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?
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."
"It's hard to overstate the historical element of these items," he explains. "I'd say that's what enthralls most collectors. It's history you can hold. Here's the gun that won the Wild West. Here's a rifle owned by Annie Oakley. Here's something from the American Revolution, and so forth. It's a combination of history, mechanics and aesthetics -- in three dimensions.
"People have been collecting for a long time," Martin adds. "Louis XIII was the first gun collector. All European royalty were big gun collectors. The founders of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art were arms and armor collectors."
What's worth pursuing in today's market? According to Martin, "Among American guns, Colt and Winchester are the blue chips. The Colt revolver, for example, is the most popular gun to collect -- despite the fact that more than 1 million were made."
You'd think that guns never disappear, but it's not so. "A good rule of thumb," says Martin, "is that among antique guns, only 10 percent remain. The rest are lost, destroyed, rusted out or just plain worn out. That's why even the mass-produced, nineteenth-century Colt revolver is so collectible. Colt had its own engravers. One Colt sold for over $4 million."
Even twentieth-century guns are highly collectible, especially sporting arms such as the custom-made shotguns of British makers Purdey and Holland & Holland. Such shotguns (which are still being made today) are a British specialty, although there was one highly collectible American shotgun manufacturer named Parker. "The Parker shotgun was comparable in quality to Purdey," notes Martin, "but they were last made in the 1930s."
What does it take to get into the game? "Price wise, we're ready to go sideways on the gun-collecting stairstep," Martin predicts. Prices range from a few hundred dollars for a nice historical piece to millions. Some of the most expensive transactions never see the auction floor at all.
"Like anything else, you can't buy willy-nilly," advises Martin. "But the record is clear. Overall, the antique and sporting arms market rises 10 percent to 20 percent a year. Some years less, other years more. But that's the demonstrable, provable average. And it has yet to go down."
Matt Kramer is a columnist for Wine Spectator magazine, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication.