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Treasures: Weapons with historic appeal ruling auctions


Napoleon’s sword was sold for €4.8m in 2007.

Napoleon’s sword was sold for €4.8m in 2007.

Michael Collins' Webley revolver

Michael Collins' Webley revolver

Countess Markievicz's Smith and Wesson

Countess Markievicz's Smith and Wesson

Countess Markievicz firing her Smith and Wesson

Countess Markievicz firing her Smith and Wesson


Napoleon’s sword was sold for €4.8m in 2007.

THE last known sword of Napoleon Bonaparte to remain in private hands was sold at an auction held in Fontainbleau in 2007 for €4.8m - despite a guideline of €1.2m being issued.

Such was the appeal of the great emperor, the record price was achieved even despite the fact the French authorities had classified it as a "national treasure" and therefore restricted the new owners to keeping it in France for at least six months of the year. The gold-encrusted blade had been carried by the great conqueror into the battle of Merengo in Italy in 1800.

Demand has consistently outstripped supply in the field of arms and armour over many years and as a result, prices have been spiking. It's not surprising the biggest prices of the last 20 years have been paid for weapons associated with historic figures - particularly the ones who used them to conquer continents.

The dagger owned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan changed hands for $3.3m (€2.65m) in 2008, George Washington's saddle pistols went for $2m (€1.6m) in 2002 while the two pistols of Simon Bolivar, the liberator of South America, changed hands for $1.8m (€1.44m) in 2004.

A big reason for these increases in the values was the publication of authoritative books on particular aspects of this field of collecting. Specific instances of this 'knowledge-demand-price rise' triangle followed new books on subjects such as army badges, Scottish weapons, British military firearms, Japanese weapons, and the British infantry sword.

Here in Ireland we have seen a Webley revolver associated with Michael Collins sold for €72,000 in 2009. It was listed as "probably General Collin's personal firearm" and is believed to have been taken from his body at his last fatal ambush. More recently a Smith and Wesson .32 owned by Countess Markievicz and believed to have been shot at British soldiers in 1916 was guided at Mealy's at excess €800. It sold for €7,500.

The steady, or sudden, increase in the value of a commodity attracts attention, whether it be from a collector or a speculator, and this in turn has a stimulating effect on the general market when the appreciation of value can be turned to a good profit.

This, however, usually only applies to the better quality items. It was common to hide old revolvers under floorboards and up chimneys during the years 1916 to 1923 and a surprising amount of the them tend to be found when old buildings are renovated here. However, most aren't worth very much at all because they can be associated with no one in particular, and also because their storage has left them damaged and corroded.

Internationally, the effect of the increase in activity of foreign dealers on the quality weapons market also had a good deal to do with its recent strength. When the Japanese started buying high-quality swords for example, the prices rocketed.

Sometimes overseas buyers will go to extraordinary lengths to secure a particular item. Over 25 years ago, an American lady collector had an accomplice bid her up several million pounds more than was necessary for an important suit of armour at a major London auction.

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The reason for paying the extra money was to make certain no one else could raise the funds and prevent the export of the armour which was of great national importance.

Whether the collector is interested in edged weapons, militaria, firearms or armour, the key to the whole business is a finely-honed and specialised knowledge and the priority is to buy the best that one can afford. Should part of a firearm have been replaced, it must be noted carefully and the price adjusted accordingly.

Quite often the maker of a reproduction gave only the impression of antiquity without paying attention to quality or detail - these pieces can be recognised readily.

However, those imitations to which great craftsmanship was devoted can require highly-specialised knowledge to separate them from the genuine items and sometimes even the specialists disagree.

The most common sword in the Middle Ages had a straight two-edged blade and a guard, or quillon, formed by a crossbar. On the continent, chiefly Spain and Italy, in the early 17th Century, the cup hilt was formed by a circular bowl.

The practice of duelling was introduced in the 16th Century, and the science of fencing led to the swept-hilt rapier used mainly by civilians. During the second quarter of the 17th Century, a lighter form of rapier was introduced and developed into the smallsword with its richly decorated hilt and slender blade.

Other swords included the broadsword with its straight, double-edged blade, used in the 17th and 18th Centuries; the claymore from the Gaelic claidheam-mor (great sword), a large Scottish two-hand sword with quillons inclining at an angle towards the broad, straight blade, used in the 16th Century; the falchion, a short, curved, single-edged weapon which developed into the cutlass, the standard naval weapon in the 18th and 19th Centuries; and the early hand-and-a-half sword that could be used with either one or two hands.

The sabre had a single edge designed initially for cutting, the short edge along the back near the point is termed the false edge.

The earliest common type of pistol was called the 'Queen Anne' and was produced until the end of the 18th Century. This multi-stage weapon had cannon barrels and slab-sided wooden butts, often inlaid with silver wire.

Because the exposed lock and trigger could easily catch in clothing, the folding trigger evolved. The smaller muff pistols were supposed to have been carried by ladies in their fur muffs while travelling.

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