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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

(continued from page 1)

At that moment, Martin came onto the floor to greet me. I replayed the conversation to him and he was not surprised. "Oh no, nobody would ever actually shoot one of these guns. Of course, they're able to be shot," he adds quickly. "That's a prerequisite. But no collector would actually do it. It would reduce the value of the gun."

I followed Martin back to his office in Butterfields's warehouse, which looks like a Hollywood prop room for wars of all occasions, from the original full metal jackets of ancient body armor to various Nazi memorabilia that give you the shivers. ("A lot of that stuff is fake," Martin says dismissively.)

Martin's true love is antique arms, rather than military memorabilia. An antique arm is anything made before 1898. It requires no license or registration by the government. The reason is simple: it's very hard to get ammunition for old guns.

"But ammunition isn't the reason collectors don't fire their guns," he says. "Really, it's just like coins: the less they're used, the more they're worth. The ideal auction description for an antique firearm is: 'Mint. Never been fired.'

"What may surprise you," he continues, "is that most of the high-end gun collectors I know don't shoot, period. Surely at least half never fire a gun of any kind, for any reason."

Finally we get to the nub. When you or I see a gun, we see a gun. Collectors don't. "Oh, absolutely," agrees Martin, who has a sizable collection of antique firearms himself. "We see history, technology, tradition, craftsmanship, metallurgy, woodworking -- all sorts of things. When I sit in my living room, which has guns mounted on all the walls, and I look around, I don't see 'guns' at all."

This makes sense, if only because many of the collectible guns are richly engraved. They really are masterworks of a sort, with ivory or rare wood stocks and metalwork that Cartier would be proud to claim.

Other sought-after items have historical value, which sends prices soaring. Sometimes it's general history, like the Civil War or the Wild West or, more recently, the Second World War. ("The German Luger is one of the most collectible of non-antique firearms," says Martin.)

If someone notable owned the gun, prices skyrocket. For example, a good-condition Smith & Wesson Model 3 revolver "Russian First Model" might sell for $30,000. But the same gun, taken from the outlaw Cole Younger after the Northfield, Minnesota, bank robbery in which he was killed, fetched a whopping $211,500 at auction.

"We've got an auction coming up on June 26 which features the family heirlooms of James Bowie," reports Martin. "You've heard of the Bowie knife? Same guy. Collectors will be coming from everywhere for various items in this collection, all because of the Bowie connection."

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