Guns at auction

What happens after you place the winning bid on an antique rifle?


The Americana, Paintings and Marine Art sale to be held 8-9 April at Eldred’s Auctions in Dennis, Massachusetts, has a lot of variety: furniture, Oriental rugs, silver tea sets, paintings, carvings, jewellery—and a number of pistols and rifles. They range from a 1870 Vetterli bolt action rifle, estimated at $150-250, to a rare .42 calibre Lemat revolved from around 1865, estimated at $15,000-$18,000. But antiques collectors should beware: buying a gun is not the same as buying an end table.

It all comes down to gun control laws in the US. A prospective buyer may submit the highest bid, but delivery is not as simple as arranging shipping. Eldred’s is not an authorised seller of firearms, which conducts background checks on would-be buyers and fills out federal documents on a gun’s serial number, which is sent to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Under lot #362, a pre-1964 .30 cal Winchester lever-action rifle, Eldred's catalogue states: “this gun will only be delivered to holders of a Federal Firearms Dealer’s License”. In other words, an authorised gun dealer, who will conduct the background check and file the necessary paperwork before releasing the rifle to the winning bidder.

Auction houses that more regularly sell guns must obtain licences from the ATF that allow them to conduct instant background checks on buyers after the sale has been completed. Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati, Ohio, for example, which has a Historic Firearms and Early Militaria sale on 26-27 April, has three separate licences from the federal government—one for modern firearms (guns produced after 1898), another for guns of more recent vintage and a third for “Class 3” items, such as fully automatic weapons. “There are a lot of machine guns floating around,” says Wes Cowan, the president of the auction house. The background checks for buyers of automatic weapons are not instant, he notes, and may take as long as one or two months before a new owner can take possession.

And it is not just machine guns “floating around”. James Julia, the president of Julia Auctions in Fairfield, Maine, has sold a few bazookas. “They go for a few thousand dollars,” he says.

Between 80-85% of Cowan’s 3,000-3,500 annual gun sales fall in the category of “antique”, or pre-1898, items. Auctioneers (or any private sellers) do not need to obtain a federal licence to sell these firearms, nor are buyers required to undergo a background check. The buyers are assumed to be purely collectors who are unlikely to ever to use the weapons and, besides, finding ammunition for guns of an earlier era is almost impossible. “You can buy an 1860s Colt revolver, but you won’t be able to find any bullets for it,” says Jack Lewis, the director of firearms at Cowan’s Auctions. (Some guns that come in cases could also include antique rounds.)

This is not the gun-show loophole that President Obama has sought to close, however. Lewis says that only once in the 11 years that the auction house has sold guns has a buyer been unable to complete a purchase as a result of a problem with their background check. Additionally, the auction house has never been notified that a firearm it has sold was later linked to a crime. With so many of its gun sales being antiques and the majority of collectors buying guns at an average price point in the thousands of dollars, the auction house says it is an unlikely go-to source for criminals seeking to build their arsenal.

“If you belong to a street gang, you’re not going to go to Julia Auctions to get your guns,” Julia says.


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