For a19th-century aristocrat needing to fend off brigands or ambitious rivals, there were few more stylish ways of doing so than with arms made by Nicolas-Noël Boutet. The French master gunsmith’s clientele included Napoleon himself.
When the emperor sought to reward his friend, Adm. Federico Gravina of Spain, he sent him a case of France’s finest flintlocks: two tiny muff pistols that were easy to conceal, and a rifle adorned with precious metals and carved with mythological figures.
Antique weapons collector Martin Lane estimates it took a group of artisans — goldsmiths, silversmiths and woodworkers — two years to assemble Napoleon’s gifts to Gravina. The set, called a garniture, passed through Lane’s hands in contemporary times, when he brokered its sale to a well-known billionaire for $4.5 million.
From Self Preservation to Wealth Preservation
Lane and thousands of other collectors enjoy a lucrative trade in antique guns, swords and armor. Indeed, what were once tools for self-preservation have since often become lucrative vehicles for wealth preservation. And one needn’t pay an emperor’s ransom to buy into the market.
“I purchased my first full armor in 1966 for $750,” says Fagan Arms proprietor William Fagan. “I sold the helmet only after replacing it with a better match in about 1990 for $16,500.”
Like equities and commodities, market forces constantly sway the price of collectible weapons. Fagan notes that the price of several types of antique weapons and armor have recently jumped.
For example, burgonets (a 16th-century open-face helmet worn with a suit of armor) were once so abundant that they sold for $27.50 through magazine ads. Now, Fagan says, they can sell for about $5,000.
Many different weapons and armors are available to collectors; like securities, different market segments are influenced by different forces.
Fagan cites these examples:
“Some increases respond to market trends,” says Fagan. “The Civil War centennial (1965) and Revolutionary War bicentennial (1976) both caused spikes in interest in the respective weapons, followed by flat or declining interest.”
Business Booming in Antique Weapons
There’s scant analysis on the size of the collectible arms industry, but Antique Arms Show Director Wally Beinfeld says he has watched it grow substantially in the past 50 years.
He says his show is an example. In 1961, he explains, it hosted about 30 dealers in Las Vegas, and around $80,000 worth of weapons changed hands. In January 2012, Beinfeld says about 700 vendors will attend and about $12 million of weapons will change hands. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms estimates that 2 million used firearms change hands in the U.S. each year.
Of those 2 million used guns, not all will be highly prized. Collectors and dealers agree on a handful of characteristics that determine the value, including scarcity, demand, condition and previous ownership. Lane says an aspiring collector should first read and research the specific weapon and try to see them in person before buying so as not to fall for a reproduction.
An edgy back story and high public interest can yield very high prices.
In June, auction house sold a .38-caliber Colt Police Positive revolver from the 1920s. CollectorsFirearms.com routinely lists Colt Police Positive .38s for around $1,000, but the Christie’s pistol went for $109,000. It had been owned by Al Capone, and came with a paper trail attesting its origins.
“The Capone Colt was a very special piece,” says Christie’s Arms and Armour expert Howard Dixon. “Over the years, I have sold firearms which Sir Henry Morton [Stanley] carried on his famous expedition to find Dr. Livingstone, a revolver which Lord Lovat stormed ashore brandishing on D-Day, and a sword which had been carried into battle at Waterloo in 1815 — to name but a few.”
Many antique arms buyers are primarily interested in a collectible weapon’s history, and find numerous opportunities to buy at friendlier price points.
Mel Bergman, a digital strategist for an interactive design agency in California, collects war-time firearms. Many of his favorites were mass-produced for marching armies and are still relatively affordable, like the Japanese Arisaka Type 99, made during World War II, which he recently bought for $400.
He believes that fairly common weapons will increase in value — much like Fagan’s armor. Meanwhile, Bergman collects an emotional dividend — the satisfaction of bearing antique arms.
“The pleasure for me with old firearms is handling them, looking at them, and firing them,” Bergman says. “History becomes much more alive when you are firing a weapon that was used in anger. It really imparts a whole new appreciation.”