Auction houses can seem like hostile environments, where amateurs may be ripped off whether buying or selling.
In reality, most are friendly institutions that will give honest assessments of your possession or target item and guide you through the process.
The sales can be fun, too, though it is worth remembering that the auction house is a business and not a charity.
Freelance auctioneer David Porter is a regular face at many of the top gun sales in the country, especially at the specialists Holts. He believes it pays to go with a large, reputable house rather than take your chances with a smaller outfit: “I am biased,” he admitted, “but I would always say the bigger the better. You need people who are enthusiastic and passionate about selling a gun that is dear to you it makes a difference.”
“You want a big team of experts to consult as they will have a wider knowledge. It is a question of trust that the estimation and reserve prices are accurate.”
There is an age-old joke of the punter waving to his friend across the room and accidentally buying an expensive lot. Indeed, David often uses it to relieve tension and raise a few laughs. However, in reality, there is no chance of it happening, as David points out, “Over the years, the auctioneer learns the body language of someone who wants to bid. They tend to sit up in their chair or catch your eye. It doesn’t matter if you raise your hand, wink or wave your programme, I’ll soon catch on.”
However, if you do bid, then you must be prepared to stump up the cash: “When the hammer falls, a legal contract is formed, as strong as if you had signed a piece of paper. If you were to walk out of the room or refuse to pay, then you could be legally pursued. It can be disruptive, but in my 15 years of selling guns, this rarely happens. Bidders at firearms auctions are more heavily vetted than others.”
For items over a certain value, it can be wise to put a reserve on the price, so the lot will not be sold for a song when it might make more money on a different day or at a different saleroom. Again, David believes it is wise to take advice from the auction house, rather than put your own high reserve. An auction will charge a commission for selling and buying, as well as costs for insurance, cataloguing and a not-sold charge if it does not reach the reserve.
“Auctions are fickle places, where the price goes up or down depending on trends and fashion, so you must be prepared to wait if you want to get the best price.”
“You need to wait for the right sale and for the auctioneers to take pictures, sell catalogues, post it online and attract the right buyers. A gun dealer might give you an on-the-spot offer, but with the auction you are putting it to the market and all the international buyers. There are charges, but usually less than the cut a dealer will take. Though I’m an auctioneer, so I would say that.”
Are there ever episodes of skulduggery in auction houses, such as insiders on the floor pushing the price up? “I am not that naïve to think it would never happen,” David says, “but I would like to think most auction houses are honest. In this business, your reputation is everything. If the public suspect you lack integrity, they will go somewhere else.”
“David is a colourful, flamboyant character with a splendid moustache that sits well on a charismatic auctioneer.”
For many visitors to a hammer house, who may only want to bid on a couple of items, the pomp and ceremony of the sale is worth the entrance fee. “I love the buzz of the auction,” says David. “While we are in the serious business of buying and selling, there is room for theatre and humour. Indeed, I think that is vital if you are up there for four or five hours, because if not it can be a tense and pressurised environment.”
He tries to set a rhythm when on the rostrum so that he can get through the lots as quickly as possible. “There’s no doubt people get swept away in the moment, and while they have a figure set in their mind, they will often break their own rule. However, it is my job to encourage people to pay more than they planned to. After all, I am employed by the auction house and a good auctioneer will get the highest price possible for a lot.”
David works as a freelance auctioneer for a wide range of sectors, including fieldsports-related art and equipment.
To hire his services, tel (020) 7483 2984.