THE DOG THAT DIDN’T BARK IN THE NIGHT

Auctions are generally noted for what sold and for how much.  The Rock Island premier auction in June was more notable for what did not.

Lot number 1362 was a set of four Holland & Holland double rifles, elaborately engraved by Alan Brown with scenes from African hunting history, in calibers ranging from .375 H&H to .700 H&H, specially built some years ago for noted collector Bob Lee.  We won’t argue about whether these were the finest rifles ever to leave Bruton Street, but they were certainly in the top echelon.  And, with fabulous walnut stocks and Brown’s engraving, they cost Lee a bundle.

Rock Island gave an estimated sale price of $575,000 to $900,000.  What the reserve was can only be a guess, but generally speaking, it is usually somewhere below the low estimate.  $400,000 might be a fair guess.  The fact that they did not sell means that these fabulous rifles did not even reach the unit price one would pay today for a standard Holland & Holland ‘Royal’ double rifle with a nice stock and house engraving.

If further evidence were needed that the double-rifle mania that raged from 1985 to about 2010 is over, there it is.

Granted, this was a special situation.  First, there simply aren’t that many collectors around willing to lay out half a million dollars for four rifles, with no particular historical significance, that they will almost certainly never take hunting.  At its height, there was only a handful of collectors like Bob Lee playing in that league.  They spent fortunes corraling the finest stock blanks, booking slots far into the future with the finest engravers and kept makers like H&H and Purdey busy in much the same way the Indian princes had done with London gunmakers in the 1800s.

As these collectors have departed this world, they have not been replaced by like-minded gazillionaires with a reverence for old-style African hunting and the classic double rifle, which means the extraordinary collections they assembled do not find much demand. What’s more, since these collectors were all pretty much of an age, their collections have come up for sale one after another, glutting a shrinking market.

Around 2004, Russell Wilkin, then technical director of Holland & Holland, told me a client at the SCI show had asked where he could get a decent double rifle for hunting “for under $20,000.”  Russell had no idea, but told him that if he found some to let him know and he would buy them for stock.  Plain-Jane British doubles and even some downright ugly ones, were selling for outlandish money in those days

Image courtesy Rock Island Auction Co.

and the big English names could not find enough second-hand ones to satisfy the lower end of the market.

The generation of African hunters who grew up reading Ruark and Taylor, and insisted on hunting Tanzania and Botswana with double rifles, is dwindling fast.  These were the guys who fueled the double-rifle mania at the grassroots level and drove up prices on older rifles.  Like their mega-moneyed cohorts, they’re dying off and their cheaper rifles are also showing up at the auctions.

In 2010, I was in a high-end gunshop that specializes in trinkets like Purdeys and Boss over/unders.  There was a Dominion-grade Holland & Holland double rifle in .577 Nitro Express in very nice shape.  As I recall, it carried a price tag of $280,000.  $280,000!  It was a hundred years old, and not even a Royal, with minimal engraving — in other words, a working rifle for a professional hunter.  I don’t know if it sold for that price, but I’m reasonably certain that, today, it would bring about a tenth of that, or a bit more.

Presumably, Bob Lee’s fabulous quartet will go up for sale again at Rock Island’s September premier auction, and presumably with a lower reserve.  I hope to be there to see what happens.  And, also, to see if there’s a nice Rigby or H&H in .303 British that’s looking for a loving home at a reasonable price.

The declining market for British double rifles is not great for those who paid the big bucks back in the 1990s, but it’s nice for those of us who could not afford them back then, and managed to outlive those who could.  Into every life a little irony must fall.– Terry Wieland

Leave a Reply