Order of the Phoenix
It may not go with a bang but the unfired, Malcolm Appleby-engraved “Phoenix Gun” is sure to make sparks fly when it enters the auction room this month, says Roger Field
The internet may be taking over – “spoiling” is another word that leaps to mind – the gladiatorial thrill of a visit to an auction but there are still times when those in the room can gain distinct advantages over their wired-up competitors. When everything is selling then it is probably immaterial whether you are at home, coffee or drink in hand, tapping the “Buy Now” button, or sitting on a hard chair in an airless room waving your mitt at the rostrum.
however, it is when things are not selling that the buyer in the room can sometimes get the drop on those on the internet, especially with more esoteric “collectables”. It just takes a few key buyers to be absent or extra choosy for that section of an auction to fall flat and bidders to switch off. This is when an auctioneer really earns his salary as the priority is no longer about beating high estimates and fulsome after-auction PR puffs, it becomes about ensuring things just get sold. The auctioneer’s minimum aim is to whip up enough enthusiasm to get someone to bid up to the reserve, bidding even on the vendor’s behalf; legitimate as long as the bidding only reaches the reserve – any higher and it becomes illegal.
A “reserve” is different to the low or bottom estimate stated in the catalogue. It is the minimum, confidential price at which the vendor has agreed that the auctioneer can sell – albeit with, sometimes, a measure of “auctioneer’s discretion”. Conversely, the bottom estimate means exactly that. It is what the auctioneer thinks (or says he or
she thinks – not necessarily the same thing) something should sell for. The reserve could be the same as the bottom estimate. Some auction houses seem to run this as a house policy. However, it must never be higher than the published low estimate. At many auctions the reserve seems to be about one bid (about 10%) below bottom estimate; more rarely, significantly below or, even, with no reserve at all; the vendor needing to sell regardless, for whatever reason. Some – often the more high falutin’, specialist auction houses – may only agree to sell lesser items if they are at no reserve as they do not want the expensive hassle of cataloguing, displaying and offering them if they calculate that they will not appeal to those at the auction, whether in the room or online.
Perhaps a vendor has a good collection of fine swords – or clocks or paintings or whatever – with some third- or fourth-division items as well or, particularly in “the regions”, it is an estate clearance. “Take the lot or I’ll offer them to X instead,” says the vendor. The auctioneer concedes (or not), so presenting an opportunity for bidders should the lesser items then fail to interest those following that specialist sale. I surprised myself by buying an 18th-century Indian khanda – a handand-a-half sword standing almost 4½ft tall – at Thomas Del Mar’s arms and armour sale six months ago, Indian kit not usually being my thing. Estimated at £150 to £180 it was an honest, albeit Plain Jane, example in a tatty scabbard. The price kept going down as the room sat on its collective hands. “Any offers at £80?” It was right there on the wall beside me, giving me the thumbs up. Quick inspection. Finger up. Gavel down. Something an internet bidder could not have done.
And then there is the “after sale” action with unsolds; a brief hiatus that a person on the spot should be better able to exploit than the internet bidder. And this is where real bargains can be had. The vendor will be hacked off that their lot(s) failed to sell and will probably prefer not to get it back; yet more hassle, expense and paperwork. Furthermore, the auctioneer will probably demand a sizeable percentage drop in reserve before agreeing to reoffer it. Put in a sensible offer now and, chances are, you can buy it below reserve, sometimes well below reserve. Two caveats here, however: in my experience, the smaller houses tend to be more flexible on such after-sale negotiations than the large companies and, as with any sale, don’t buy something just because it looks cheap. Often, but not always, antiques fail to sell in a certain price range for a very good reason. I’m delighted to report that the khanda still looks suitably impressive and menacing in my study. A steal at £80.
Hopefully there will be no such aftersales scramble for Gavin Gardiner at his 27 August sale of vintage and modern sporting guns at the Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire. A star among the 200 lots of “fine” things that go bang is the Malcolm Appleby-engraved Phoenix Gun. This truly unique beauty is an unused sidelock 12-bore ejector – 28in barrels, 15in stock, weighing 6lb 10oz – that was completed by Matthew Lingard (gunmaker by Royal Appointment to HRH The Prince of Wales) in 2012. Appleby, who is considered by many to be the finest gun engraver of this generation, engraved the “Raven Gun” for the Royal Armouries while his “Crocodile Gun” was sold at Gleneagles by Gardiner in 2009 for £48,000. Normally the engraving alone on a gun such as this would cost about £100,000. He expects this magnificent example to sell for at least a similar sum.
In May, Bonhams had two glorious days selling things designed to kill and maim the quarry, whether human or sporting. My son was on the River Oykel and, with the temperature hitting 28°C, the fish were clearly visible in the pools, sunbathing but not
taking. Lot 518 was the solution: a Kongsbergjarmann Model 28 10.15mm x 61(R)mm Boltaction Harpoon Rifle modified from an 1884 Norwegian issue service rifle. Complete with four sharp-tipped harpoons and lengths of rope to attach to your reel – mustn’t cheat, after all –this killer would have guaranteed delicious, fresh-run salmon each evening. According to the auctioneer, this rifle has a kick like a mule given the weight of steel harpoon it throws. Back in the day – it is an obsolete calibre and so could be bought by anyone, just so long as you do not fire it – it was used for despatching swordfish and seals as well as throwing lines for rescue work. Perhaps it was just too much rifle for most buyers as it only hit its £2,000 bottom estimate. With a trip to the Tay planned for July, I could not help but wonder…
Another devilish invention was the 1916 Pritchard-greener “Revolver Bayonet”. The brainchild of a Lieutenant Pritchard, built by Greener, it was designed to clip onto the standard issue Mark IV Webley revolver and was his solution to finding himself out of bullets at an inconvenient moment in the trenches. Wonderfully bonkers but utterly evil, the steel is as bright and sharp as the day it was made; only 200 were ever produced. This one belonged to Major JS Cowan-douglas, Highland Light Infantry. Given that we know from Dad’s Army’s Lance Corporal Jones that, “They don’t like it up ’em!” this bayonet most probably did get right “up ’ em” as the good Major won a DSO and MC on the Western Front. Little surprise it quadrupled its top £1,200 estimate to sell for £4,800.
From the time our ancestors first tied a stone to a stick to give it extra heft on the downswing, some bright spark was doubtless trying to improve the design, using a bigger stone or sharpening the end to make a dual-purpose biffer and pricker. The late19th century Liège Dolne Patent (Apache) Pin-fire Six-shot Knuckle-duster Revolver is part of that endless evolution: a tri-combo, pistol, knuckleduster (doubling up as the pistol grip) and knife and, frankly, a confusing looking horror – none of the three nasty bits doing the job as well as a single, welldesigned blade, duster or shooter. However, they do look the dog’s cojones and, my
expert tells me, they were particularly prized by Parisian gangsters. And, as he also points out, if you found yourself mano a mano discussing the price of croissants with an Apache-wielding hoodlum, the sensible move would be to back off at speed rather than point and giggle at how silly it looks. Always desirable, doubtless because they are so outlandish, it doubled its £800 estimate to sell for £1,600.
An earlier iteration of that same weapons race is an altogether more effective bit of killing steel: a late-16thcentury, heavy, combination horseman’s hammer – with a beak for smashing through mail or thin plate armour and a hammer for administering frontal lobotomies to the ungodly – it also incorporates a one-shot wheel-lock pistol for punching a hole through the first enemy to present himself. This is an object of wonder and beauty that would have been carried by a great noble. It also doubled its top £12,000 estimate to sell for £24,000: rarity, quality and sheer ingenuity will nearly always win out.
These days machismo is more a question of how big is your motor than how deadly your steel and the buyer of the 2016 Vanquish 7,000cc (yes: 7,000cc) Pro-street 300 can certainly claim more galloping horses between their thighs than other bikers. How you ride this brute I can only imagine but it is capable of 200mph, cost more than £100,000 new and, after 130 hours in the workshop, is now UK street legal having been imported – now there’s a surprise – from the US. It sold at Bonhams on 21 April for £30,000, well under its £35,000 lower estimate: a throbbing, snarling example of the difference between estimates and reserves. IN the sporting collection of the Royal Armouries is a most unusual gun, one, moreover, that has a medical story attached, an unusual attribution for a sporting gun. The gun is Russian and their sporting gun tradition is both familiar and, at the same time, different to that in Britain.
This gun was made in about 1760 by
one of the best Russian royal gun makers, Ivan Permjakov, who worked in the royal workshops, initially under the supervision of the Ober-jägermister, the royal head huntsman, and then as an Imperial gunmaker from about 1755 to 1773. He worked in St Petersburg making target and hunting firearms for both Empress Catherine II and her son, Czar Paul I. He also maintained the hunting weapons, which numbered in the hundreds, that were originally housed in Czar Peter III’S residence at Oranienbaum on the shores of the Gulf of Finland. After the death of Czar Peter III in 1762, the collection was moved to St Petersburg and the royal hunting lodge at Gatchina palace.
Permjakov’s weapons were highly prized and sought after and this example is no exception. It is surprisingly similar to sporting guns being made in England at the time. It is profusely decorated in gold-encrusted rococo ornaments of sporting trophies and flower heads, the furniture being of silver. The sideplate is almost identical to ones made by the gunmaker Joseph Griffin in London. The barrel is decorated with gold line decoration and is signed in Cyrillic by Permjakov inside a golden ribbon. Unusually, the barrel is made with an exaggerated oval bore, this style of barrel being particular to Russian gunmakers who made much use of the oval bore in the late-18th century. It is stamped on the butt with the Imperial collection inventory number of 30. This is of importance as it can be used to prove the subsequent English connection to this gun, as it was to become a personal gift from Empress Catherine to the English doctor Thomas Dimsdale.
Dimsdale (1712 to 1800) was a Quaker who was trained as a doctor at St Thomas’ Hospital, London. He subsequently became interested in the disease smallpox and how to inoculate against it. He wrote a treatise on the subject in 1767, The Present Method of Inoculating for the Small-pox, that was circulated widely and was translated into numerous languages.
As a result, he came to the attention of Empress Catherine, who invited him, in 1768, to Russia to inoculate both herself and her son, Grand Duke Paul, against the disease. The Empress was so happy and relieved with his work that she appointed him a Baron, gave him £12,000, a pension of £500 a year and presented him with a set of hunting weapons by the court gunmaker Permjakov. The set included a gun, a rifle, a pair of pistols and what was described as a “flat” gun, the one in the Armouries collection. Permjakov was subsequently ordered to make another set to replace the one presented to Dimsdale. This set now resides in the Kremlin Armoury in Moscow.
The Permjakov sporting gun can be viewed by appointment at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, the national museum of arms and armour. The museum is open daily from 10am to 5pm. Entry is free. For further details, go to: www.royalarmouries.org
The 12-bore “Phoenix Gun” by Michael Lingard has been profusely engraved with a matted textured feather design, with tallons on the fences and eye and beak detailing onthe top-lever and action base
Teach those tricky salmon a lesson with this Norwegian Kongsberg-jarmann bolt-action harpoon rifle, sold at Bonhams for £2,000
This rare Pritchard-greener revolver bayonet, designed by Lieutenant Arthur Pritchard of the Third Battalion Royal Berkshire in 1916, has an 8½in blade
A ride on the wild side: this 2016 Vanquish 7,000cc is capable of 200mph but was unable to rev up enough interest to reach its lower estimate at Bonhams in April, though it beat its reserve price to change hands for £30,000
The “flat” gun presented to English doctor Thomas Dimsdale by Empress Catherine II as part of a set of hunting weaponsA RUSSIAN SPORTING GUNBY MARK MURRAY FLUTTER
An extremely rare late-16thcentury German combined horseman’s hammer and 50-bore wheel-lock pistol