In a time of recession, with world markets down and interest rates at rock-bottom, the two Gs, gold and guns, still provide a relatively safe refuge from the financial storm. Astute investors are increasingly taking note of high-quality guns and rifles and, of course, the classic names, such as Purdey, Holland & Holland, Boss and William Evans. These offer substantial investment appeal, especially to the sportsman who is content to see his purchase steadily increase in value while taking pleasure in using it.

However, while some firearms have shown an increase in value of up to 20 per cent over the past few years, the top end of the market has seen a decline in the number of quality firearms available for auction, because the owners of Best guns and rifles are holding on to them as assets that are increasing in value in a steady, if not spectacular, way. This caution has resulted in buyers fighting to obtain the finest potential investments at gun auctions, with the inevitable result that prices are being driven up. Put simply, there are not enough good guns and rifles to satisfy the demands of the market, though debt, divorce and death ? the three elements that have historically sustained and driven the auction market ? are still bringing a steady flow of fresh items for sale.

I spoke to the gun departments of three auction houses ? Sotheby?s, Holt?s and Patrick Keen Guns in association with Coys ? and in each case I was told that the market is very strong, with continued and growing interest in modern and antique guns. The critical fact is that the main auctions, whether they are held in London or Scotland, now attract a worldwide audience and, though we are still struggling to emerge from recession, both domestic and foreign buyers believe that fine firearms, and particularly those with a provenance, are a sound financial investment.

Sales at Sotheby?s

Gavin Gardiner, a leading auctioneer of sporting guns and consultant to Sotheby?s, told me that, as a result of the astonishing prices now being demanded for a new pair of Best London guns (a pair of the finest Purdeys can now exceed £100,000), buyers at auction are increasingly looking to acquire sporting guns built in the classic era, 1880 to the 1950s. Provided they are in good condition, he said, older guns are much in demand. A recent example was a sidelock ejector pigeon gun by Purdey in a Sotheby?s sale, which, though completed in 1956, was still in almost original condition. Though it had been bought for less than £8,000 in 1988, an estimate of £18,000 to £24,000
was placed on it. It aroused enormous interest at auction and was sold for £36,000 ? a nice 20-year investment.

As a rule of thumb, Gavin suggests that the present market conditions for nearly all sectors of the gun and rifle auction market can be summarised in terms of graded prices achieved. Below £1,000, prices remain stable, though values are much less if they are in poor condition. Between £1,000 and £5,000, prices have also remained stable, with little increase unless an item is in exceptional condition. However, in the £5,000 to £10,000 price range, demand exceeds supply and prices have risen steadily, though the key factors of condition and rarity can change this. Above the £10,000 mark, prices are steadily increasing.

Under the hammer at Holt?s

Holt?s recent sale on 23 September illustrates the importance attached to both condition and rarity, while provenance can also help to achieve a better-than-expected price. For instance, a 54-bore taploading air rifle cane realised £1,300 against an upper estimate of £500. Obsolete rifle calibres remain as popular as ever, emphasised by two deluxe-grade falling-block specimens by George Gibbs, which sold for £5,000 each, while a rare 32-bore double-hammergun, made for a boy, fetched a staggering £8,000.

Provenance is all-important, a fact emphasised by the sale price of a .461 falling-block rifle, again by George Gibbs, which was similar to the two previous models. This one went for £23,000, as it had been owned by the renowned African big-game hunter Frederick Courteney Selous. The buyer intends to take it back on safari to the country where it was used to such effect by Selous. In the shotgun section, quality again made its mark: a very rare over-and-under 12-bore live pigeon gun by Boss & Co fetched £42,000, while a 12-bore bar-in-the-wood hammergun by Purdey realised £6,500.

One of the most exciting aspects of gun and collectable auctions can be the discovery of the unusual or rare in an unexpected, even mundane, setting. David Thurgood, Holt?s regional representative for the West Country, told me that last year he was contacted by a gentleman who said he had a couple of ?handguns?, which had been in his loft for years. Expecting to see ancient service revolvers, David was astonished to be shown a cased pair of Durs Egg duelling pistols in pristine condition, which made £12,000 at auction.

Keen on condition

Patrick Keen, renowned in the world of guns as a leading expert and now deeply involved in gun auctions, also confirms the strength of the market for top-end shotguns, and agreed that guns lacking quality or in relatively poor condition were hard to move at more than basic prices. He also noted the demand for big-bore guns, notably 8-bores and 4-bores, while at the other end of the scale small-bores, such as 20-bores and 28-bores, find a ready market, as long as they are in good condition.

At present, potential purchasers at gun and rifle auctions can be divided into those who are seeking long-term investments, which many will also use, and those who are looking for a sound, quality gun at a reasonable price for their own use. The investor must always buy the best quality and condition of gun that he can afford; any gun with these two attributes will have seen an appreciable rise in value over the past year or so, and is likely to continue in an upward trend. Guns or rifles in poor condition are seldom worth serious consideration, especially as the cost of restoration continues to rise.

Gavin Gardiner has the last word: ?I would say that the market is extremely buoyant and also rather picky. Record prices are being achieved for the very best of everything, and the focus is on the rare and classic investment pieces. Condition is the key, and anything in poor shape is hard work to sell, unless it is cheap. My chief message to vendors is to be realistic. If your item is tired and worn, you need to be pragmatic. If you have the best and in the finest condition, be prepared for a surprise, as prices continue to rise for the best. Remember that, for vintage collectables, the supply is limited at the best of times, and recession has only served to reduce that supply.?

I would also add that, for those of us who like to keep abreast of market trends, even if we are not actively buying, the acquisition of sales catalogues from the major auction houses, linked to after-sales prices achieved, is of enormous value and serves to show exactly where the market is going. Collected over the years, catalogues are a source of invaluable information.

Gavin Gardiner Ltd?s next sale of fi ne and antique guns, in association with Sotheby?s, is on 15 December at Sotheby?s sale room in Bond Street, London; for more information, tel 01798 875300. Holt?s next sale of fine and antique guns is on 16 December in Hammersmith, London; for more information, tel 01485 542822. Patrick Keen Guns? next sale of fine guns, in association with Coys, is on 8 December in London; for more information, tel 01989 562459.