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Insights: Indulgences

Vintage sporting and collectible arms offer a fascinating blend of history, technology and art
Matt Kramer
From the Print Edition:
Raquel Welch, Jul/Aug 01

I'm not a gun guy. I've never shot anything. Any critter bigger than my shoe has nothing to fear from me. I mention this because I, ironically, was at an auction preview of antique, sporting and collectible arms at Butterfields auction house in San Francisco.

What caught my eye -- apart from the guns themselves -- was the economics of collecting antique sporting arms. Simply put, they almost never decrease in value, regardless of the state of the economy. "To date, there has never been a crash or a severe bear market in antique or collectible sporting arms," says Greg Martin, who heads Butterfields's seven-person arms and armor department. "There are never any big speculations in gun collecting, unlike, say, Ferraris. No big bubbles, no big busts."

Martin later told me this auction was "no big deal;" a big deal to him means something that reaches a world-record price. (Butterfields is the dominant auction house in this field, racking up virtually every world-record price set at auction.) But, to me, this auction preview looked impressive.

For example, there was a collection of Smith & Wesson No. 2 Army revolvers -- the sidearm of choice for Union soldiers in the Civil War.

As I stood in front of the showcases, I turned to an affable-looking fellow in his late 60s standing next to me. "Do you know anything about these guns?" I inquired. "Yeah, I think so," he replied with a grin. "Actually, that's my collection you're looking at."

His name is John Otteman, and he had been collecting for 40 years. Naturally, we got to talking, and I asked him the obvious: just one gun type? Isn't that, well, a little specialized? After all, he had 59 of these Smith & Wessons, plus a bunch of worn leather flap holsters for them.

"Really, it's not that unusual," he said. "I mean, not everybody goes after the Smith & Wesson No. 2 revolver, although it is a popular gun. Most collectors specialize in something, whether it's a particular gun or just a time period."

Otteman put his collection up for auction because he's been living in Singapore for the past six years, which has crimped his collecting opportunities as well as the gratifying participation with fellow collectors. Also, Singapore's relentlessly hot and humid climate makes gun storage difficult. It was time, as he put it, to "exit."

I was more interested in his collecting entry. What did gun collecting offer him? "Really, it's history, at least for me," he explained. "I think that's true of a lot of antique gun collectors. I became fascinated with the Smith & Wesson No. 2 revolver for a lot of reasons. Its technology was advanced for its time. But probably, above all, was its involvement with the Civil War."

"So what's it like to shoot one of these guns?" I asked, my arm encompassing his showcased collection. "I don't know," he replied. "I've never shot any of these guns." I was truly baffled. If you buy wine, you're going to open it, right?

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