Gun Collecting Hall of Fame: Big Arnold Chernoff
By Danielle Hollembaek
Collector firearms are most often sought when they possess an extraordinary rarity or historic significance or, but sometimes, the previous owners themselves account for the true value behind the items. In our upcoming May Premier Auction, we are selling two second generation Colt Single Action Army revolvers inscribed to Arnold Chernoff and his accompanied holster rig. For many seasoned gun collectors, the name “Big Arnold Chernoff” will more than ring a bell; he was a well-known firearm and Native American memorabilia collector, as well as a gun dealer and larger than life personality. Rock Island Auction Company is honored to auction the beloved items previously owned by the modern legend in the gun collecting community.
Arnold Chernoff, The Legend
Chernoff was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1934. By his early teens, he’d caught the firearm collecting bug. At the ripe age of 13, he started attending gun shows on his own and was required to carry a note around that stated his parents were fine with him purchasing a gun. The avid collector’s spirit in Chernoff propelled his collection forward and by the time he was 18, he had one of the most notable Colt collections in the nation. He was known from a young age as one of the authorities when it came to Colt firearms. Chernoff’s passion was firearms, he admired all different kinds of guns and started researching guns relentlessly. His dedicate self-study made him a valuable resource in the industry before he was even in his mid-20s.
With his knowledge in hand, Chernoff opened his first gun store at 25 years old. His business was mainly in buying and selling old and antique guns. It is said that Chernoff would appraise guns for a very low fee (reportedly $10 in 1980) and ask the owners if they’d like to sell them to him for 70% the value. They would receive a refund of the fee if they decided to consign with him. This is the way his business operated. Previous clients of his remember that he always tried to be fair and reasonable with his assessments and give people the best price possible. He was a good businessman.
In an interview Chernoff did with The Washington Post in 1980, he stated,
“Surprisingly enough, with all the books, magazines, pamphlets and articles on today’s market about antique arms, many fine guns still gather dust in homes of owners who don’t realize their worth. Bringing those arms to light would benefit both a collector, who would prize it highly, and the seller, who suddenly finds that what he regards as ‘an old piece of iron’ is worth several hundred or even several thousand dollars.”
Chernoff took gun collecting very seriously and wanted others to do the same. Keeping a historic treasure locked away forever was not his style. He wanted collectors to have the chance to experience the many wonderful and rare guns that exist from all around the world.
Many gun show and auction frequenters have stories about the humorous and lovable Chernoff. The editor of True West Magazine Phil Spangenberger said back in 2008 that he remember seeing Chernoff, at the time assumed to weigh somewhere between 650 to 750 pounds, at a gun show. Chernoff had an assistant with him whose main job was unwrapping Hershey bars for him to eat while he inspected guns. Another account from one of his friends about his eccentric eating was about his restaurant habits. It was not uncommon for him to order one complete side of the menu for dinner. Needless to say, Chernoff enjoyed his meals almost as much as he enjoyed collector firearms.
It is also said of Chernoff that he was ”the quickest wit in guns,” and never short of a one liner. When interviewed for the first ever edition of Arms Gazette Magazine in 1973, he told a story about his Vegas encounter with Don Rickles. He went to see his show with a few friends and sat upfront, so of course he was in line to be razzed on by the comedian. When Chernoff was asked by Rickles his profession, he quickly replied, “I’m a jockey” and the crowd went wild. This is just one of numerous stories that illustrated Chernoff’s good humor.
Chernoff’s Colts and Rig
Lot 3617 in our highly anticipated May Premier Auction is a piece of gun collector history. A pair of second generation Single Action Arm Colt revolvers and a 69 inch long holster rig would be a great piece to add to a collection even without the prestige of the original owner. However, if you add the story, the lot becomes even more intriguing and desirable.
Chernoff special ordered two revolvers and holster rig to be his exact vision and measurements back in the 1950s. The two Colt SAA revolvers are both inscribed on the backstrap to “Arnold M. Chernoff” and are accompanied by a factory letter. As any collector knows, the history of a gun is just as important as the firearm itself, so Chernoff wrote a letter about his Colts and holster rig to accompany the items. The letter reads,
“To Whom It May Concern:
I would like to take this opportunity to explain in detail how long I have owned the two Colt Single Action Army Revolvers.45 caliber, 7 1/2” barrels, serial numbers 3203 SA and 3508 SA, which I recently gave to Mr. Ronald Ogan for safekeeping.
In 1956, Ronald Ogan and I were discussing the fact that Colt was making the famous Colt Single Action Army Revovlers again. He had a good friend who owned a gun shop, Mr. H.H. Harris, at 1237 South State Street, in Chicago, told me he could order a pair of these guns for me through the gun shop. I did just as Mr. Ogan suggested and these guns were shipped to Harris on April 27, 1956. The backstraps were marked “1” and “2” and my name was put on the backstrap of each Revovler. Furthermore, pearl grips were affixed to the guns and I had a fancy leather belt made to hold the two guns. That of course, was twenty-five years ago.
Mr. Ogan now has the two guns and double gun belt in his possession as a keepsake of our longtime friendship and association.
I trust the above letter has been of some interest to you and if I can be of any further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me.”
The pair of Colts retain 90% of their original finish with beautiful case hardening on their frames. Gray patina is visable on the inscribed grips with the number “1” and “2” showing proudly on the backstrap. Their gorgeous pearl grips still retain their iridescent reflective shine and highlight the timeless beauty of these revolvers.
Chernoff’s enormous holster rig is quite the sight to see with its almost 6 feet of tooled black leather and daisy-like stamped conchos. Presumably, three average sized men could probably wrap the rig around themselves and still fasten the buckle. That’s not an exaggeration. This rig is huge! Two black leather holsters hang from the rig and are decorated with the same stamped conchos as the belt.
Beyond the well persevered condition and details of the items, it is incredible that someone has the opportunity to own such a personal item that belonged to a collecting legend.
Chernoff was not only a supporter of antique gun collecting and Native American relics, he was an advocate for historical memorabilia preservation. He wanted all antiques to be respected and find good homes. He truly honored and respected the art of collecting. As a world renowned authority and resource on antique guns, Chernoff should be accredited for helping the firearm collecting community grow immensely in his lifetime. When he started his collection in the 1940s, there were only a few thousand serious gun collectors. Now, there are hundreds of thousands of collectors internationally. He was a pioneer in the field.
With all the accomplishments and friends Chernoff met and impacted in his life, one would think he lived for many years. Unfortunately, he passed away at the age of 51 in 1985. His death was a devastating blow to the entire collecting community. His wit, knowledge, and collector legacy has become an ingrained part of firearms history and he will be remembered for years to come.
Our 2019 May Premier Auction offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to own a piece of collecting history from a very influential firearms icon. Keep in mind, the Colts and holster rig will be up for auction this Sunday. Be sure to place your sealed bids now or do so during the auction with RIAC Live. Don’t miss your chance to make these “Big Arnold Chernoff” pieces a part of your collection.