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December 9, 2021

The Top 10 Guns of 2021

By Kurt Allemeier

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The arms owned by two significant revolutionaries – one French, one American -- reside atop Rock Island Auction Company’s list of top 10 items sold in 2021. The top sale price achieved in 2021 is also the all-time record price for an item offered by the company.

Rock Island Auction, the top firearms auction house in the world, continued to build on its annual sales record, bringing in more than $100 million for the first time in the company’s history and far surpassing the $92.7 million in sales in 2020.

Nine of the 10 items on this list were sold during the company’s three Premier Firearms Auctions. The gun of a Hollywood legend snuck onto the list after it sold during the October Sporting and Collector Firearms Auction.

More than 50 lots achieved six-figure price tags in the company’s 2021 auctions.

History, beauty, brilliant workmanship, and exceptional significance came together on this list of truly astonishing pieces purchased by collectors this year. The top 10 items sold by Rock Island Auction in 2021 are:

1. Napoleon Presentation Garniture of Six Arms from Boutet $2,875,000 (December 2021)

Napoleon Bonaparte is an extraordinary historical figure and this exquisitely-crafted set of gold-encrusted weapons is worthy of someone who shaped modern Europe.  A rising star of the French Revolution when the leaders of the Republic gifted it to him in 1797, Napoleon was lavished with this garniture that includes a rifled carbine, a pair of rifled carriage pistols, a pair of pocket pistols, and a “glaive” sword and scabbard. He would overthrow the Republic two years later, wearing the sword on his hip as he did.

The set is among the most significant set of arms from the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars in private hands. The arms, covered with amazing engraving and embellished with Greco-Roman symbolism and other scenes, came from the renowned Versailles Manufactory led by Nicolas-Noel Boutet. Boutet remains one of the most renowned European arms makers in history.

Napoleon gave the set to Marshall Junot, Duke of Abrantes, with whom it remained till his death. The Duchess of Abrantes, with her extravagant lifestyle and denied a pension by Napoleon after his return from Elba, sold several scarce and precious items, including the garniture. The set was purchased by an officer serving under Napoleon. Following the Battle of Waterloo and the final defeat of Napoleon, the weapons set went on display in London in 1816 and set the clear provenance to Napoleon. Before being displayed, the weapons were sent to Boutet, whose name is engraved on every article, to be cleaned, reconfirming him as the manufacturer.

This is the new top-selling item for Rock Island Auction Company and part of the second largest firearm auction to date! The garniture’s topped a 15th century Middle Eastern shirt of mail and plate with elaborate gold Koftgari decorated plate reinforcement that sold in 2015 for $2.3 million.

2. Alexander Hamilton’s Flintlock Holster Pistols and Epaulettes, $1,150,000 (May 2021)

Few firearms owned and used by founding fathers during the American Revolutionary War survive, and none are known, other than this pair, to remain in private hands so it should be no surprise these pistols landed at number two on our list. Only two founders, Washington and Hamilton served in the Continental Army with distinction.

Alexander Hamilton, who graces the $10 bill, was a Founding Father, revolutionary war patriot, and first United States Secretary of the Treasury. His story became a Broadway phenomenon and renewed interest in this key figure in the nascent history of the United States. Hamilton's pistols are in fine condition and fully functional.

Icons of the new republic and tools of the revolution likely used at the Battle of Yorktown, these impeccably documented pair of flintlock holster pistols have light scroll engraving and are inscribed “AH.” These sidearms were presented to Hamilton by General Philip Schuyler, his father-in-law. The side plates have pierced centers and feature light floral engraving. The trigger guards have acorn finials and snowflake-style designs on the bows.

The epaulettes were worn as Hamilton served as an officer under Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and the future first President of the United States, George Washington. Only the phenomenal set of weapons of a European emperor could surpass these historically significant pistols on this elite list of firearms sold by Rock Island Auction in 2021.

3. L.D. Nimschke engraved silver Winchester Model 1866, $977,500 (December 2021)

The immense artistry of engraver Louis D. Nimschke is fully on display in this silver-framed tour-de-force offering that also bears the historic weight of being presented by one South American head of state to another.

This may be the German-American engraver’s masterpiece if not the most extravagant Winchester ever created. It features six solid silver bands, solid silver mounts, cast solid silver frame, carrier block, butt-plate, end cap, and lever.

The gun was made as a presentation from the president of Peru, Jose Balta, to the president of Bolivia, Mariano Melgarejo. The silver involved in this piece is believed to have been supplied to Winchester from Peruvian silver mines.

The left side plate features dogs taking down a stag, while the right side has a disgorging bestial face inhabiting the scrollwork at the front. The right side plate is open with a floral bloom. The rifle’s hammer has a winged beast design and the lever features scrollwork, border designs, a checkered panel, and floral accents. The silver forend cap and buttplate mesmerize with scroll engraving, floral designs and attractive borders. The lever was hand-forged to a shape not found on any other Winchester rifle, flat and gracefully widening around the trigger.

Not surprisingly, this wondrous work of art soared onto our list in the last Premier auction of the year.

4 (tie). Jack Crawford and James Barton Adams Presentation Winchester 1873, $718,750 (September 2021)

The Winchester factory presented this spectacular piece of Wild West history to poet-scout John “Captain Jack” Wallace Crawford who in turn gifted it to close friend and cowboy poet James Barton Adams. It has a factory exhibition finish and rare presentation plaques and is in outstanding condition. It holds 99 percent of the nickel finish and 98 percent of the gold finish. The state of preservation of this Winchester allowed it to sell at twice its estimated price.

The Winchester was a deluxe factory display piece shown at the New York Exhibition of Industry and Science in 1898 and the Pan-American International Exposition in Buffalo in 1901. Crawford received it from Winchester in 1902. He gave it to Adams the following year after Adams lost his Denver house and collection of western memorabilia to a fire.

Captain Jack served in the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry during the Civil War before heading west during the Black Hills gold rush. He joined the Black Hills Rangers as chief scout, worked as a journalist, and then as a war correspondent during the Bighorn and Yellowstone expeditions. A friend of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, he replaced Cody as head scout when Cody returned east and served with bravery and daring. He joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show until was shot in the groin during a battle reenactment. Following that incident, he moved his family to New Mexico where he scouted and established a ranch. He went on to be a performer and storyteller of the Wild West, writing multiple books and plays.

Adams also fought on the Union side in the Civil War and served as a scout. He lived and worked at Crawford’s ranch from 1890 to 1892 before moving to Colorado where he wrote poetry, worked in publishing and remained in close correspondence with Crawford.  He too was a western performer.

This striking piece, a link back to the Wild West and a pair of rugged yet refined personalities, deserves to be third on this list.

4 (tie). J. Ulrich Exhibition Relief Engraved Winchester Model 1873, $718,750 (May 2021)

This transcendent Winchester is engraved by John Ulrich with gold inlay that was commissioned as a factory display piece for the 1876 Centennial Exposition and later presented by the company to the Honduran President Marco A. Soto. The piece is adorned with meticulously engraved wilderness scenes including buffalo hunting, elk hunting, a moose, a bear, a turkey, an elk, a squirrel in a tree, and a fox. This Model 1873 certainly fits well with Soto’s opulent tastes and was almost certainly given in thanks or persuasion for the contract between Honduras and Winchester.

Marco A. Soto was President of Honduras from 1876 to 1883 and implemented many reforms which affected Hondurans for several years including the reorganization of public finances, transfer of civil codes such as marriage, divorce, and education from the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church to secular public institutions; and the establishment of a national library, archives and postal and telegraph services. To upgrade its weaponry, Honduras purchased Model 1866s and Model 1873s. This Model 1873 was almost certainly given in thanks or persuasion for the contract between Honduras and Winchester.

Soto fled to France in 1883 where this tremendous piece of art was discovered 130 years later and landed in a tie for fourth as Rock Island Auction’s top sellers of 2021.

6. One of One Hundred Winchester Model 1876 Lever Action Rifle, $690,000 (September 2021)

This Model 1876 One of One Hundred with a silver band was a once-in-a-lifetime offer in our September Premier Auction. Authors have put the number of these rifles identified at seven or eight, but this was the only silver-banded example, so this was a rare opportunity indeed.  The very first One of One Hundred model shipped, the barrel has the distinctive "One of One Hundred" inscription in script surrounded by factory scroll engraving on the breech section along with a silver band at the breech, a silver blade front sight with dovetailed base.

After leaving home as a young man, the gun’s original owner went to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia where the Winchester 1876 was on display, likely drawing his interest to the model. The weapon was in the man’s family for four generations before finding its way into a private collection and number six on our top items sold in 2021.

7. Confederate Columbus Arsenal bronze 9-pounder, $661,250 (May, 2021)

This only surviving example of just five bronze 9-pounder Napoleons manufactured at the Confederate arsenal at Columbus, Ga., plus its original limber was a breathtaking piece offered by Rock Island Auction this year. Very few cannons from the Columbus arsenal are in private hands. The arsenal is known to have been active from March 1863 until it was destroyed by Union raiders in April 1865.

The muzzle is marked "No. 5 F.C.H. ARSENAL COLUMBUS GEO. 1863. 437." The FCH is likely for Major Fredrick Clinton Humphries who commanded the arsenal. The top of the barrel has CS near the trunnions. The cannon’s limber included a limber chest with a copper/bronze lid and "9 Pdr. Gun/C.S." in white paint on the outside along with a group of cannonballs. Archival documents show that the cannon was to be received as part of the Coosa River bridge defense in 1864. This significant piece of Confederate history heads the second half of our top 10.

8. John Wayne’s Colt Single Action Army Revolver, $517,500 (October 2021)

With no documentation when this Colt First Generation Single Action revolver arrived, it was originally estimated and placed in a Sporting & Collectors Auction for $20,000 to $40,000.

It wasn’t until later when documentation confirming the piece’s provenance and one-time ownership by Hollywood legend John Wayne that its true value was realized. Documentation included a 1976 appraisal of Wayne’s gun collection that listed the Colt Single Action by serial number as well as affidavits of ownership. The Colt was used by Wayne in the films “The Cowboys,” True Grit,” and “Rooster Cogburn.” He won an Oscar for True Grit.

As Rock Island Auction President Kevin Hogan said at the opening of the sale, “This gun is as righteous and real as it gets. They had to make the grip strap bigger, they had to make the trigger guard bigger because he was a man’s man.”

This piece of Hollywood grit and glamour landed at more than a half-million dollars realized to earn a spot among our top 10.

9. Bat Masterson’s Colt Single Action Army and Holster Rig, $488,750 (May 2021)

An American legend’s Colt realized a legendary price at what was dubbed the Sale of the Century in May, when Bat Masterson’s special-ordered, owned, and carried Colt revolver fetched nearly a half-million dollars.

Masterson’s legend included stints as a lawman, professional hunter, a gambler, and frontier businessman who counted a spectacular array of personalities as friends, like Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Buffalo Bill Cody, Luke Short, and Jim Courtright.

His involvement in multiple shootouts of the Wild West in the 1870s and 1880s are fully documented, some in sworn testimony, with the number of men killed ranging from three to more than 20. Masterson fought Indians on the Texas plains and served as a lawman in Dodge City, Kansas, and elsewhere earning the reputation as the Old West’s toughest and deadliest lawman. He turned reporter in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. He became friends with Theodore Roosevelt and regularly visited the White House.

He served as a U.S. Marshal, appointed by Theodore Roosevelt, and went on to get involved in boxing while still writing. He died in 1921. Author and fellow sportswriter Damon Runyon described Masterson as “a 100 percent, 22-karat real man,” and his well-preserved Colt deserves special mention on our list.

10. Presentation Pair of Engraved Remington New Model Army Revolvers, $460,000 (May 2021)

Here is Nimschke again, with a pair of “mirror image” engraved revolvers with American and Russian theme raised relief carved grips that were presented to Czar Alexander II of Russia during the American Civil War.

This pair was specially engraved by Nimschke in 1864 and presented by the federal government to the Czar to express American appreciation for the Russian Imperial Fleet’s visit. This magnificent set of revolvers features raised relief patriotic American eagle with flags on the right grip and the Russian imperial coat of arms on left grip of both pistols and points to the friendship of the Union government and the Imperial Russian Navy and court.

President Abraham Lincoln and Czar Alexander are known to have developed a close friendship. The Czar followed developments of the American Civil War closely, and his refusal to recognize the Confederacy helped keep Britain and France from openly recognizing and supporting the Confederacy.

The engraving is a masterwork with the mirror image fouled anchor design on the right and left sides of the respective frames combined with the Columbian shield on the top of the back straps. Arrows, scrolling and floral engraving decorate the top of the barrel and side flats. Intertwining lines run along the upper and lower side flats, and borders at the muzzles and breeches. Scroll and crosshatch patterns adorn the loading levers. Scroll engraving and floral motifs decorate the frames and the nautical theme continues with chains along the top straps.

The work of a master engraver and the symbolic importance of the pair of pistols to the friendship between the Russian Czar and the U.S. Government during the American Civil War stands to be recognized in the top 10 of auctioned items in 2021.

Tops in 2022?

Looking ahead, the next Premier Firearms Auction is May 13-15, 2022 and features Ulysses S. Grant's pair of Remington New Model Army revolvers. Will it be tops in 2022? Here is a sneak peak of the next Premier Auction.

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