Alright… we’ll stop channeling Harry Belafonte presently. (If you don’t know who Belafonte is — was? — congratulate yourself and have a drink on us. But accept that you probably also don’t know the song we’re referring to). And actually, they’re not all sold. Several drew no bids.
On the other hand, if you’re here, you probably know the auction we’re referring to, the incredible Richard Wray collection of select Class III and other rare guns. Wray was the founder of a successful firm, and his collection contained not one, but dozens of guns that could by themselves anchor a great collection. There were 191 lots in the auction all told: machine guns, normal Title I guns, and a couple lots of accessories, including four ultra-rare 100-round Bren gun drum magazines.
Ian at Forgotten Weapons has beaten us to the punch with an auction report, so we’ll send you over there for his take; then come on back and read ours, in which we’ll take care not to duplicate his insights. We do have a few bullet points about the auction:
- The auction was extremely well presented by Cowan’s. Something to bear in mind, if you’re like an acquaintance whose gun collection made no impression on his only son, who wanted to be (we are not making this up) a ballet dancer. (Well, that’s how the Oddfather, Rahm Emanuel, got his start, so you never know).
- Want a timewaster: go to the auction catalog and make note of the prices made good. Bet you can’t check out just one. Note that these prices include a “buyer’s premium,” a surcharge on the sale that goes to the auctioneer. The auctioneer also gets a percentage rake-off of the seller’s money.
- In our experience, auction catalogs’ estimates always low-ball most guns. The Wray auction was no exception. Why? When they’re making the catalog, their objective is to get the most possible eyeballs, and bidders, attracted to the collection. You can’t criticize that, it’s just good business. So that Lot X, Y or Z sold for more than the upper range estimate is not necessarily significant. The size of the delta may be significant and may point to new trends in the market.
- We thought the Chauchat at under $5k was a hell of a bargain. Yeah, it’s a scroungy gun, but it has incredible historical cachet. So does the Benet-Mercié, the first American Army light machine gun and only the second type-classified American MG (the first was a Maxim, some of which were made by Colt and some imported, and one of which would sell for crazy ridiculous money if it came up at an auction); but the B-M sold for nearly $30k.
- The ultimate lowball bidder walked off with a transferable Hotchkiss Brande. It’s not a historic gun, as it’s an interwar oddball, and it’s not in a readily-available-cheap shooting caliber, 7x57mm. But it went for $284. And came with four spare barrels and other accessories. (What are the odds that it’s the only one on the register?) That sound you just heard was Ian kicking himself (unless it was his bid).
- The most in-demand guns are American military guns of the WWII and later era, and German WWII iron. WWI guns — often even better shooters — sold at a discount relative to War Two stuff, although “discount” isn’t exactly the word. More like the WWII guns draw a premium.
- Likewise, aerial guns and AA guns have a lot less sales mojo than ground guns. If you want a WWII gun, you can start a whole collection of Japanese or Italian aerial guns for the price of one German MG34 or MP40. But the MP40 will probably appreciate faster. A 1936 Ford and a prewar Alfa Romeo 8C are both technically classics, and both appreciate, but the legendary 8C, thanks to cachet and rarity, appreciates at an accelerating rate.
- Corollary to the above: as crazy as these prices are, the smart money says they’re going higher.
- Wray had some incredible rarities, like this Swiss StG 51. Never heard of it? Most people haven’t. This prototype was (obviously) based on the FG42, and was apparently one of the way stations on the way to the excellent, for its day, StG 57. Bragging rights cost its new caretaker $23k, and that’s before he invests in reloading 7.5 Swiss kurz.
- Even some of the non-NFA guns were rare and ran bids up pretty high. This ordinary looking Mauser Broomhandle is actually a Chinese copy in .45 ACP. It went for nearly seven grand. Note to self, place a want ad for machinists in Craigslist Shanghai.
That’s about it for now. One lesson that’s scarcely new — John Ross’s monumental novel of the gun culture, Unintended Consequences, addresses it using a college paper by protagonist Henry Bowman — is that the Class III market remains dreadfully distorted by government regulation. Cascading on top of the natural rarity of these often 100-year-old items is the rarity caused by multi-tier taxation and regulation, and a manufacture and import ban of 25 years’ standing. That means that some of the buyers are very likely speculators, expecting the guns to appreciate.
Of course, the 1986 manufacture ban was inserted at the last minute by a voice vote in one house, with a quorum absent. So there is considerable political risk in investing in Class III iron, making the investment a speculative one. Dicta in the Heller opinion suggest that Class III weapons stand outside the penumbras (if you will) of Constitutional protection; your $5, 10, 20 or 50 thousand dollar investment (and that guy’s $284 Hotchkiss) is one midnight voice-vote away from being zeroed out by your lords and betters.
Update: this post has been edited to correct the caliber of the StG 51.