At a Premiere Gun Sale

Rock Island Auction founder Patrick Hogan (center) takes a turn with the gavel. He is flanked by son, Kevin, and Jessica Tanghe, another RIAC manager, who are spotting bids. The pace can be frenetic.

Rock Island Auction founder Patrick Hogan (center) takes a turn with the gavel. He is flanked by son, Kevin, and Jessica Tanghe, another RIAC manager, who are spotting bids. The pace can be frenetic.

In Rock Island, Illinois, with paddle in hand

By Silvio Calabi

 It’s the numbers that grab you first: 2,739 lots, auction items, nearly all of them guns—save for some swords, bronzes, medals, old boxes of ammunition and the like, and a painting attributed to Adolf Hitler—sold, one by one, to more than 2,000 bidders in just three days. That’s two or three lots per minute, a breathless pace that keeps five auctioneers shuttling across the podium. Each one belts out high-energy chatter for a half-hour, and then hands off to the next auctioneer and ducks out, presumably to down some Red Bull and gargle with honey.

 On opening morning, September 12 this past year, two dozen auction staff were lined up at the phones and computers, and a couple of hundred people sat expectantly in the sale room. Many of us were online, with phones, laptops or notebooks, and each of us had 6.6 pounds of Rock Island Auction Company catalogs in our laps. There were three of these glossy spiral-bound books, one for each day of the sale, with about 6,000 photos in all. They’re great reading, but if your mind wanders, you fall behind. How can they get top dollar at this speed?

 Through careful preparation is how. It’s clear that every bidder, in the room and around the world, is primed for action—signed in and well caffeinated, with catalogs marked; phone, Internet and mail-in bids laid; and budgets nailed down. As each lot appears on the video screens around the room, it takes the auctioneer just seconds to rip through the opening offers and zero in on the serious players. He may know them by name. Then it’s just a few more seconds until: “Looking for ten thousand on the Volcanic No. 1 pocket pistol . . . ten thousand anywhere? Ten thousand? Ten thousand? Fair warning . . . fair warning . . . SOLD! At $9,500 to bidder XYZ.”

 On to the next lot.

 The pre-sale price estimates seem to be accurate, with the odd highs and lows, bleeders and bargains that come at any auction. (Bidding can run amok. A Rock Islander told me about a fight between two deep-pocketed Type As over a holster—a desirable one, as holsters go, and estimated at $1,600—that ended at $24,000.) In the end, nearly all of the thousands of guns sold. Only a handful went for less than a grand. Many made five figures, and some hit six. Several days later the company announced that the sale had totaled $11.6 million, including buyers’ premiums.

 At every RIAC premiere auction there’s a seemingly bottomless well of old Colts and Winchesters of every caliber and configuration and in every state of finish and preservation, from relics that hint at desperate run-and-gun encounters with the Comanche to ornate curiosities that were presented to long-forgotten VIPs with funny whiskers. At the auction I attended, about every other name in American, British and Continental gunmaking seemed to be on hand also, and the preview rooms felt like exceptionally well-stocked museums. The catalogs brimmed with words like “fresh,” “historic,” “rare,” “desirable,” “spectacular,” “magnificent” and “stunning,” as well as the always comforting “extensively documented.” As near as I could tell, none of it was hype, and at least parts of several renowned collections were being sold.

 War always puts the spurs to firearms designers, and then, a generation later, the collectors come out. It’s easy to see why; “militaria” combines pivotal moments in both technology and history. Name an American fight—French & Indian, Revolutionary, 1812, Indian, Civil, Great, Second, Korean, Vietnam, even Iraq and Afghanistan—and this auction had it covered. World War II was especially big, with hundreds of German (mostly Lugers, Mausers, Walthers), American (Springfields, Garands, 1911s, trench guns, M1s, Thompsons), British (Stens, Lee-Enfields, Webleys) and Japanese leftovers, with odd lots from Poland, Russia, Switzerland and France. The players knew armory and inspectors’ stamps; model, mark and series numbers; barrel lengths and whether a Nambu pistol came from the Nagoya Arsenal or Tokyo Gas & Electric.

 On the sporting side there were shotgun sets from England, America and Italy that could fairly be described as extravagant. Westley Richards Nos. 18021/22 were cased .410-bore droplocks with 28-inch barrels and adult dimensions, each gun heavily inlaid with gold and silver feathers, flowers and hummingbirds and checkered in a fleur-de-lis pattern. Whoever “D.F.” is (or was), he (or she) didn’t put many rounds through these guns, which narrowly missed their low estimate and went for $161,000. Less flossy but no less rare was a sequential pair of fancy scroll-back Greener boxlock ejectors in 24 bore from the old St. Mary’s Row factory in Birmingham. They had aged to a soft silver-gray patina that showed off their elaborate scrollwork and dog-and-gamebird engraving. At $57,500, they landed within the pre-sale-estimate range.

 Despite these and other over-the-top game guns from Purdey, A.H. Fox, Perazzi, FAMARS, Churchill and Holland & Holland and a side-by-side .577 Nitro Express Royal by H&H, the top price of the sale was earned by an FG42 assault/sniper rifle built by Krieghoff and kitted out with a scope that had been issued to a German paratrooper in the dying days of the Third Reich. With the buyer’s premium, it brought $299,000. In the preview room I’d been struck by how compact it was, this beautifully engineered ancestor of today’s black guns, and how well it settled into the hands. I wanted to know about the boy who jumped out of a plane with it. Was the rifle taken from him—or stripped from his body—by the Yank or Brit who scratched “SINGLE” into the receiver below the E (for Einzel, single-fire; thank you, Dieter Krieghoff) next to the selector knob? Talk, dammit!

 Beyond the flash and romance, however, lurked hundreds of everyday guns worth a paycheck or two. There were Browning, Beretta, Guerini and Perazzi over/unders; Winchester and Ruger rifles for every cartridge; semi-auto AR clones; and handguns of all types: pistols from Glock to Les Baer, revolvers ranging from Model 29s to Pythons, single-action Rugers to cap-and-ball repros from Italy. Virtually all of these not-yet-collectable shooters found new homes.

 To a newbie, this sale had the feel of a once-in-a-decade event. Would it not take years to amass so many outstanding guns? In fact, just weeks. During a break, Judy Voss, Rock Island’s vice-president, marched me through the rest of the company’s sprawling 86,000-square-foot home (a former Coca-Cola distribution center in Rock Island, Illinois, about 170 miles west of Chicago), where long racks of guns were already being logged in, examined, written up and photographed for the next auction, in December. RIAC presently stages eight sales each year: three “premiere” events like this one, for upper-end guns; two so-called regional sales, of less-expensive guns; and three online-only auctions, featuring guns and gear that won’t bring in enough money to cover the cost of a live sale. According to Voss, in 2010, ’12 and ’13 the company set records with gross revenues of $32 million, $47 million and $48 million. With about 50 full-time and 40 part-time employees moving more than 20,000 guns each year, RIAC’s claim of being “The #1 Firearms Auction House in the World” is entirely believable.

 The owner is a local man named Patrick Hogan, a dedicated serial entrepreneur. Hogan’s American Dream launched in the 1970s with one gas station that grew to a small chain of four. The service stations began to rent out videos, and then Hogan spun off that business into separate stores, which in turn expanded into photo processing, which led to a photography company . . . which enabled publishing a catalog for the first gun auction, in 1992, produced with a firearms enthusiast named Richard Ellis. Hogan soon bought out Ellis, and the first Rock Island gun auction took place a year later. Hogan wasn’t a “gun guy,” but—as with gas, diesel and road food, videos, family snapshots and local photography—he recognized a viable idea when it landed on his desk. Perhaps because he wasn’t distracted by the guns themselves, Hogan also saw that an auction is a numbers game. Let the clients get misty-eyed over craftsmanship, history and romance; he would figure out how to sell them more guns.

 He’s done this in business-school fashion, by sticking to the basics where it counts—accounting, administration and insurance; advertising and promotion; hiring specialists and so on—and by innovating where it’s needed. The only way to reliably “process” more guns faster was by computerizing, and then using the Internet. RIAC developed custom software for every aspect of this complex business, and lately the company has become social-media savvy. RIAC also keeps an enormous and fast-growing database of items sold—descriptions, dates and prices. Long-term, this information helps management spot trends and peer into the future; day-to-day it helps predict prices at the next sale.

 (Every auction company publishes price estimates in its catalogs. These can be touchy. Lowball figures may bring in eager bidders, but the word soon spreads: You never get anything at their prices! And estimates that are always too high drive disappointed consignors to other auctions. Even with the biggest database in the world, however, auction prices are always moving targets. “We try to be honest in our expectations,” Voss said. “After every sale, we analyze why certain lots didn’t sell.”)

 Over time Pat Hogan has developed an appreciation for guns, or at least for the gun business, and he has become a major supporter of the NRA’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action. For example, while the food at his sales—burgers, bratwurst and salads and a barbecue each evening—is free, there are donation jars at each window, and RIAC doubles or triples the cash collected and gives it all to NRA-ILA. Pat’s son, Kevin, practically born into the business and now the Director of Auction Services, is a gun guy to the bone and bullish on fine guns as undervalued assets. He points to rare coins, stamps and multi-million-dollar collector cars as bellwethers. “For the price of one of those vintage Ferraris that sold at Pebble Beach a few weeks ago,” Kevin said, “you could have the finest gun collection in America.”

 Or you could have bought every gun at this auction and at James D. Julia Inc.’s $18.5 million firearms sale a month later.

 Then again, every bidder in the room at Rock Island in September was white, male and pre-elderly. Was this a function of leisure time and disposable income—after all, Generation X is only now beginning to buy old sports cars—or due to a narrowing appreciation for fine guns? There’s a huge swell of us Dead White Males coming up through the Baby Boomer ranks, so the answer should become clear in the next decade or so.

 As for me, I linger over an early pencil-barrel Colt target pistol like Ernest Hemingway’s, and then home in on Lot 264: a single-shot Rigby .22 Hornet hammer rifle with its battered leather case. The catalog estimate is $1,600 to $2,500. This seems doable and, as Lot 263—a showy Stevens No. 49 target rifle with a yard of scope and a Swiss-style buttplate—disappears at $1,900 (plus buyer’s premium), I go on point. But my bidding card never even makes it into the air; a man two seats from me scoops up the little rifle in a few seconds for $4,250—with the premium, $4,887.50.

 When I lean over and ask if he’s a Rigby guy, he says with a somewhat apologetic smile, “I’m not really sure what kind of a guy I am yet—you’ll see me jump in all over the place. I’m in the oil business, and I’ve got too much money.” Dang. How do you compete with that?

 Author’s Note: For more information on future auctions or consigning guns, contact Rock Island Auction Co., 800-238-8022 or 309-797-1500;

 Silvio Calabi is an Editor at Large for Shooting Sportsman.

You Can't Take Them with You

 Attention widows, orphans, executors and readers whose heirs don’t like guns: Often the best way to get rid of firearms is by consigning them to a specialist auction house. A good one will take over the entire process, from inspection, cataloging and promotion to proper storage, sale and shipping, followed by timely payment. Everything will be legal, accounted for and insured; auction staff will even pick up the guns wherever they are.

 Gun auctioneers use terms such as “Arms & Armor,” “Fine Sporting Guns,” “Fine Modern & Antique Guns,” “Historic Guns” and “Militaria.” If you’ve inherited some interesting guns and don’t know which categories apply, it’s time to do some homework. If you’re lucky, your benefactor kept a list of his (or her) guns by make, model, serial number and gauge or caliber and included descriptions, prices, dates, provenance and smartphone photos. (The insurance company may have demanded it.) With this information, a conversation with an auction company should quickly set you off on the right track.

 Start by Googling “fine gun auctions.” And don’t necessarily throw out the foreign ones, as shipping certain guns overseas to sell can be worthwhile. Also, it seems some people like to see their guns repatriated to the land of their manufacture.

 The opening bid, as it were, from most auction houses is to charge the seller as much as 25 percent of the gavel price of each item. (Put the guns in a retail shop on consignment and you’d pay a similar fee, when or if they sell.) But this is negotiable, and to get certain guns or entire collections, auction houses may cut the seller’s premium way down, even to zero. (They’ll make their money by nicking the buyers for 15 percent—17.5 percent for credit-card payments—on top of the gavel prices.)

 It’s appropriate to bargain, but keep in mind that one auction house may be able to get more than another could, which can make the seller’s premium worthwhile. Consistently high sale prices hang on reputation, advertising and market penetration as well as a strong mix of items. So it’s back to the homework: Which auction?

 Any professional house uses the Internet to promote itself and its coming sales and to post the results of previous auctions. Click around on the site to see what’s going on. How old is the company? Does it focus on quantity or quality? Read the Terms & Conditions of Sale and the other fine print. Look for testimonials. Are there hidden fees—extra charges for catalog listings or photography, storage or insurance—or sliding scales? Who pays for final shipping? What, if anything, is guaranteed? Get a sample contract. Order a catalog and see how it’s put together.

 Talk to several auction companies, not only to educate yourself and to build relationships, but also for second and third opinions about the value of your guns. Don’t overlook the “peripherals” either. Tools, oil bottles, striker pots, accessory sights, magazines, ammunition, pamphlets, catalogs, hangtags and boxes can be valuable.

 In the end there’s always one big question: Will there be enough bidders? There need be only two, if they’re the right two. (Remember the $24,000 holster.) Consignors can protect themselves by setting reserve prices, below which there can be no sale. Auctioneers don’t mind this, so long as the items are attractive and the reserve prices appropriate, and a good auction company will use its experience to help a consignor set reserves. No one should be expected to let go of Granddad’s Woodward over/under for the price of a mass-produced clays-crusher.

 However, this assumes the consignor—our widow, orphan or gun ignoramus—knows the difference, an assumption it’s better not to make.

 As part of their estate planning, gun owners should set up a mechanism for the disposal of their collections in advance. This could include selecting an auction house and negotiating terms up front. Don’t forget to inventory your guns and peripherals, and include some indication of each item’s value, even if it’s just the price you paid for it and when. Put yourself in your heirs’ shoes, and anticipate what they’ll need to know; then spell this out in a document kept with your will.

 Guns can be sold privately, but this may take years. Meanwhile, there’s the possibility of family unrest, and the security threat that comes with inviting in strangers to view the guns or just having guns in the house. Certain firearms can be sold over the Internet, but the process is complicated and requires knowledge of guns and gun laws. Finally, some states severely restrict private transfers of guns. An auction house can make all of these problems—and many more—go away while ensuring that guns wind up in the hands of people who prize them as much as the previous owner did. Or even more, if they paid a small fortune for them. —S.C.

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