The gavel cracked. Heart pumping and hand shaking, I raised my bidding paddle. My daughter gave me a huge smile. Joining me at Christies to see an auction for the first time, this was high drama indeed. Her father had just bought a magnificent 16th-century hand-and-a-half sword for an eye-watering sum.
Now I had a problem. When I had raised my paddle, I had not really expected to win it at that price. This was confirmed when the next lot, a similar sword but with a lower estimate, sold for almost twice what I had paid for mine. I passed a note to Nick McCullough, the head of department, surveying proceedings nearby. Can you keep it for me? I need to smuggle it into the house and past my wife. He grinned and nodded, knowingly.
I telephoned him next day. Yes he had it, as well as items for two other buyers in the same predicament. One had entrusted a mediaeval shield to Nick, saying as he did so: There is no shield large enough or thick enough to deflect my wifes fury if she discovers what Ive gone and done. Sentiments I understood only too well. Ill need to be wearing my sword when my wife finds out. Welcome to the sometimes secretive and often male world of collecting arms and armour.
I bought my first sword for £3 when I was 11 and have been fascinated ever since. I studied mediaeval history at university and spent 10 years in the Army. For me, weapons and armour are a direct link with the past, with the warriors who handled and fought with them. My interest is in the effectiveness of a weapon, with the defensive, blow-absorbing shape of a bit of armour. Fifteenth-century armourers designed steel crumple zones long before car manufacturers latched on to the idea. As an ex-soldier, I view gilding, blueing and embellishment as things to be kept clean lest they tarnish.
For David Williams, head of department at Bonhams, the pleasure is in the fact that the finest arms and armour incorporate elements of all the applied arts. Take 16th- and early 17th-century Continental wheel-lock pistols. They require the clockmakers skill for their firing mechanisms. Their stocks can be made of intricately carved ivory. Gold and silver might be engraved on their surfaces. The gunmakers art is but one of many. It is little wonder that these pistols are so desirable and can fetch prices in the £10,000 to £20,000 range. Indeed, one particularly extraordinary wheel-lock from the Rothschild collection sold for £140,000 in 1999. A 15th-century pavis a long shield might have a painting on it worthy of being hung beside conventional canvasses in a renaissance gallery.
For others, weapons provide a link to a period or events that interest them. Both McCullough and Williams were slightly dismissive of my theory that the huge success of Bernard Cornwells Sharpe or Patrick OBrians Jack Aubrey might have quite a lot to do with the current popularity for Napo-leonic weaponry. It seems logical to me that a fan of Sharpe would want to own a Sharpe sword a 1796-pattern heavy cavalry sword or a sea-service flintlock pistol as used by Captain Aubrey, if he is your man.
While they might have reservations about my theory, both are emphatic that condition is everything. Take a British, military Napoleonic sword says McCullough. A bog standard example, without a scabbard, might have a starter price at auction of about £300 to £500. Add regimental markings and establish that the regiment fought at a certain battle and the price can increase by 50 per cent to 100 per cent, plus. Find an example in good condition, probably with scabbard, and it moves into the £1,000 to £1,500 range. Find an excellent officers sword, with blued and gilded blade, and a bidder may pay £5,000 to £20,000.
At the top end, huge prices can be realised. A Lloyds Patriotic Fund Sword and Belt, presented to Midshipman Thompson of HMS Pallas For His Gallant and Spirited Conduct On The Boarding & Carrying In The Boats Of That Ship, The French National Corvette La Tapa-Geuse Of 14 Guns & 95 Men In The River Garonne On The 6th Of April 1806. (the inscription), and in perfect condition, was estimated at £25,000 to £35,000 in Bonhams July 2007 auction. It fetched £55,000.
Guns are no different. While a very ordinary percussion pistol is worth about £100, the same item in fine condition, retaining its gunmetal, is worth about three times that. What is more, Williams points out, the £300 item will always be more desirable and thus saleable. Good Napoleonic firearms, pistols and muskets are in the £1,000 to £1,500 range and, as with swords, prices then climb steeply with excellence and provenance. The final lot of my Christies sale was an exceptional cased pair of target pistols by J Purdey, once owned by Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleons nephew. Estimated at £25,000 to £35,000, they, too, sold for £55,000.
The classic way to start building a collection is to buy and then swap and sell as time goes on, improving the quality and condition as you go. Williamss emphatic advice is always to go for something that interests you, in the best condition you can afford. If that means buying an excellent example of something ordinary, rather than a poor example of something rarer, so be it. My tatty £3 naval boarding cutlass bought 40 years ago? Probably worth £30 to £50 now. Not a brilliant return on my initial investment, but something that has given me great pleasure over the years.
On investment, the experts are united: do not buy arms and armour for the investment, but for the pleasure they bring. If you buy what you really like, says Williams, then the chances are that others will share your taste and you will be pleased to find, should you wish to sell, that you bought well. It takes only a few collectors with plenty of money to decide to go after the same items and you will have a sudden price rise. Should those collectors then disappear, it might take years for those items to achieve the same prices.
Peter Finer, who has a gallery of the same name in Duke Street, London W1, says that this fixation with buying an investment can lead to problems at auction. People go to auctions thinking they are buying at wholesale prices and get a false sense of security. They believe they are only going one bid more and that, he thinks, is how buyers can end up in bidding battles and make costly mistakes.
In his gallery he has created a museum-like space in which he has hung and carefully lit high-quality pieces so as to show them off to their best advantage. The effect is stunning and, Finer says, even as he was fitting out his premises, the first fascinated person put his head round the door and ended up buying something. Two years later, he has added 40 new clients to his list: people who have looked, walked in out of interest and realised, perhaps for the first time, how impressive mediaeval armour can look when hung properly.
His aim is to be different. The thrill for Finer is in the treasure hunt: researching and tracking down extraordinarily good items. Yes, he might buy at auction, but usually from an obscure Australian or Scandinavian auction house, where the thought is implicit he will not find himself in a lunatic bidding war.
Williams is a passionate advocate of the auction rooms. Going to a viewing is, he says, like visiting a living museum. Where else can you handle museum-quality pieces, discuss them in detail with the experts and, if you like something, buy it?
In my shop, argues Dominic Strickland, who runs Michael German in Kensington Church Street, London. He shows me a photo of a boy proudly wearing a regimental helmet; he had come in with his mother, keen to have a look at the rows of swords, pistols, rifles and bits of armour that turn Stricklands shop into an Aladdins cave. Hes a future client, says Strickland. With three boys of his own, he enjoys seeing a youngster let his imagination run riot as he parades in a 19th-century helmet.
Strickland happily accepts that there are good buys to be had at auction indeed, he had planned to buy my sword at Christies and been willing to pay considerably more than I. However, seeing that it had stuck at a lowish price and, knowing the second one had a lower estimate, he had reckoned to pick up number two somewhat cheaper. Instead, the price had inexplicably doubled and he had returned swordless: the peril of trying to buy at auction.
Strickland told me his skill is to offer a wide variety of items and to find pieces for his clients which will enhance their collections. In a shop, a buyer can think about a purchase at his leisure, not suddenly discover that he is in a bidding war with mere seconds to make a costly decision. What is more, Strickland is happy for a client to take an object home and see if it works and return it if it does not. So, less chance of a bargain, but very much less chance of an expensive mistake.
He fully understood my smuggling predicament. Hes had clients come into his shop with their wives and, on the basis that one sword or gun looks much like another to them, pretend to be interested in a cheap article while surreptitiously scouting out something expensive. One Eaton Square client built an office in his basement coal shed, complete with a working coal chute. On his return from a sortie, he would slip his purchases down the chute unknown to his wife. It was only when he died that she went to clear out his office and discovered it was an arsenal.
Me? I once successfully sneaked a Hardy Smuggler fly rod past my wife. Almost 4ft of burnished and sharpened steel might prove more of a challenge.
Thomas Del Mar c/o Sothebys
Olympia, Hammersmith Road,
London W14, tel 020 7602 4805,
Holt and Company Auctioneers, Church Farm Barns, Wolferton, Norfolk, tel 01485
Wallis & Wallis
West Street Auction Galleries, Lewes, East Sussex, tel 01273 480208, email
Peter Finer gallery
38-39 Duke Street, London SW1, tel 020 7839 5666, email.
38b Kensington Church Street,
London W8, tel 020 7937 2771, email.