When the final hammer came down at the end of the December auction at Holt's Auctioneers which specializes in the sale of classic English shotguns total sales had hit a record $2.72 million. Among the hot sellers: a pair of Purdey shotguns had sold for $131,200, while two guns made by Holland & Holland went for $128,000. "Those are impressive and reassuring figures," says Roland Elworthy, a valuer at Holt's. Meanwhile Sotheby's, whose sporting-guns sales are handled by Gavin Gardiner Limited, also enjoyed a healthy December auction one buyer paid $134,400 for a single Boss & Co. 12-gauge shotgun. "Demand is as strong as I've ever seen it," enthuses Gardiner, who has been auctioning classic firearms for 25 years.
The market for English shotguns is as hot as the casing of a spent cartridge, with gun prices reaching new highs. Auctioneers say the boom was triggered by the September 2008 collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers, during the Great Recession. Spooked by the unpredictability of the stock market, a growing number of investors, mainly those already into game-bird hunting, wanted to diversify their portfolios and saw top-end shotguns not only as a safe investment with reliable returns, but one with actual utility. "There is a lot of similarity between our market and the classic, vintage car market," Gardiner says. "Guns are an investment you can use and enjoy." Adds Elworthy: "If it is reasonably [unaltered], is serviced and looked after, an English gun should do nothing else but increase steadily in value."
Investors don't exactly make a killing: valuations tend to rise by only around 3%-5% a year. But at least putting money into high-end English shotguns is a safe bet, backed up by Holland & Holland's 150 years' worth of sales records. Gardiner calls it an "underfed" market where demand will always outstrip supply and push up prices. That's because only a very few guns which are largely handcrafted and take two-and-a-half to three years to make are produced each year. Holland & Holland, for instance, delivered just 88 guns last year.
Guns with a special provenance, however those once owned by royalty or a champion shooter, for example can accrue in value at an even greater rate. At Holt's December sale, a 12-gauge Purdey once owned by champion U.S. Shooter Russell B. Atkins had an estimated value of $24,000 to $32,000 and sold for $52,800. Then again, the Boss gun that Gardiner sold for $134,400 in December achieved its record price because of the quality of the firearm, not because the seller was legendary guitarist Eric Clapton. "If he were known as Britain's best game shot instead of Britain's best guitarist, then it would have added to the price," Gardiner says.
Why are English shotguns particularly those made by Purdey, Holland & Holland and Boss so well-regarded? Because game-bird hunting called shooting in Britain has, since the mid-19th century, come to be seen as a particularly upper-class English sport, much like fox hunting. And English manufacturers have grown along with the sport, developing the teams of craftsmen and honing the techniques necessary to produce world-beating guns. The finished products are essentially works of art, featuring hand-etched, detailed engravings on the steel lockplates, and stocks of highly-polished and oiled walnut. They're also amazingly balanced, Elworthy says. "It's quite sublime; like holding a fairy's wand." Long-lasting, too Elworthy's personal shotgun is a 113-year-old Holland & Holland. As a result, the guns enjoy the same sort of cachet as those other super-expensive, royalty-approved English products, Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars. And, ironically, just as Rolls and Bentley are now German-owned, Purdey and Holland & Holland are each part of a French luxury-goods conglomerate: Richemont and Chanel, respectively.
Most buyers of classic shotguns are British or European, though approximately 25% of Holt's buyers are from the U.S. However, this is one boom that's not so far being fed by an increasingly wealthy Asia, in part because of strict gun-control laws in China and Japan. Auctioneers are seeing many more Russian customers these days, though Gardiner admits that most buyers from developing economies tend to buy new guns rather than classic models. Of course, those come with their own recession-bucking price tags: new Holland & Holland guns, for instance, start from $64,800 to $106,720
Meanwhile, the next round of major classic firearms auctions is in the spring and expectations are that more record prices will be set. English shotguns aren't cheap but investors get a lot of bang for their bucks.