investment sense too.
Whether the interest stems from a boyhood fascination with firearms and militaria, or a buyer has long coveted a charming pair of guns from the nation’s finest manufacturers, fulfilling these whimsies can well have intrinsic investment benefits too.
Those in the know have seen many changes in the firearms and militaria market over the years, but there have been many consistencies too. Gavin Gardiner is one such expert and heads up his auction business of fine modern and vintage sporting firearms and accessories, holding many sales a year at Sotheby’s auction house in London. He believes the current market is in a state of positive flux.
“The current market is changeable at the moment but pretty buoyant,” says Gavin. “It has certainly picked up over the last twelve months, despite a relative stability over the last few years. However, with that mainly positive point there is also a negative; we had seen the main market for traditional English guns hit a peak in about 2010, but that was it, and an awful lot of stuff has now settled back down to ‘normal’ levels since. For example, a really fantastic £50,000 pair of vintage guns might now only sell for £30-£35,000 today. Certain items have seen a drop of around as much as 40% of their value, but these are the exceptions.”
Nick Holt is owner of Holt’s Auctioneers, Europe’s leading auctioneers of fine modern & antique guns. He believes that Brexit is currently impacting the market and in several ways. He says: “Because of Brexit the current firearms and militaria market is actually remarkably good, because the pound is so weak. So, at the moment it’s happy days for us. I don’t think we will always be in this situation however. For example, I’ve just finished raising money for the Gun Trade Association to help fight Brexit, and the risk to European export licences as we are potentially looking at having to get one for each individual country. So, it doesn’t matter if it’s a fine piece of armour or a pair of Holland & Holland side-by-sides, with Brexit it will mean that we have to start again in respect to legislation. I see that has having a potentially massive impact on the market for investors.”
As with all sales and investment markets they are affected by wider economic factors as well as the fashions and whimsy of society as a whole, with the post recession peaks of the firearms and militaria values in 2010 being down to two main things, as Gavin suggests: “Well, I don’t believe the recession really affected anyone until it had been around for about five years. Of course the immediate effect of the recession and the interest rates dropping was that most people were £200 a month better off due to their mortgage payments going down, but now that seems to have worn off; nobody’s had a pay rise for ten years and everybody’s skint again.
“The other more significant factor in the market, I believe, is the use of over-under shotguns taking over from traditional side-by-sides. All of the advertising these days carries images of them and they are by far and away the most popular type of shotgun, especially among the under 50s! Nobody seems to shoot with a traditional side-by-side now and that definitely affects the secondhand / investment markets.”
Traditionally, the largest buying group for old firearms and militaria would be chaps in their 50s – people who’d peaked in their careers, who’s children were well out of the nest, and who now had plenty of spending power. They would be looking to buy that pair of ‘best’ British guns they’d aspired to all their lives.
“These are the kind of chaps who’d always wanted a Purdey, a Boss, or a Holland & Holland,” says Gavin. “However, it now seems to me that everyone coming in to shooting sports in the last 30 years has come in via the clay pigeon route and so shoots an over-under. This means, in general, that buyers for the best kind of stock seem to be diminishing. The side-by-side market has gone from being a users’ market with a collector’s element, to a collector’s market with a much smaller user element. This obviously has a knock-on effect on sales.”
Despite this gradual shift in the types of buyers that Gavin’s auctions are seeing, it is still possible to define a typical buyer for investment pieces and there are still ‘dead certs’ in terms of manufacturers when it comes to putting your money somewhere safe.
“You’ve still got your traditional posh people, who haven’t come into shooting sports via the clay pigeon shooting route, and you’ve still got an international collector’s market, which is buoyant,” says Gavin. “The true collector’s niches in the market are now doing quite well, and probably always will do, so generally speaking you’re always going to make a safe investment with any of the ‘best’ British guns – Purdey, Boss and Holland & Holland are the obvious three.
“If we’re talking of a general brand that’s seen an upswing, then Rigby has seen a massive surge, with vintage Rigby’s jumping in value enormously. A typical .275 Rigby rifle, built in the 1920s, that sold for £1,500-£1,800, now will make around £3,000-£4,000. Good, heavy calibre big game rifles, .416s or .375s, instead of fetching around £2,500, are now making £5,000-£6,000. I think this is because they are now owned by German company, Blaser (blaser.de/en), who spend a massive amount on advertising every year, so they are seriously back in the spotlight.”
Often in most industries ‘revived’ brands will see a big jump in the values of their old work – in this case the spark of interest in people owning new rifles also sparks an interest in people owning vintage ones from the same manufacturers. So, what’s the ROI like on firearms these days?
“I think if you’d put together a nice collection of Rigby rifles about 10 years ago and put it to the market today, then I think you’d be doing very nicely, the value would have probably doubled,” says Gavin. “However, if you had the same in Purdey’s, then you’d probably just be getting your money back. I also think what we are seeing is that the market for tired old boxlocks and other tired old guns is never going to bounce back. I think that market is dead because the cost of repair and restoration of these old guns is far too high. It costs the same to maintain a 100-year-old £500 boxlock shotgun as it does a new £50,000 best English sidelock. But, saying that, although the market in general has been depressed it’s actually picked up over the last year and stabilised. I don’t think prices will be going any lower for anything.
“A good average Purdey, that might have been £10,000 in 2010, is now back to being an £8,000 gun, and it’s not going to get any cheaper. And, despite the ups and downs, I still think even these higher prices represent ridiculously good value for buyers.”
This all means that shrewd buyers can obtain superb value for money on vintage best English guns in the current market and, with the market becoming more refined, the next generation of better educated buyers will potentially be looking to once again buy up these classic pieces.
But, above all, it is always down to one thing when it comes to ensuring, as far as one can, a good resale value, as Gavin explains: “Anything with solid provenance will always do well. For example, if you look at the way Sotheby’s and Christies market things these days, there’s a lot of what’s called ‘cross collecting’ going on; you don’t really have ‘true’ collector’s anymore. A lot of the new generation of wealth aren’t what you might call purists – it’s all about impressing your friends!
“You might find they buy a designer chair you can’t sit on, an ejector seat out of a Harrier jump jet, or a painting by Picasso’s parrot. The point is, it all has an interesting angle or story to it – they want statement pieces. So, if they are buying a Purdey, they don’t want any old Purdey, they want Lord Rippon’s Purdey, or if they are mounting a cricket bat on the wall, it’s got to be W. G. Grace’s, that sort of thing.”
“It’s all to do with provenance,” agrees Nick. “If you are buying something then you don’t want to deal in ‘maybes’ or ‘probablys’, you want a cast-iron guarantee that the gun you might be buying was once owned by Eric Clapton, for example. The lucky thing with our industry is that provenance is very easy to come by due to firearms having serial numbers. These can easily tell us if the gun or whatever has been bought, sold, or who it was originally made for, all of which means there is generally high confidence from buyers throughout the market which obviously affects sale prices.
“For example, when I discovered the action of an old shotgun, while I was in the Czech Republic, I had no idea of who’s it had been and how it had got there. It was an old Purdey, so I went to their records and discovered Tsar Nicolas 2nd’s actual signature in the book, confirming that 110 years ago he had been to see them to collect his new gun. Now, it’s this kind of thing, in terms of undisputable provenance, which is still commanding absolute top dollar today and makes for a very good investment.”
It seems the ‘cult of celebrity’ extends to all things and, ignoring the calibre of the celebrities of today, having that celebrity attaché of deceased nobility or famous decorated military persons will always add value to an item, as Gavin explains: “Anything with a famous military, nobility or Royal connection will always add extra value. Sotheby’s had a piece of the flag from the HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalga, it was just a quarter of the flag, and that sold for a quarter of a million pounds. That was in a sale called ‘Of Noble & Royal Descent’ which was a whole varied collection of lots that had good ‘celebrity’ provenance, – and collectors love that sort of thing so they will always have a high potential of good investment value.”
As always when thinking about buying as an investment, the advice remains the same across all areas, as Nick explains: “Education, education, education; don’t just jump into it in that typical male manner: just paying for it and worrying about it later! A woman is going to look at a hundred handbags before she actually purchases one, and with investments like this us chaps really need to do the same. In fact, I formed a section in my catalogue many years ago to capitalise on this aspect of male behaviour – it’s called Curios & Whimsies and it’s there for exactly the kind of buyer who likes intriguing things, such as sword sticks, walking canes or antique game counters. Actually this side of the market, I believe, will always remain stable and do well for this very reason – male whimsy!”