Rock Island Auction Company is one of the largest auction houses in the world specializing in firearms, blades and militaria. Created by Patrick Hogan in 1993, Rock Island Auction Company has grown every year since its inception.
We had the opportunity recently to speak with Vice President Judy Voss and Executive Director Laurence Thomson about the history behind the largest firearm auction house in the United States and what goes into putting on their Premiere auctions, which feature more than 2700 lots.
Cheaper Than Dirt: We’re talking today with Judy Voss and Laurence Thomson from Rock Island Auction Company. To start out Judy, let’s talk a bit about your background with Patrick Hogan, President of Rock Island Auction Company, and how you and he came to be involved with collector’s firearms.
Judy Voss: Well, Pat started out with gas stations. He came down here from Chicago and opened a Shell gas station. With that he opened up more gas stations and began renting videos out of those and then we opened many video stores. That’s when I came on board, he needed a marketing and advertising person.
Our management office for that business had property open next to it. The gentleman who ended up wanting to build next to it was Richard Ellis. He is well known as one of the top firearm experts in the country, if not the world. That’s how we got interested in collecting firearms was when he met Richard, who moved in right next door to use when we were still into gas stations and videos and photo processing. That’s how his collecting interest got piqued.
Because we were doing photo processing, Richard was in the process of possibly doing a book on Lugers at that time. They needed to have some photography done and get it published. Pat, being the entrepreneur he is, got involved.
Cheaper Than Dirt: Pat had a custom photography company at that point then?
Judy Voss: Right, he had a company called Event Photography, so we handled that part of it too. We had a little bit of everything going on and that worked out. From there, they went out west and worked with Little John’s and helped him to produce a catalog for his auction.
Cheaper Than Dirt: We spoke to Little John a while ago about what goes into producing those catalogs. Obviously with the background that Mr. Hogan and yourself had with custom photography went a long way towards producing a rich and detailed catalog of these collector’s firearms. Tell what goes into creating one of those catalogs.
Judy Voss: Well, that’s where Laurence comes into that too. He’s heavily into the operations of the catalog. That’s kind of where I started on that end with Pat as far as moving into the auction part of it I did a lot of the catalog design. It’s very detailed. We’ve made it more of a manufacturing process on getting it done as far as the photography and the descriptions and so on. We’ve really worked hard on the photography. We run a couple of shifts per day just to get it done, and when you do five catalogs a year with three of them being Premier, it’s a process of working with the photography and trying to capture the item in it’s truest form. Laurence schedules a lot of our photographers and works very closely with them in achieving that.
Cheaper Than Dirt: How many lots do you have in an average Premier auction?
Laurence Thomson: 2700 has been the goal. It can range plus or minus 50, but 2700 is the goal we’ve set out. It works out well to have that many over a 3-day period.
Cheaper Than Dirt: How do you come across that many lots? Are most of these firearms brought to you by the consignors or do you actively seek out pieces for the auction?
Laurence Thomson: We do it all. People call us with estate consignments, we deal a lot with that. Some people just want to narrow down their collection or the area that they collect in so we’ll go pick up their collections. People pass away and we’ll go and pick up items from them. We go to gun shows and we’ll do a lot of promotion about what we have coming up in upcoming events and auctions.
People then see how professional we are and the amount of work that goes into producing the catalogs and then feel that they can entrust their collection or consignment to us. So, we get a lot there, but then some people will just come by and set up appointments to have their items appraised for auction, which we do free of charge, and again they decide at that point that they’re going to consign items. Sometimes we’ve been dealing with these people for 5-10 years and then other times they are new customers who have just walked in off of the street. It’s a great range of areas that we get the guns coming in from.
Judy Voss: There is a lot of advertising. In almost every ad that we run we talk about seeking consignments. Internet presence is definitely very valuable. Every type of marketing tool you can have, every mailer we send out talks about consigning. It is competitive, and you have to be out there and continually let them know that you’re here.
Cheaper Than Dirt: So, if somebody inherits a firearm or discovers one left by a loved one who has passed on, how can they determine whether or not it is a collectible or not?
Judy Voss: They can send us a list. We can determine a lot from a list if it is comprehensive. Or they can send us photos. We can also go out and look at it if it’s worth the time. For some smaller collections it’s just not feasible to travel across the country, but we can do a lot from photos and from a list.
They can also bring them in. Many people prefer to come in person and be here to see how it all goes down.
Cheaper Than Dirt: How should someone who may not have any particular knowledge of antique and collectible firearms care for a piece that they may inherit or otherwise come into in order to preserve it and maintain its value?
Laurence Thomson: A lot of guns have to be looked after on a regular basis. They need to be oiled down and wiped down any time they are handled. The oils from human hands can over a period of time rust the guns if they are not cared for properly. A lot of large collections are wiped down and looked after and kept in a carefully controlled environment with correct humidity levels. If things are too dry or too moist, especially older wooden guns or ones with a wood case, they can sometimes warp or bend.
It’s really knowing about the firearms and caring for them in that way, how to handle them, how to store them, and what humidity levels to keep them at.
Judy Voss: That’s one reason that, as some people get older and they have these large collections, they find they just can’t tend to them anymore. It can be a full time job. If you have several hundred pieces you can’t tend to all of them the way they need to be tended to.
There are several collectors who are wealthy enough that they have somebody on staff that takes care of their collection, but some older gentlemen who find that they no longer have the time, strength, or health to care for, or who don’t have anybody to leave them to, decide to sell.
Cheaper Than Dirt: It does take a lot to properly care for these firearm, to keep them preserved, and in some cases to keep them in display conditions. Rock Island is unique in that you have your own climate controlled facility where you not only store the firearms prior to auction, but you also have them all on display.
Judy Voss: That’s correct. There are very few of us in this industry who have invested in a facility at the size that is needed in order to display them properly at auction.
Right now we have about 23,000 square feet, and we’ve outgrown this already. We are moving after the 1st of the year in to an 80,000+ square foot facility where we’ll have our own auction hall. Right now we shift and move as the event comes up. All of our production area, we utilize the auction hall right now for production and for description writing and photography, as well as the preview hall.
When we move, the auction hall itself will always be standing as is, as will the preview hall. We’ll then have a separate area for production, so there won’t be so much shifting and moving and it won’t be so labor intensive.
When we came into this facility it was a lot bigger than where we came from, but we’ve outgrown it. Still, when you attend one of our auctions, the setup is more like a museum type display. The nice thing about it is that, unlike a museum, you can actually handle the firearms and look at them. In a museum of course you can’t.
Cheaper Than Dirt: Having the ability to handle and closely inspect the firearms helps to increase the value that is actually realized when the hammer falls on each lot won’t it?
Judy Voss: Absolutely, and you’re able to handle pieces of history. You can never do that anywhere else. I’ve had clients say it’s like a revolving museum where there’s always something new, but you can actually touch it and enjoy it and say that you were a part of history for a weekend.
Cheaper Than Dirt: It has to take an enormous amount of logistics to handle the more than 13,000 firearms every year.
Judy Voss: 13,000-15,000. I’d say we’re closer to 15,000. It’s a challenge, especially during the Regional sales. We might sell 2,100 lots, but there are closer to 5,000 individual pieces because there are often multiple pieces in a given lot. It’s a challenge for those guys who lay out that floor. I’m amazed that they can make it all fit and layout and make it accessible to the clients in the fashion that they do. It’s quite a puzzle.
Cheaper Than Dirt: With that many firearms, is it difficult to find enough buyers to bid up the price to where it should be? Do you ever have lots that just don’t sell?
Judy Voss: No, we routinely get a 97% sell through rate. That’s very common for us, but on a Regional we’ll see a 99% sell through rate. At a Premier we’ll fluctuate between 96%-97%, it’s always right around there. We’re very good at selling items. A lot of that is because we don’t encourage reserves. We want the buyers to know that they can buy. Some of our competitors will see 20% of their stuff not sell because they do put on a lot of reserves. We really like the buyer to know it is the real deal here. They have the opportunity to buy. They’re not bidding against the house.
Cheaper Than Dirt: With no reserve, how do you protect consignors who might bring in a precious heirloom, hoping to get top dollar for it? It seems that it must be a delicate balance.
Judy Voss: Well, it’s not that we won’t put a reserve on an item in a situation like that, but it will be reasonable and discussed with the consignor up front. It’s not going to be so high that an item won’t sell. If you put it too high it will scare off buyers, but if you put it at the appropriate level to prevent a “fire sale” the consignor is happy and it has a good chance of selling.
We “Sell the Sizzle”. You’ll see that we have more in depth descriptions, we have more pictures and photos and we point out items with provenance, and I think that makes a difference and helps the items achieve the prices that they do and gives us a high sell through rate.
Laurence Thomson: In the past we found a gun that came in with some pretty interesting history but the dates did not tie up to when the gun was made. Of course with something like that you cannot attribute it to the gun any longer and, if it’s something that we find out not to be true, we then have to break it to the consignor that that really wasn’t the case and sometimes then the gun really isn’t worth as much. A lot of the information comes from the consignors, but with some of the high profile guns our specialists who’ve been in the industry for so long are able to recognize where these guns have come from and know a great deal of history about them as well.
Cheaper Than Dirt: Speaking of the rich history many of these guns have, tell us about some of the more well known and famous firearms you’ve auctioned off in the past.
Laurence Thomson: I probably think the last auction with a lot of enjoyment was the Singer 1911A1 that was sold, a pistol that generated a fabulous amount of energy and buzz in the room. The people who consigned it were here also and they got to live through the event. That was one of the most memorable for me and I think for a lot of the staff. It sold for $166,000 and set a new record. We had the previous world record at $80,000 so this was quite remarkable.
Now in this auction coming up December 3rd 4th and 5th we have the serial number 1 Singer 1911, so it will be interesting to see how much that one goes for. Years ago we sold the Tears of Gettysburg. That was an amazing gun, I think it had 12 animal heads engraved on it, each with a tear, which is indicative of a Gustav Young engraving. There was a lot of research that went into that one. That has been pictured and described in a few books. That brought some very good money and it’s a great collectible piece.
Again, these types of things that are purchased are going to go into someone’s collection and I don’t know if, in my lifetime or somebody else’s lifetime, anyone will ever be able to see them again. That’s where they’ll stay for the next 40-60 years or more, and if they come up for auction again that’s great, but they may get passed down to someone in the family. It really is working with history.
Cheaper Than Dirt: It really is exciting to talk about these exceedingly rare one of a kind firearms, but I think it’s important to point out that not all of the collector’s firearms auctioned off reach these rarefied prices. Many are quite affordable and it’s possible for a beginning collector to pick up a nice specimen for just a thousand dollars or so.
Judy Voss: Absolutely. We have firearms for every level of collector. Clearly in the Regional sales they are down there in the $700-$800 level and then many in the Premier sales realize prices of $1500 and on up. There is just a huge range from $700 on up to half a million dollars.
We’ve had these pieces attributed to Generals and Captains, and even some pieces attributed to the infamous Hitler. We’ve had Ulysses S. Grant’s sword and it is just so neat to be able to get a hold of anything historical that we’ve sold.
Laurence Thomson: Yes, auctions are always about finding two interested parties. Obviously with the Singer that we spoke about we had more than two interested parties, but that’s what it takes to attain those higher prices.
Cheaper Than Dirt: Of course it’s always exciting to be there on the floor when a bidding war like that breaks out.
Judy Voss: Absolutely. Anyone can come see and share the excitement too. It’s a public auction, all we require is a photo ID to get in the door.
Cheaper Than Dirt: And if someone does decide they want to participate in the bidding, how do they become a qualified bidder?
Judy Voss: If they’ve been with us before they’re already qualified. That’s done. If they are a first time bidder we want to verify that they are qualified with a valid credit card with which they can put 15% of their maximum bid down, or they can provide a bank letter or references from other auction houses. We just need to know that they’re serious.
Bidders can submit absentee bids on our website. We also work with ProxyBid and ICollector and they can bid live with those sites during the auction. We also offer telephone bidding here as well. We have upwards of 25 phone banks going on here during the auction where representatives from here are handling their bids live over the phone.
Cheaper Than Dirt: It sounds like quite the production. How much planning an manpower goes into putting on each auction?
Judy Voss: In fact December 1st, right before this auction, the catalog is due at the publishers for the next Regional auction. Right now we’ve got people out there describing the Regional sale catalog and we’ve got people taking in guns for the next Premiere auction as we speak.
It can be labor intensive, I’ve got to have a minimum of 25 people manning the phone banks, we have a concession stand that has to be manned, we have to have people in the office putting in the sealed bids as they come in every day, downloading all of the sealed bids off of the website. We have people answering the phones in response to inquiries. There have to be people handling bidders checking in and others out on the floor because we have a huge hall where we have maybe 12-15 people assisting bidders with inventory. Then, as the items sell, we have people who have to deliver the goods out to what we call “checkout shipping”. Then somewhere along the line people are invoicing too. We also have people recording each sale, and of course the auctioneers, let’s not forget about them.
Cheaper Than Dirt: Now your next auction is the Premier Collector’s Firearm Auction coming up December 3rd, 4th, and 5th. What are some of the top lots that we can look forward to seeing at this event?
Judy Voss: Well we’re really hoping that the Buntline takes off. It’s on the front cover of our catalog. I’d love to see the Mac Arthur jacket do well. I think that is just a really unique piece. It was actually one of his bomber jackets and I just think it’s great. It’s a very unique piece. I think it’s estimated way low at $100,000-$125,000.
We have the second installment of the Ashby Military Collection. Military pieces have been very hot for several years now. We have another great grouping of European Arms. We’ve got 250 Winchesters and December is always great for selling Colts.
What else do we have Laurence?
Laurence Thomson: We have in this auction coming up some timelines” as we like to call them, like the very first Colt ever made. There are a couple of serial number 1 firearms in this auction. A lot of these guns should be in museums. It’s going to be very interesting to see what collection they end up invested in.
We have one gun, it’s a cased pair attributed to Daniel O’Connor of Ireland. The history that goes along with these pistols is fantastic. The guns themselves are pieces of art in outstanding condition, but the fact that they belonged to him really puts them into a whole new realm.
Those guns are for the right kind of collector, someone more akin to a historian than a collector is going to be interested in those guns. The guns are great so you’re going to have some people interested in that, but you’re also going to have people interested in the history of the firearms.
Cheaper Than Dirt: Where is the your next auction taking place?
Judy Voss: It’s at our facility. We’re not a roaming auction house. The auction will take place here in Moline Illinois at 4507 49th Avenue. We do a full day preview starting on Thursday December 2nd and then Friday Saturday and Sunday is the auction itself. We always start the sale at 10am and you can preview in the morning before we start.
We make things very comfortable for bidders here with a full concession stand, hotels only 5 minutes away and the airport just 5 minutes away. We make it a real pleasure to be here.
Cheaper Than Dirt: I want to thank you both for taking the time to talk to us about the auction and what goes into putting on each event, as well as your helpful information on how our readers can get started collecting antique firearms.
Judy Voss: It’s been our pleasure.
Are you a collector or rare or unusual firearms? Ever been to one of Rock Island Auction Company’s amazing auctions? Tell us all about it in the comments section.