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September 7, 2023

Fine Arms Rising in the Collectibles Market

By Joe Engesser

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In a period of economic uncertainty, alternative assets can provide diversification, stability, and handsome returns for the savvy investor. Consider Goldman Sachs’ May 2023 Family Office Investment Insights Report, where 38% of the family offices surveyed revealed that they’d allocated capital to collectibles as part of their investment strategy. Across all respondents, 71% reported that “passion” was their primary driver in acquiring collectible assets, while 39% indicated their purchase was due to the potential to generate returns that are “uncorrelated to the rest of their portfolio” In short, collectibles are fun and offer an investment platform that’s untethered from conventional market trends.

Fine arms linked to historic figures have garnered tremendous interest in the recent collectibles market. This example, Pancho Villa's gold-plated, engraved, and inscribed Colt Single Action Army is available in Rock Island Auction Company's December Premier Auction in Bedford, Texas.

In recent years, high-value collectibles like fine art, classic cars, and vintage timepieces have been outperforming traditional investments and show no sign of losing momentum. Rare firearms have experienced similar uptrends, and that’s no surprise given how the most desirable firearm classes share many of the same traits as other investment-grade collectibles. Scarcity, tangibility, artistry, historical significance, popular appeal, and strong market demand have all contributed to substantial appreciation across the fine arms genre.

Rock Island Auction Company's impressive 2022 numbers speak to the strength of fine arms in today's collectibles market.

Fine Arms in the Collectibles Market

Online bidding options have given the fine arms market a global reach, leading to an expanding contingent of collectors, investors, arms enthusiasts, museums, and historic societies actively competing for the scarcest examples available. Surging demand is reflected in the numbers.

The collectibles market has been thriving in recent years, with fine arms prices setting records in every genre at Rock Island Auction Company.

Rock Island Auction Company, the industry leader in fine arms collecting since 2003, has seen its average annual sales double since 2015 and break the $100 million barrier for the second year in a row in 2022. Nine of the auction houses’ top 20 bestselling firearms have passed the podium in the last two years alone. In that same period, more than 120 lots achieved six-figure price tags or higher, with four of those items surpassing the million-dollar mark.

Fine arms have been turning heads in the collectibles market, with impressive performances from historic firearms, pop culture icons, high art pieces, and extreme rarities from popular genres.

Guns linked to monumental names such as Ulysses S. Grant and Napoleon Bonaparte top Rock Island Auction Company's list of recent seven-figure firearms, but history is far from the only factor driving unparalleled growth in the genre. Of the 50 most expensive guns to sell at the auction house, only 12 belonged to well-known political or cultural figures.

An L.D. Nimschke engraved solid silver Winchester Model 1866 sold for $977,500 in Rock Island Auction Company's December 2021 Premier.

Like the rest of the decorative arts field, vintage firearms are valued for their rarity, style, condition, provenance, and aesthetic. The latter factor, artistry, will be readily familiar to investors of other high-end collectible classes. Firearm examples engraved by master craftsmen like Louis D. Nimschke or designed by Versailles artistic director Nicolas-Noël Boutet reside in the world’s most prestigious museums and command ever-more impressive auction prices.

Rock Island Auction Company is proud to feature selections from the phenomenal Norman R. Blank Collection this December. From exquisite 17th century flintlocks and wheellocks to exhibition-quality percussion pistols from the early 19th century, Mr. Blank’s collection is a tour-de-force of high-end European firearm artistry.

When Rarity and Popularity Collide

Popularity is also a key component in the market momentum observed across the fine arms field. 80% of Rock Island Auction Company’s 50 most expensive guns are Winchesters rifles and Colt revolvers. Winchester and Colt are arguably the most recognized firearm manufacturers in history and names that are immediately associated with the American West. Even though millions of Colt revolvers and Winchester rifles were produced in the 19th century, they’ve become collecting cornerstones thanks to their status as American icons. And where rarity and popularity collide, prices soar.

Two of the most famous Western guns, the Colt Single Action Army revolvers and the Winchester Model 1873 rifles. Guns that won the West. These exceptional engraved examples are available this December at Rock Island Auction Company.

The growth experienced by these two giants of the genre has elevated interest at every level of the antique arms pursuit, drawing in multiple generations of gun collectors, shooters, and fans of Western Art. Frontier rifles, Old West derringers, and Civil War guns have seen a similar surge in value, with early production models, prototypes, scarce configurations, and elite condition examples commanding the highest price points.

The Winchester lever action family and its predecessors are perennial leaders in the high-earning fine arms collectibles market, such as the $223,250 this early production Henry rifle garnered at RIAC in 2022.

Every corner of fine arms collecting has enjoyed substantial gains, including 20th century military arms. Vintage pistols, rifles, and combat shotguns from the two world wars have all seen their values rise dramatically despite being manufactured in high volume. Consider the M1911A1 pistol, a model that saw 1.9 million units produced during the World War II era. The prominent pistol has become a proven high riser at every level, from comparatively common pieces experiencing double-digit annual growth in recent years to the most exclusive examples of the genre becoming some of the most pursued items in arms collecting.

A rare predecessor to the 1911A1 pistol, this serial number 3 Colt Model 1910 prototype trials pistol sold for $241,500 in Rock Island Auction Company’s September 2021 Premier sale.

In 1940, the Singer Manufacturing Company produced an order of 500 M1911A1 pistols for the U.S. Army. Rock Island Auction Company sold the finest-known Singer example in 2010 for a then-unprecedented $166,000, then auctioned the same pistol again seven years later, where it broke its own record with a stunning $414,000. The Singer pistols aren’t engraved or linked to any world-famous figures. Instead, they’re another example of how the convergence of popularity, scarcity, and condition in the field of classic firearms can create expanding price ceilings to rival the most impressive gains in the collectible arts pursuit.

The finest known U.S. Singer Manufacturing Co. Model 1911A1 earned an astounding $414,000 in Rock Island Auction Company’s December 2017 Premier sale.

Collect at Any Level

Compared to other investment-grade blue-chip collectibles, the fine arms market presents a comparatively low barrier to entry. And while certain alternative asset classes such as rare postage stamps have declined in popularity, classic firearms have enjoyed a constant stream of new collectors in every genre and price point of the venture. The broad appeal and rampant growth in the fine arms collectibles market creates a lucrative environment for the judicious investor, with recent data indicating many antique and vintage guns may be significantly undervalued.

The average value of a Colt Boa revolver at Rock Island Auction Company over the past seven years demonstrates the convergence of popularity and scarcity in the fine arms collectibles market.

Investment-grade firearms are obtainable to nearly all financial aspirations. Many determined collectors have broken into the market by purchasing the best examples they could afford and traded up from there, building their collections piece by piece as means and opportunity allowed.

A C Company No. 12 Colt Model 1847 Walker (Top) and a No. 5 cased Colt Texas Paterson (Bottom), two pinnacles of fine firearms collecting available this December.

The late George Lewis, a famed collector of classic Colts, classic Colt collectors, pursued a collecting strategy based on opportunity and availability. As Mr. Lewis once recounted, “I found that I was drawn to the little Colt derringer, not because it had an interesting history or because it was beautiful or because there are many variations and models to obtain, but mainly because my pocketbook could afford the derringer, and I could compete with the best of collectors.”

Rare Colt revolvers are obtainable at every financial aspiration, as exampled by this fantastic line-up of Colt New Line revolvers from The George Lewis Collection. Like many new collectors, Mr. Lewis started small, acquired what he could afford, and branched out from there.

Mr. Lewis pursued a then-undervalued genre of gun collecting to great success. The history of fine arms collecting has demonstrated that a well-cared-for gun retains its value and often appreciates. The natural ebb and flow of the collecting environment offers profit potential whenever a class of firearms experiences a sudden surge in value, a common occurrence in recent years.

High-end vintage and modern sporting arms are another desirable genre in the fine arms collectibles market. This Firmo Fracassi Bulino engraved F.lli Rizzini sidelock double barrel ejector shotgun sold in August of 2022 for $246,750 at Rock Island Auction Company.

Fine Arms Make a Statement in the Collectibles Market

The blistering performance of the fine arms field presents a compelling opportunity for those seeking to diversify with a touch of history. Arms collecting can offer a more muted market-to-market volatility compared to conventional investment options. The historical significance, scarcity, aesthetic, popular appeal, prolific demand, tangibility, and potential for growth are all qualities that make antique and vintage firearms a valuable addition to any portfolio.

The Greg Lampe Collection is a premier example of fine arms collecting at the highest level of the pursuit.

If approached with diligence, research, and careful selection, investors not only have the potential to reap high returns but can also contribute to the preservation and appreciation of history while enjoying one of the most accessible genres the collecting world has to offer.

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