Antique Guns offer Shots of History
Written by Steve Kanigher on the 9th of June, 2000
[email protected] - LAS VEGAS SUN
|Dr. Henry Wheeler and fellow shopkeepers became
heroes on Sept. 7, 1876, when they took up arms and
stopped one of the nation's most famous bank robbery
The Northfield, Minn., raid on the First National Bank
by Jesse and Frank James and the Younger clan was
unsuccessful partly because of Wheeler.
As the gang was chased out of town, the physician
took his Smith carbine rifle and pumped several
bullets into Charley Pitts, killing the outlaw.
The rifle and an engraved pocket watch the bank gave
Wheeler as a gift of thanks are on display through
Saturday at the Las Vegas Antique Arms Show at the
Riviera hotel-casino ballroom. But don't come with
pocket change. The owners of the rifle and watch
expect the Wheeler package to fetch $150,000 to
$175,000 at an upcoming auction in San Francisco.
Such is the nature of antique gun collecting. Not only
are most of the handguns and rifles costly, ranging on
average from $1,000 to $25,000 each, many come
with an interesting piece of history. One of the 350
vendors peddling that history at the show is Walter
Earl of Anchorage, Alaska.
"The Colts and Winchesters are the most popular with
collectors because they were carried by the pioneers,"
Earl said. "You are not looking at guns so much as you
are a segment of history. The collector will ask about
the condition of the bore, the condition of the wood.
Each of these things affect the price of the gun."
The show is the 102nd produced in Las Vegas by
Palm Springs, Calif., resident Wallace Beinfeld since
1962, making it one of the longest-running conventions
on the Strip. He normally hosts three local antique gun
shows annually, drawing 1,000 to 5,000 collectors
each. Attendance is $10 per person over age 12, and
anyone under 18 must be accompanied by an adult.
"The firearm is the first example of the production line
at work," Beinfeld said. "The machine-made gun is an
American invention. People also like to collect guns
because they're small. Kings had them. Explorers took
their guns with them. Nobody carries around paintings
or Chippendale furniture."
When vendor Phil Filardo of San Jose, Calif., was
asked to show one of his most interesting pieces, he
retrieved a nickle-plated Colt six-shooter from the
1930s that was shipped to England for the 1940 Battle
of Britain against Germany.
"The British were so desperate they took whatever
we'd give them," Filardo said. "But this gun was not
Guns that were made before 1898 are not covered by
the federal Brady law that requires background checks
on customers before firearm sales can be completed.
But all other guns considered collectable, including
pre-World War II models and later firearms that are no
longer in production, are covered by Brady.
Because of the high cost of antique guns, such shows
are attended mostly by middle-aged and older
customers with plenty of disposable income. The
investment-minded collector can expect a 10 to 20
percent annual appreciation rate on his antique gun
holdings. Not surprisingly, many collectors keep their
valuable guns in safes rather than on display.
"There are guns I sold for $60,000 or $70,000 in 1975
that would sell for $600,000 to $700,000 today,"
Most of the highest-priced items at the show are being
displayed by the Butterfield & Butterfield auction house
of San Francisco. Not all of these items are guns but
they are gun-related.
Fans of fabled armed robbers Bonnie Parker and
Clyde Barrow will see the hats the gangsters wore
when they were killed in a 1934 ambush by Texas
Rangers in Gibsland, La. Barrow's tan fedora has a
bullet hole and a blood stain. There is also a booklet of
handwritten Parker poems with titles such as "Suicide
Sal" and "When Bonnie and Clyde Come Home."
For a cool $125,000, one has a good chance to
acquire an Elgin Cutlass pistol, a firearm affixed with a
sharp knife. This particular handgun was presented by
American naval commander Daniel Patterson in the
1830s to Muhammad Ali, then Viceroy of Egypt and
one of the world's most powerful rulers of his day.
The auction house also plans to fetch upwards of $2
million for a collection of handmade double rifles
owned by Ken Behring, former owner of the Seattle
Seahawks of the National Football League. Behring,
who used some of the guns to hunt big game, plans to
donate the money to a charity for disabled individuals.
The most eye-catching aspect of the guns, as noted by
auction house curator Greg Martin, are the detailed
hand-carvings made by some of the industry's most
famous artists. Each double rifle can take up to three
years to complete.
"This one would cost as much as a Mercedes to
build," said Martin, clutching a .577-caliber Nitro
Express made in the 1980s. "A gun does not have to
be old to be valuable. These are modern pieces of art.
They are steel canvases."