The price of rare weapons is on the rise


May 17, 1992|By Lita Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen,Solis-Cohen Enterprises

Bang! Bang! Bang! went the auctioneers' gavels in San Francisco, New York and London as a barrage of high prices was paid recently for antique guns, knives and swords. While prices are being slashed on bucolic Impressionist paintings, the cost of rare weapons shot up to record heights as a bounty of superior collections went on the block.

At Butterfield & Butterfield's day-long auction in San Francisco in March, a collector from Omaha paid a record $770,000 for an unfired, ivory-gripped, silver-banded, .34 caliber Colt Paterson belt model percussion revolver in its presentation case, complete with an extra foot-long barrel. Made in Paterson, N.J., circa 1836, it was one of Samuel Colt's first models.

Why are collectors paying so much? "Arms are the most American of artifacts, the whole continent was won with guns and knives," contends Greg Martin, a collector and dealer who organized Butterfield's sale. "Buffalo Bill didn't tame the West with a paint brush."

Asked if he was uneasy leading a marketing blitz for weapons when there's so much armed violence in the world, Mr. Martin replied: "These are antiques and pieces of history. Someone isn't going to spend $700,000 for a gun and then use it to rob."

Blue chips of gun collecting

Fancy Colts in mint condition with a good provenance are the blue chips of gun collecting, and when two collectors want the same gun, the bidding duels get fierce.

The record revolver was sold by Australian financier Warren Anderson, who amassed a major gun collection since 1980 but now needs to raise cash. "Guns are the last thing collectors will sell, they're attached to them," Mr. Martin said. "They'll sell their cars, houses, silver and paintings before their guns. A man feels alone and lost without them, like the pioneers."

A San Francisco collector bidding by phone won't feel alone: He bought a $605,000 cased pair of engraved presentation revolvers from Mr. Anderson's stash. Colt made them in the 1850s as a wedding gift for his nephew, the architect of his Hartford, Conn., armory.

Butterfield's started the day with a standing-room-only $1.4 million auction of 163 Bowie knives, the combined collections of two Texans, rancher Charles Schreiner III and arms dealer Robert Berryman. After 40 years of collecting together, they wanted to cash out and cut loose, but neither would sell to the other.

Bowie knives were named after James Bowie (1799-1836), a legendary hero of the Texas Revolution who had once fended off four attackers with a single hunting knife. "Bowie knife" is a generic term, encompassing many knife sizes, blade shapes, and handle styles produced after 1830 by surgical knife makers, the majority in Sheffield, England. American Bowies made in New York, Newark, Baltimore, Philadelphia and San Francisco also were auctioned.

An 1838 print shows a Cherokee chief with a coffin-hilt Bowie knife tucked in his sash, and Civil war photos depict soldiers with their Bowies. These knives remained standard gear for frontiersmen and prospectors throughout the 19th century.

A midwestern collector paid a record $132,000 for a 21 1/2 -inch-long exhibition Bowie in pristine condition, made circa 1870 in Sheffield and featuring a sculpted bust of George Washington on its mother-of-pearl handle. It was estimated to bring $30,000 to $50,000. The 13 1/2 -inch-long blade is engraved with a view of Mount Vernon, the name of its maker (George Wostenholm & Sons), the trademark "IXL" (meaning "I excel"), and the words "Washington Hunting Knife."

Other knives showed hard use. A short circa-1852 knife marked "H. McConnell, San Francisco," with a stag handle, brought $60,500, topping its $20,000 to $30,000 estimate. McConnell was San Francisco's first listed knife maker.

A rare massive Sheffield knife, circa 1835, with a German silver mounted scabbard embossed "CELEBRATED ARKANSAS TOOTHPICK," its nickname, sold for $44,000.

Japanese swords

When the dust settled, Butterfield & Butterfield had sold nearly $7 million worth of guns and knives, a record for an arms sale and the auction house's highest one-day total. Within a week, Christie's broke the arms record, selling a collection of Japanese swords and sword fittings in New York for nearly $8 million, also a record for a Japanese art sale.

The collection, from the estate of Dr. Walter A. Compton, of Elkart, Ind., former chairman of Miles Laboratories, was considered the finest in private hands outside of Japan, rivaling that at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Many were ceremonial samurai swords in pristine condition from Shinto shrines. In Japanese fashion, Compton would unbox them one at time for contemplation.

A European collector paid a record $418,000 for a signed late-13th century "tachi" or long sword (estimated at $200,000 to $300,000). A Japanese collector paid $341,000 for a signed "katana" or short sword, dated 1677. More than 80 percent of the blades and 68 percent of the fittings went to Japanese collectors eager to reclaim their heritage.

The volley of arms moved to London in April when a circa 1680 wheel-lock sporting rifle from the private armory at Schloss Dyck, a German baroque castle near Dusseldorf, sold at Christie's for $240,000, a record for an antique European firearm. Its wooden stock, decorated with engraved mother-of-pearl and carved hunting scenes, was made by Johann Michael Maucheran, an illustrious German gunstocker. The armory dates from the 17th century and equipped generations of hunting parties at the castle.

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