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January Firearms Auction Earns $1.8 Million

Robert Kyle | January 11th, 2014


Selling for nearly double its high estimate at $19,200 was a Smith & Wesson .44-caliber revolver known as the No. 3 First Model. Made in the early 1870s prior to the advent of the Colt six-shooter, these popular guns were carried by both lawmen and law-breakers. Its serial number is 1955 out of about 8000 made. Kyle photo.


Of several manufacturers that produced the Colt Model 1911A1 semiautomatic handgun for U.S. soldiers to carry during World War II, the Singer Sewing Company produced the fewest, with a 500-piece test run. The low production makes them scarce today, and when one surfaces out of a private collection, as did this example, bidders pounce. Bearing serial number S800106 and a letter of authenticity, it sold for $78,000 (est. $15,000/25,000). Kyle photo.


Several different models of the Colt semiautomatic military pistol were tried before the U.S. government settled on the Model 1911. Trial pistols, like the Model 1909 shown here, were produced in small numbers. This one is serial number 11 of only 23 made. Their rarity makes them highly desirable by collectors. Estimated at $50,000/80,000, this example sold for $96,000. Kyle photo.


Predating the invention of the Winchester, this Smith-Jennings .54-caliber rifle, bearing serial number 115 and made in the 1850s, sold for more than three times its high estimate at $34,800.


For collectors of the British military, Webley revolvers of the Fosbery type are the most desirable. About 5000 were made, and this example, a 1903 model with serial number 3355, came with provenance that sent the final price well beyond the $8000/10,000 estimate. The right side of the frame is marked “Glen C. Holland, Gordon Highlanders.” Also included was its original Canadian-marked holster (not shown). This lot sold for $18,000.


Another rare item, found among the modern handguns offered, was this Colt “Aircrew” model .38- caliber revolver. Made with a 2" barrel for ease in carrying, about 1200 were provided to the U.S. Air Force. This one, bearing the USAF serial number of 589, brought a strong $6600 over a $2000/3500 estimate.

Morphy Auctions, Denver, Pennsylvania

Photos courtesy Morphy Auctions

The auction gods smiled on Pennsylvania’s Morphy Auctions with this sale. A chance comment while picking up a West Coast train collection last year resulted in the consignment of hundreds of guns—many quite rare and valuable—from a 35-year private collection.

“Do you want the guns too?” was the question posed to Morphy staff when the company sealed the deal to take the trains.

“Guns? What guns?”

This fortuitous firearms auction generated about $1.8 million in a one-day 633-lot 471-gun sale on January 11 in the company’s Adamstown Antique Gallery in Denver, Pennsylvania, located adjacent to Adamstown, a hotbed for antiques and collectibles. The auction gods also let the sale happen on a clear, cold day devoid of snow and ice that soon would cause many East Coast auction companies to reschedule.

The approximately 350 guns from the unidentified train collector were high-quality pieces, including some quite rare. Two models had disappeared from the marketplace decades ago. Specifically, they were test guns used during trials to determine which model would become the next official U.S. military sidearm. The trials took place prior to World War I.

The shelf life had expired for the venerable Colt .38-caliber revolver carried by our armed forces. A new invention in Germany—the Luger—caught the attention of the U.S. The semiautomatic pistol, fed by a magazine concealed in its grip instead of a six-shot revolver cylinder, was the wave of the future. Germany was invited to bring its Luger to the test trials, as were designers from other countries. The U.S. eventually selected a semiauto by John Browning, a Mormon from Utah and an established firearms inventor whose Models 1900, 1902, 1903, and others had a similar appearance to the 1911. The U.S. liked the 1911 because in .45 caliber it packed more of a punch than the smaller 9 mm offered from the European countries. Ironically, in 1985 the U.S. replaced the .45-caliber Colt with a 9 mm from Italy, the Beretta. They are made in America, however.

Test guns were prototypes made in small quantities. They soon disappeared into museums and private collections. Morphy’s had a Model 1909, number 11 of about 23 made. It sold for $96,000 (includes buyer’s premium). A Model 1910 in an uncommon 9.8 mm caliber brought $90,000. It was number one of only ten made.

Another rarity was a Model 1911 Colt produced in Quebec, Canada by the North American Arms company in 1918. The First World War was in full swing when the U.S. gave the Canadian company a contract for 500,000 guns. After about 100 were made, the war ended and the contract was canceled. Morphy’s offered serial number 80 of this group, which sold for $37,200. In April 2012 Rock Island Auction sold serial number 86 for $46,000.

The Model 1911 was modified in 1926 to become the 1911A1, the standard sidearm used in World War II. The U.S. contracted them out to Colt, Ithaca, Remington Rand, and Union Switch & Signal. The Singer Sewing Machine Company was asked to make a limited run of 500, and because that’s all they made, these guns have been highly collectible. Morphy’s Singer, serial number S800106, brought $78,000. A letter accompanying it indicated it was made in the shop well after the initial order had been filled.

Morphy’s began advertising this sale months in advance. Its main office that doubles as an antiques mall displayed the rare handguns weeks in advance in showcases. One of the gun specialists, Chase Johnson, who is also a network analyst there, said inquiries had been coming in from all over the world. One man called from Vietnam.

“Buyers drove in and flew in three weeks prior to the sale to preview the collection privately,” said Kris Lee, head of the firearms department. “The week of the auction was so busy, we had to race to keep up with the requests for condition reports, questions, and showings. It was a great sign that the sale was going to be a success.”

By showtime all 150 seats were filled, some by well-heeled buyers from across the country. Unseen were several thousand bidders on line, on the phone, and those who left bids. “We sold to more than forty states and to six foreign countries,” Johnson said.

Bidding competition, coupled with an 18% to 20% buyer’s premium, made buying for resale challenging. One out-of-state gun dealer, who asked for anonymity, said he could not buy a single item that had any profit left. He purchased one item for his private collection.

“It was one of the best gun auctions on the East Coast in many years, with an exclusive collection of high-end firearms that are seen once in most people’s lifetimes,” he said. “This sale drew big dealers such as Mike and Danny Clark from Collectors Firearms in Houston, Texas. Rock Island Auction in Illinois had a buyer in attendance. The retired president of Continental Airlines was in the room.

“I believe this will establish Morphy’s as a player in high-end guns. The only downside, in my opinion, was the catalog, which was a disappointment because it contained so many errors and misdescriptions. They need to improve their catalog. However, I don’t think this hurt the prices because most serious buyers had inspected the guns previous to the auction and knew what they were buying.”

Investment gun buyers are accustomed to the standard 15% buyer’s premium charged by the nation’s largest gun auctions, thus Morphy’s 20% (18% with cash or check for in-house buyers) was manageable. (We used 20% in calculations for the prices realized to match the list published by Morphy.) But high buyer’s premiums are uncommon in this southern Pennsylvania region, where family-owned auction companies regularly sell guns. Redding Auction Services, Gettysburg, and Horst Auction, Ephrata, do not charge a buyer’s premium. Wehrly’s Auction Service, Glen Rock, charges 5%; Cordier, Harrisburg, charges 10% (for in-house cash purchases of firearms); and Conestoga, Manheim, charges 13% for in-house sales.

Other guns selling at this auction included a Model 1863 Sharps carbine, $3300; Model 1865 Spencer carbine, $1560; Model 1884 Springfield carbine, $2700; M1 carbine by Inland, $1140; M1 paratrooper carbine, assembled from parts, $1920; Owens Model 1903 rifle, $6600; Model 1876 Winchester carbine in .50/95, $16,200; Model 1866 Winchester carbine, $8400; Model 42 Winchester shotgun, engraved, $19,200; and a Model 12 Winchester military trench shotgun, $7200.

The next firearms auction is scheduled for July 19. Log on to Morphy’s Web site (www.morphyauctions.com) or call (717) 335-3435 for more information.


Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2014 Maine Antique Digest

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