Thursday 17 August 2017

Treasures: A history of violence

A three-band Snider Conversion Enfield rifle (sold at Mealys for €360)
A three-band Snider Conversion Enfield rifle (sold at Mealys for €360)
An early nineteenth century flinlock side lock sporting gun (sold at Mealys for €300)
A percussion pistol sold at Mealys for €305
Garryowen collar

Eleanor Flegg

Last year, a woman got an unexpected phone call from a Garda station in Cork.

"We have a large number of your husband's guns in storage," said the garda on the phone. "What would you like us to do with them?"

The woman had been divorced for the past 10 years. She was aware her former husband, recently deceased, had collected antique firearms but she hadn't grasped the scale or intensity of his interest.

"How many guns are there?" she asked.

"Oh, around 150," the garda replied.

After some negotiations, the woman arranged for the guns to be delivered directly to Mealy's of Castlecomer, where the entire collection was put up for auction on March 29.

Storing a collection of antique guns with the gardaí will keep them safe, but it's not a legal requirement. Antique guns are "exempt from the provisions of the Firearms Acts provided they are held as ornaments or curiosities". That's according to the Department of Justice. An "antique firearm", defined one that predates the self-contained cartridge, doesn't require a firearms certificate. The legislation infers that antique muzzle-loading firearms are not the weapon of choice for mischief makers.

All but two of the 150 antique guns in the Mealy's auction sold and all of them remained within the country. "A lot of these collectors would have close on 200 guns in the house and when a gun collection comes up at auction, the same crowd will appear," says George Mealy.

"Gun collectors are very fanatical, to be honest with you, and they need to know the whole history of a gun before they'll buy. Some of them won't go for the long guns - they only want the pistols." Very few people collect every type of gun.

Most of the guns sold within their estimates, generally in the low hundreds. Spectacular or unexpected high prices for antique guns are rare. As the Antiques Trade Gazette describes, gun collectors are "genuine enthusiasts with a scholarly approach who have a shared sense of values and a shrewd idea of price". When an antique gun sells for thousands, rather than hundreds, it is often because it was made by a distinguished maker, like Rigby of Dublin, or owned by someone famous.

Last November, for example, a rare French flintlock rifle (c. 1789-92) sold at Adam's for €10,000. It was made for King Louis XVI of France and refurbished in 1809 by Jean le Page for the use of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

In 2010, an ordinary Colt revolver once owned by Al Capone fetched £67,250 (€79,313) at Christie's of London and, in 2014, a German "C93 System Borchardt" self-loading pistol sold, also at Christie's, for £30,000 (€35,382). The gun was the former property of a British lieutenant general named Archibald Hunter, who had received it as a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm II.

According to Christie's gun specialist Howard Dixon, the Kaiser was driving in Scotland in 1902 when something frightened his horses. Things could have gone horribly wrong, but for the timely intervention of Archibald Hunter who "sprang forward, risking his life to seize the reins and pull the horses under control". The pistol was a gift from the grateful Kaiser.

While some collectors of antique guns are interested in the part particular guns have played in history, others focus on their mechanisms and engineering. The technological history of guns is closely linked to the history of their ignition systems, which began with a very basic tube attached to a stick. There was a small hole in the barrel, where you ignited the gunpowder by means of a burning fuse, and another hole at the front for the bullet to come out. It is amazing that this hair-raising and hazardous arrangement worked as well as it did.

The evolution of early guns was largely focused on making the ignition process safer and more reliable. It went through several stages, most famously the flintlock, which became the standard means of ignition from the early 17th century. It involved, very briefly, a trigger mechanism that struck a flint against a steel plate, sending a shower of sparks in to a pan of priming powder. This in turn ignited the main charge in the bore, propelling the ball.

It was a firing system that lasted the best part of two centuries but it was unreliable, especially in the rain.

In 1642, Oliver Cromwell allegedly told his Roundhead troops to "Put your trust in God, my boys, but mind to keep your powder dry". In the days of flintlock firearms, dry powder could be the difference between life and death.

The percussion cap, introduced around 1820, was a major breakthrough as it enabled muzzle-loading guns to fire reliably in any weather. It was a system almost universally adapted until it was overtaken by breech-loading guns with ready-loaded cartridges at the end of the 19th century. Percussion pistols from the 1850s are now highly collectable, especially in their original cases, which can double their value.

Alongside the historians and those with an interest in the mechanisms of antique guns, there is a third category of collector: those who simply love them for their beauty.

Early guns may have been cumbersome to operate but their craftsmanship, with decorative carving, gold and silver inlay, and walnut stocks, was extraordinary. For many collectors of antique firearms, the aesthetic of the guns is a large part of their pleasure.

See mealys.ie

In the salerooms

WHYTE'S

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Garryowen collar
 

Not many dogs merit an obituary in The Chicago Tribune, but the Irish red setter Garryowen was an exceptional dog. His obituary, published on February 22, 1890 described his show career: "Champion Garryowen [was] the hero of every bench show in Europe until his death. Garryowen never had a rival worthy of the name."

Garryowen's portrait, painted by William Osborne, is in the National Gallery of Ireland and he is mentioned three times in Joyce's 'Ulysses': "Giltrap's lovely dog Garryowen that almost talked it was so human."

Garryowen's owner, James J Giltrap, was a great uncle of James Joyce. An unusual silver dog collar (above), made for Garryowen, is among the lots for sale at Whyte's Eclectic Collector Auction, which takes place on Saturday, May 6 at 10am.

The collar (est €800 to €1,200) was commissioned from a silversmith and is suspended, like a charm bracelet, with engraved medals representing each of Garryowen's victories. The Limerick tobacco manufacturers Spillane named their Plug tobacco after the famous dog ("Garryowen Plug Tobacco - The Setter of Quality"). Their yellow tin advertisements show him wearing his silver collar.

There are three versions of these in the sale, with estimates ranging from €150 to €400. The auction also includes a Victorian-style fairground roulette wheel that may have been in use up until the 1950s. The brightly painted gaming table (est €400 to €600), with an elegant mahogany wheel, folds away into an anonymous black tin case. See whytes.ie.

ADAM'S

The most valuable pearls occur spontaneously - created by an oyster in response to an irritation within its shell. These natural pearls are far more valuable than cultured pearls and are extremely rare.

Adam's auction of Fine Jewellery and Watches, which takes place on Tuesday, May 9 includes a deceptively simple early 20th-century necklace (est €3,000 to €5,000). The swag design fine-link chain is set with a drop and button-shaped pearl, cream coloured with silver and pink overtones.

A second natural pearl necklace (est €2,000 to €3,000) is set with a round-shaped diamond and dates from around 1910. Both pearls have been x-rayed and come with certificates stating they are natural, saltwater pearls. There are also a number of cultured pearl pieces in the sale, most prominently a signed Cartier necklace with carved beads of lapis lazuli alternated with cultured pearls and an elaborate diamond clasp (est €25,000 t0 €35,000). Other cultured pearl necklaces range from the pretty - a floral diamond cluster interspersed with cultured pearls (€4,000 to €6,000) - to the sultry - a moody necklace of darkly variegated pearls with a diamond clasp (€2,000 to €4,000).

See adams.ie.

ANTIQUES & VINTAGE FAIRS

An Ava Antique & Collectors Fair will take place on bank holiday Monday, May 1, at Killyhevlin Hotel, Enniskillen. The event will run from 11am-6pm and admission is £2 (children go free). Expect an assortment of furniture, jewellery, coins and banknotes, silver, books, vintage lamps, clocks, glass, porcelain, curios and ephemera.

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