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Grays Best

Unoriginal Sin

When is "collector value" worth keeping?
by Terry Wieland
From the November 2006 issue.

The question comes up whenever someone pulls out an old gun: “What’s the collector’s value?” And, more stridently, when someone suggests doing something that changes an old gun’s condition: “But what will that do to the collector’s value?”

 

The thinking is that only a gun in “factory-original” condition is of interest to a collector, and that any change—even a change certifiably for the better—will destroy this elusive value.

A few months ago I was discussing potential refurbishment of a 150- year-old muzzleloader, manufactured by the Dublin pistol maker, Calderwood. I found myself explaining (to a skeptical audience) that a gun like that has no “collector’s value” in the accepted sense.

Being 150 years old, having seen much use, at one point having one hammer replaced by a mismatch, and with scratches on the stock and some bits missing, it was hardly “factory original.” But were the repairs made a hundred years ago a detriment to the gun, or were they now part of its history?

The more I tried to explain it, the more unbelievable I sounded even to myself. Which led to some long hours on the road home, thinking about guns, and collectors, and original condition, and the whole question of restoring and refurbishing formerly fine firearms.

As a class, there is no more valuable group of guns in the world than the London “best” sidelock shotgun. These routinely change hands for anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000, depending on name and condition. Yet there is no real collector’s value to them, and “factory original” is almost never a consideration.

Conversely, in America anything with the name Colt or Winchester is heavily collected, and relative condition is agonized over, magnified, often misrepresented and occasionally outright faked, all in the interests of collector’s value. And this is just as true of rifles that change hands for $500 as those priced at $5,000.

The most collected American shotgun is the Parker, and original condition is definitely a factor in pricing them (as is grade, with the higher levels priced at many times their original cost.)

So why should “factory original” matter with a Parker but not a Purdey?

It seems to me the dominant factor is that a Purdey, even a century-old Purdey, is purchased to be used, whereas a century-old high-grade Parker is as likely to be found paddling a canoe as actually taken out and (horrors!) fired in the field.

A second consideration is, since every known Purdey was made to the original purchaser’s specifications, there really is no such thing as factory-original condition, because no one can say for sure what was original simply by looking at a catalog. Well, that’s not quite true. Purdey can check its records and tell you the exact specs to which the gun was made in 1906, and they can tell you of any alterations subsequently made by the Purdey factory. But Purdey will only tell you these things if you now own the gun, which doesn’t help a potential buyer all that much.

Third, it’s routine for fine English guns to go back for regular maintenance, such as an annual strip-andclean in which the entire gun is dismantled, cleaned and reassembled. And when a gun changes hands (as a century-old gun will do, more than once), it’s equally routine for it to be altered to fit its new owner.

Remember, these guns are purchased to be used. The stock may be lengthened or shortened, or bent from cast-on to cast-off. A new owner might have a second set of barrels made. A black-powder gun might be nitro proofed. In extreme cases, the chambers might be lengthened and the barrels shortened or sleeved. Depending on who did this work and how well, the gun’s value will be increased, decreased or unaffected.

A Parker that had led such an interesting life would be dismissed as a “shooter,” and serious collectors would look away.

It’s worth noting that occasionally an English gun of famous name will be described as “refurbished” and offered at a lower price, generally for two reasons: it must have been very tired in the first place to warrant the complete refurb or that the refurb wasn’t very well done.

Aglance at the Blue Book of Gun Values, or any of the other listings for collectible guns, instantly shows relative values. Any artifact in mint condition—“new in box” being the ultimate—is worth far more than one judged to be “only” 90 percent.

For example, one guide lists a NIB Model 1894 Winchester at $1,945. The same rifle in “good” condition (two levels down) is $1,068—barely half. “Good” is described as “all original parts, no rusting or pitting, bluing showing only minor wear, and wood unscratched and original finish.” Anything less than that is merely “fair” and marked down even farther.

So the question is, if you come across an 1894 in fair condition and its collector’s value is at most $500 or $600, what do you do with it?

Some would insist it’s a crime to alter it, because that would affect its collector’s value. Personally, I would rate it as a prime candidate for a good, professional refurbishing that would make it both a joy to look at and a pleasure to shoot.

I say this from the point of view of a shooter who dearly loves firearms in original condition but hates to use a gun that has been messed with. By messed with I mean a rifle whose stock has been carved into weird shapes by a jackass with a jackknife, or has had a compass inlaid in the comb, or which has been left out in the rain to rust and then gone at with a wire wheel.

Give me a rifle that shows a century of honest wear but has been well cared for, and I wouldn’t alter it for the world; show me a rifle that has been messed with (that, by the way, is the polite term), and I will immediately ship it to a good gunmaker to be restored to presentable form.

There are several craftsmen around the country doing restoration work. Doug Turnbull has made refurbishment the focus of his shop in upstate New York, to the point of studying the way each company did its case-hardening in order to match the colors exactly, and knowing how the level of internal and external finish that a gun made in 1914 compares with the same model built 20 years later. You can send Doug an 1894 made in 1921 and get it back looking exactly as it did in 1921.

Depending on how much time and money you want to spend on restoration, almost any gun that is essentially sound can be returned to the condition it was in when it left the factory. It doesn’t happen overnight, and you may gulp as you write the check. You may find yourself in the position of my friend who owns the Calderwood, which I mentioned at the beginning. It could be returned to virtually original condition, because it is a sound, safe gun. In the end, he would have spent $5,000 and ended up with a gun worth about $5,000.

This is pretty much the equation with any firearm in the lower rungs of collector interest. You can buy an

old 1894 for $300 and spend $700 on it, and if you’re lucky end up with a rifle worth $1,000. Not much of an investment, if you want to look at it in those terms—but then those aren’t the terms a shooter would consider.

For someone who loves firearms for the art in them, for the craftsmanship, for the practical, usable value, there is more to a gun than either collector’s value or utilitarian practicality. Collectors may sneer at refurbished firearms as having no value from their point of view, but that is all it is: a point of view.

Imagine, for a moment, that you take a poor old Model 1894 from someone’s shed, spend a grand on it, return it to its former pride and allow it to embark on a second career. Over the next century it changes hands, probably many times. And in the year 2106 someone shows it proudly to a friend and says, “This was restored a hundred years ago, and it’s as nice as it was then.”

Those folks won’t be worrying about collector’s value, because by that time the work you commissioned will be part of the gun’s history. You will have made a contribution to posterity and afforded yourself a morsel of immortality in the process. Please, though, don’t claim credit by carving your initials in the stock. It kind of defeats the purpose.

 
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Spanish Best is one of several books by Terry Wieland. You can find it and other titles by him at Amazon.com.

 
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