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- Last updated: 09/07/2023
However good your local gun shop is, they can’t stock everything, so most of us use online services to source harder-to-find items and hunt down bargains. Specialist services like KitFinder, GunTrader, and GunStar can be the solution, but it’s at auction that the rarest items, and (sometimes) the best prices can be found.
Several UK auctioneers run sales dedicated to sporting guns and accessories, but the benchmark is undoubtedly Holt’s, which conducts four major sales each year, each comprising some 800 lots representing a wide range of items to suit most interests and budgets. That said, Holt’s catalogues predominantly feature practical items of appeal to shooters and restorers, rather than premium historic collectables.
Holt’s online catalogues include many desirable modern guns, but it was the vintage ones that first drew me to them. Easy to access, they are organised into categories that are simple to navigate. Each lot is well-illustrated with zoomable colour photos, described in appropriate detail, and assigned an estimated price range based on past sales and the state of the market. The lower figure is usually the reserve price, so, the value below which the seller (or ‘commissioner’) is not prepared to sell, so bidding under this is unlikely to bring success.
Having registered on the website, you can flag lots you are interested in, get yourself pre-approved to bid, and request detailed condition reports on items you’re serious about. After that, there are several ways to engage with the auction itself.
Firstly, there’s the old-school approach of travelling to Holt’s HQ at Wolferton in Norfolk, where you can preview every lot prior to the sale and bid in person in the saleroom on sale day. This is a memorable experience, even if you aren’t bidding, and a genuinely exciting one if you are. As a spectator, just trying to guess whether a lot will meet its reserve, square with the estimate, or soar wildly beyond it as buyers compete to seize a prize, is enthralling. The bidding is handled by the auctioneer with an impressive combination of clarity, speed, and good humour.
If you can’t afford the time or expense of attending in person, you can still participate remotely, bidding live over the telephone, or online via Invaluable or The Saleroom. Holt’s applies a 5% surcharge for using these portals. Alternatively, you can lodge your maximum offer in advance as an ‘absentee’ or ‘commission bid’, to be added to the auctioneer’s instructions for the sale. Although this method lacks the flexibility of live bidding, it protects you from getting carried away by the excitement of it all and spending more than you intended. So, a safeguard many will appreciate.
Whichever bidding route you choose, you can immerse yourself in the sale-day action via a live online video feed. If you do, you’ll quickly come to admire the way the auctioneer deftly fields bids from his commission list, the phones, the internet and the ‘room’ itself. It is well worth watching at least one auction before you take the plunge, too. If only to see how bidding increments get larger as buyers compete and the hammer price goes up.
Each main sale is accompanied by an online-only ‘sealed-bid’ auction, which extends for two weeks and comprises some 2000 lots. You submit a single bid that represents the most you are prepared to pay, and at the end of the sale, the highest bid received wins the item. Again, an estimate is provided as a guide. Aside from the particular mode of bidding, this auction is characterised by lots of lower value than those in the main auction. You may find just what you’re looking for here but expect the most desirable items to be in the main sale.
Finally, there’s a further two-week online sale to tidy up lots from both the main and sealed-bid auctions that have remained unsold. This time, prices are all-inclusive and accompanied by a tempting ‘Buy Now’ button!
When it comes to your budget, it’s vital to realise that the catalogue estimate only represents the ‘hammer price’ reached in the saleroom, exclusive of the substantial auctioneer’s fee (25%), known as the ‘buyer’s premium’, and of the VAT applicable to both the premium and the hammer price. To their credit, Holt’s website and catalogues make it impossible to overlook this crucial information, and they even provide an online calculator that makes it easy to work out your actual spend for a given hammer price. You should also factor in the cost of having Holt’s ship your purchases (either to you, or to an RFD in the case of controlled items), or of travelling to Holt’s to collect them in person.
After some years of browsing Holt’s online catalogues, and some enjoyable hours spent watching the video feeds from various sales, the moment finally arrived when I decided to try my luck. I had developed a ‘need’ for a vintage percussion shotgun, and the March 2023 catalogue featured one that seemed to tick all of my boxes. My schedule didn’t permit me to attend in person or to be confident of being available for live bidding when my lot came up (Holt’s provides a general timetable to help predict when this will be), so I requested a condition report, and satisfied with the information provided, entered a commission bid.
I based this on figures from past Holt’s sales and dealers’ listings on Gun Trader, factoring in the buyer’s premium, the shipping cost (£25-£35 per gun), and the element of risk associated with buying unseen and without the return guarantees RFDs typically offer on S/H sales. Holt’s will only refund you if you can demonstrate that a lot was misleadingly described or damaged in transit, and their general expertise and integrity make this a rare event. I was also mindful that, however much I liked the gun I was bidding on, nothing in my price range will ever be one-of-a-kind, so I could tolerate being outbid this time in the expectation of finding an alternative in future sales.
On the day, and with surreal convenience, I found myself live streaming the key moments of the auction on my phone while having my car MOT’d at my local garage. There was a sensation of a ground rush as my lot came up, bumped up one increment and was finalised at the next. As there were no bids on the phones, online or in the room, it was all over in seconds. The hammer price was below my bid, so I guessed I’d won, and this was confirmed a couple of days after the sale when Holt’s invoice arrived via email.
So now the question was, had I spotted a good thing that others had missed, or missed something bad that had deterred others from bidding? All I could do now was wait for my package to arrive.
It was everything I had hoped for and in great condition for a gun that had been built in the 1850s. It came with its original loading rod, complete with a pristine patch-worm under a brass cap, a tight barrel wedge, clean locks with strong springs, immaculate nipples and threads, and no visible corrosion save on the steel butt plate (a fate escaped by few muzzle-loading long guns). This was evidently a piece that had been lightly used, sensitively restored in the not-too-distant past and conscientiously maintained thereafter.
For further confirmation, I took the gun over to Francis Lovel in Witney, where, as well as providing expert advice on accessories, loads, and drills, he kindly checked and gauged the bores. He revealed that, notwithstanding the ‘16’ stamped on the barrels, it is actually a 15-bore. Francis does his game shooting exclusively with percussion guns these days, and always keeps a fine selection in stock, making him the go-to option if you fancy adding a vintage gun to your collection without all the excitement of buying one at Holt’s.
In conclusion, whether chasing that dream gun, widening your knowledge and appreciation of the rich and storied world of gun making past and present, or simply enjoying the vitality, humanity, and inherent unpredictability of live auctioneering, Holt’s catalogues and sales are a resource and an experience no self-respecting shooter should pass up. The bargains are there, too. All told, my gun cost roughly 60% of the nearest GunTrader equivalent. Holt’s next sale is on 10-11 July 2023, and if you want to find out more about my journey into game shooting with a muzzle-loading percussion shotgun, keep watching these pages and I’ll be back with a report on that in a couple of months’ time.