They should have known. Things were getting a little crazy before the auction, after all. First the catalogs sold out, and the number of live phone bidders began to climb to record highs. At one point there were three camera crews in the building at least a month prior to the auction, then before they knew it their YouTube videos about items in the auction totaled 44, resulting in over 3 million views, the reservations for collectors coming to the auction was more than double what they had ever seen, and CNN Money was running stories about their firearms. Also, the head of the NRA-ILA, Executive Director Chris Cox, was scheduled to speak Saturday before the auction? It had all the earmarks of a barnburner, and the Rock Island Auction Company had the guns to make it happen.
More than enough, in fact, as the April Premiere Auction brought in a staggering $17.5 million dollars in sales and broke a world record in the process! The total is also the highest total to date for a Rock Island Auction Company sale, an astonishing accomplishment considering the previous totals and remarkable firearms that have been offered previously. The market for collectible firearms continues to reach new and more impressive heights every year.
With the number of attendees on Thursday’s Preview Day, a big crowd was expected for Day 1 of the auction. They came and so did the public interest. Additional camera crews set up that morning, bringing the total number of crews covering the auction to six, and they were ready to go. The excitement started within the first half hour when a historic, 1875-dated walking stick with its gold and quartz head in lot 36 strolled on by its $8,500 low estimate to sell for $37,375. Strong performances were seen in high end sporting rifles as well as in a grouping of Class III items that shocked the auction hall. A murmur began to grow from the phone banks and soon filled the hall as those in attendance knew they were in for some fun. One expects attractive sales prices on full auto weapons, as seen on lot 860’s Colt M1921A Thompson submachine gun, which sold for $37,500, besting its $30,000 estimate. What no one expected was the four fully automatic miniatures to start bidding wars of their own! Leading the way was lot 874, a scaled down version of the Browning M1919 with its tripod and accessories that surpassed its $3,500 low estimate before bringing $18,400. Also earning a staggering amount of attention were the Thompson submachine gun barreled receivers in lots 877 & 878. Lot 877 had 44 bids before the auction even began and 18 live phone bidders vying for ownership. Considering attention like that it’s easy to see how it surpassed its $3,500 low estimate to sell for $12,650. Lot 878 had even more attention with 58 bids and 24 phone bidders and in turn drew an even higher $13,800 price despite a lower $2,000 estimate. While these prices were initially surprising, in hindsight it was a great way to start owner ship of a fully automatic Thompson machine gun at a fraction of the price. Our collectors always have been astute!
Day 2 of the sale housed many of the auction’s top items so it was only a matter of time before the bidder cards started flapping and the bids began flying. It started off with a speech from Chris Cox regarding the importance of donating to the NRA-ILA during an election year. It’s no surprise that Mr. Cox is a gifted speaker, and he set the tone for what proved to be the auction’s most exciting events. The big news of the day was also the story of the entire auction. The 1886 Winchester in lot 1025, serial number 1, presented to the man who captured Geronimo, found itself in a titanic tug-of-war. The $500,000 low estimate was the second highest of the auction, so expectations were high, but expectation began to give way to astonishment as the bids crept higher and higher. Cheers erupted when the bids crossed the one million dollar mark, and those in attendance wouldn’t have to wait much longer for the gun to arrive at its final price, a realized total of $1.265 million – the new world record for a single firearm sold at auction. Other pieces were also well deserving of their own celebrations. The 1931 Springfield Prototype of the M1 Garand, serial number 15, in lot 1649 reached $172,500 and became the most expensive Garand ever sold, topping RIAC’s September 2015 sale of President John F. Kennedy’s National Match M1. In lot 1222 a cased and engraved Colt Model 1849 Pocket inscribed to early Mormon Church leader and Utah Governor Brigham Young blazed a trail to an impressive $632,500. German pistols were also shown some love when the stocked Walther “Armee-Pistole” in lot 1540 trounced its $75,000 estimate en route to a $149,500 payday, and the early production C96 cone hammer, serial number nine, in lot 1455, drew a hefty $51,750 to beat its $15,000 estimate.
The final day had its work cut out for it to maintain the intensity of the previous two days. No easy task, but trying telling that to bidders who continually drove up the bids to bring their favorite pieces into their collections. The Winchester 1876 One of One Thousand in lot 3011, consigned out of Australia, led the day when it went to a new home for $207,000. Lot 3290’s J.P. Sauer & Sohns Prototype Model 36 pistol won some hearts during the preview because it demolished its $9,000 estimate to achieve $54,625, and in a fun surprise the prototype Czechoslovakian Model S rifle, serial number 5 in lot 3328 went up and up past its $30,000 estimate until it was finally had for $97,750. Those last two prototypes are perfect examples of what the illustrious Robert “The Bear” Bretherton Collection achieved all weekend. Collectors marveled at the stream of near mint condition, rare, experimental versions, early models, prototypes, and unusual calibers that came from this phenomenal, lifelong work.
Setting a world record in such a remarkable fashion is a feat of which they are extremely proud. The ever-increasing and record-setting sales numbers are also a fine feather to have in one’s cap, but at RIAC those aren’t the reasons they do it. More satisfying to them is being entrusted enough to handle truly monumental collections, be part of an active firearms community, to find the next generation of stewards for these living pieces of history, and to be surrounded by people who love the history, development, and simple fun of firearms as much as they do. The interest shown by the record crowds and sheer number of camera crews is a sure sign that they are in the best of company and nothing could please them more.