Great gun auctions: two Remington New Model Army revolvers owned by a former president
Michael E Haskew relives the phenomenal $5 million sale of two Remington New Model Army revolvers originally owned by Ulysses S Grant
When word got out this spring, collectors from across the world clamoured to see these remarkable revolvers, an exquisite pair of guns steeped in American history. For decades their very existence had been doubted and when auction day finally came, in Illinois, would-be buyers packed out the place and it soon became clear that records were going to be broken.
“The atmosphere surrounding the sale was one of tremendous excitement,” recalled Joel Kolander, of the Rock Island Auction Company. “As the auction approached, we heard from an increasing number of people that they would be attending in person and, when the day came, collectors were out in force. Folks were excited to get out, see these guns and be among other collectors again after the pandemic.”
The guns in question were a pair of Remington New Model Army percussion revolvers. There were whispers of their existence for nearly 160 years and then, from magnificent obscurity, they surfaced in 2018 at a Las Vegas gun show before taking centre stage at the Rock Island sale on 15 May 2022.
The bidding began at $800,000, but it’s now clear that was nothing. Second by second, higher offers rushed in, rising eventually to a magnificent crescendo. When the hammer fell, the pair fetched an astonishing $5.17 million — about £4.2 million — which far exceeded the auctioneer’s expected sum of $1 million to $3 million.
Even those who think of guns as merely facilitating their sporting pursuits have to admit these .44 calibre revolvers, with their blue-silver finish, raised relief carved antique ivory grips and 8in octagon barrels, are true works of art. But it was their original owner, Ulysses S Grant, and his extraordinary life that brought lustre to the proceedings like no one could imagine.
When the sale was concluded, the atmosphere in the room was incredible. It was one of those rare moments when everybody is aware that they’ve just witnessed history in the making. “We are seeing remarkable prices in the collectible firearms market,” noted Rock Island president Kevin Hogan, “and this is a tremendous example.” The Grant revolvers fetched the second-highest sum ever for a firearm.
“Calling it a phenomenal sale feels like an understatement,” said Kolander. “In real estate, it’s location, location, location. In fine arms collecting it’s provenance and condition. These are what I like to call miracle guns. The fact they exist in the condition they do is nothing short of a miracle.
“They were born in an era before air conditioning, before white cotton gloves and somehow they have survived in a state of perfection. There are no cracks, scratches, nicks or dents. All the edges are sharp, the markings crisp — it’s almost impossible,” Kolander concluded.
Rock Island Auction Company is no stranger to sales that reach celestial heights. The house has sold Alexander Hamilton’s revolutionary war flintlock pistols, John Wayne’s Colt single-action army revolver and a six-piece garniture of Napoleon Bonaparte, consisting of two pocket pistols, two carriage pistols, a carbine and sword, all crafted by one of the finest firearms artisans of all time, Parisian gunsmith Nicolas-Noël Boutet, which garnered $2.875 million. Prior to the May sale, the Bonaparte garniture was the top seller for Rock Island.
The Grant revolvers eclipsed them all. They are a tour de force in the art of fine firearms. The ivory grips remain flawless, depicting a patriotic eagle and portrait of Grant in relief along with flags and the distinctive Columbia shield. “They are also covered in the engraving of L D Nimschke — one of the finest 19th-century American engravers,” said Kolander. “His work is outstanding. The Remingtons provided a unique canvas on which to practise his art and it’s all been wonderfully preserved for nearly 160 years.”
Grant is an example of American perseverance, struggle and heroism. Born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, on 27 April 1822, he failed at tilling the soil on a scrap of land he called Hardscrabble Farm and was reduced to selling firewood on the streets of St Louis. His only real success had been graduating from the US Military Academy at West Point, New York, and serving with distinction in the Mexican War.
The coming of the American Civil War in 1861 was an opportunity to serve once again. Grant was notable for his tenacity, particularly in his insistence that two Confederate forts in Tennessee submit to terms of unconditional surrender. He was thereafter known as Unconditional Surrender Grant.
Promotion came swiftly and hard-won victory followed hard-won victory before President Abraham Lincoln elevated Grant to command of all Union armies in the field. Grant went on to accept the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the venerable General Robert E Lee at Appomattox, etching his place in American history.
He later served two terms as president and then, while dying of throat cancer, he penned his two-volume memoirs to ensure that his family would have an income and financial security after his death. He died on 23 July 1885, aged 63.
The Grant revolvers bear the flawless scrollwork of Nimschke along with floral accents. The back straps are emblazoned: “From your friends/O N Cutler, W C Wagley.” The depiction of Grant is in uniform and bearing the two stars of major-general rank, indicating that the revolvers were presented to him sometime between late 1863 and early 1864.
Cutler and Wagley were merchants engaged in the cotton trade and both were veterans of the Mexican War. While the revolvers in generic form probably sold for about $12 each, the richly embellished presentation ensemble, including a rosewood presentation case, was completed at an estimated cost of $400.
Grant’s post-presidential life was marked with financial difficulties due to business and investment failures. Evidently, he sold many possessions for sustenance. However, the handsome revolvers remained in the family and made their way to California with his sons.
The pair was reported to have been given to a local handyman in San Diego during the Great Depression as payment for work performed on the home of Jesse Grant, the last surviving son, who died in 1934.
Collector Frank Hatch remained in contact with the handyman’s family in the 1960s and bought the revolvers for $1,500 in 1976. They passed to Hatch’s wife and then his son, but remained in the family until their 2018 emergence in Las Vegas.
The Rock Island sale has brought these gems back into the limelight and drawn them deserved attention in the pantheon of revered historic and fine firearms. And the sum of the sale has touched the stratosphere.
“That price tag is no longer unthinkable,” said Kolander. “The market is changing drastically. The two most expensive firearms ever sold at auction have done so in the past nine months. Combine this with Rock Island’s striking increases in annual sales numbers and you have a pretty compelling argument to start investing in collector firearms because while the opportunity is amazing, it’s also fleeting.”