Cowan's auction - recently ended

Did anyone notice the cartridges in Cowan’s auction in the recently closed Nov 29th auction of guns, ammo, and accessories? I only just noticed it while doing a Google search and a photo popped up of a closed item. There were a bunch of powder tins, oil bottles, and about 25 cartridge lots. The cartridge lots are found mostly through items 83 - 104, and also 131, 161, 162, 163, 165, and 166. There was some early military, some .50BMG & A.A. stuff, as well as pistol. Some of the cartridge photos have a zooming tool built into the bottom of the photo, allowing labels to be read, but some do not. It looks like some deals were had:

Nice medium calibers he had.

Yes there are some nice rounds in the .50BMG+ lot. I can see a .50 North there, which is a scarce round.

Is it just my bad attitude about not having the cash to bid on large lots, or are auctioneers, that sell collector cartridges in large lots, being lazy? I followed the link to the auction site and right up front there is a lot of about 50 British cartridges that went for $152US. That is right around three dollars per cartridge on average. To me the lot looks worth a LOT more than that, and of course I don’t want the whole lot, but that round that looks like a Nordenfeld cartridge sure caught my attention along with the early mark .303’s, and had they been listed singly (and had I been aware of this auction) I could see myself dropping a bit of cash for them, and well above $3 each.

The collector that won this auction made one heck of a good buy, and maybe I am jealous. When a buyer gets a really good deal, it means the seller misses out. The auctioneer works for the seller and large lots like this short change the seller. I am well aware that inherited collections go on the block like this all of the time, and I will confess that I have bought some pretty interesting lots for what I figured was a fair price for the best cartridge in the lot. I have also sat back and watched lots of six or eight copies of the same cartridge go for slightly less than I think a pair of them would sell for, or around twice as much as I would bid for a single.

My feeling is that the auctioneers are ignoring the fact that many if not most of us are after single specimens or select cartridges. At least I don’t want to buy many to get one. I have quit dealing with one auctioneer altogether over this. I realize it is a lot of work to go through and photograph singles, list ten or twenty times as many auctions and then ship to a larger number of buyers, but I really feel they are taking the low road. That means less work for the auction house, but also less returns for the owner of the collection.

Cowans is primarily an antiques auction house with a very substantial antique arms operation. I have a very high regard for the guy who heads up that part.

Frankly, from their viewpoint, it is probably just not worth the effort to take the time to review every individual cartridge and headstamp to sort out the “good ones” from the large number of uninteresting ones. And. after many housrs of effort, they may indeed get a few more dollars for the good ones, but at the same time, fail to sell, or sell for less, the less desirable ones. And, for live auctions, where the buyers are mainly there for guns priced at $500-2,500 each and often a lot more than that, the added time spend on a couple hundred dollars worth of ammo may cause some hot bidders for the guns to run out of patience and leave. They will move several hundred lots in the course of a one or two day sale, and the seller’s best interest overall may be to get top dollar for the guns, and a bit less for the lots of ammo.

Of course, if anyone thinks they can do a better job handling ammo collections, they should start up an ammo auction service and see if they can make it worthwhile for their time needed to do it differently. That is not just the time of the cataloger, but also the catalog printer, the auctioneer, the billing and accounting people, and whoever does the packing and shipping. My observatin is that there are at least two very fine ammo auctioneer members of IAA that I know, and neither one of them seems to be in danger of getting filthy rich from their business, so this may be a niche service that pays off as much in the joy of working with the items as in actual profit from the business.

If anyone wants me to refer people with ammo collections to them for auctions, let me know-- I usually get several every year and would love to help them find someone who will get them sold for them. I look at the work involved and politely decline any involvement at all!

John S:
Everything that you say is true, but that does little to mitigate the fact that the owner of that cartridge lot probably received twenty five cents on the dollar for what the lot would fetch as singles. A weapons auction house may have little background in cartridges, but just cherry picking the top ten rounds out of that lot to sell as singles, probably would have made money. Breaking it down to random lots of ten cartridges each also could increase prices realized. A fifty round lot of mixed, moderately to high priced cartridges borders on malpractice.If an auctioneer doesn’t have the background to be able to pick the diamonds and rubies from the rocks, perhaps they should stick to what the do know and not give away the owners property at far less than its valuation.

A couple of sellers have proven to me that good prices can be obtained by listing cartridges for two week auctions starting a 99 cents on GunBroker It is slow going, but much much better prices result from the work involved. A place like Cowan’s may have a good record on big ticket items, but they have failed to embrace or profit from internet auctions for smaller more specialized items such as individual collector rounds. Auction houses are stuck to their big event, high ticket auctions and basically relegate single cartridges to a fire sale/disposal status.

The owner of a cartridge collection that turns to a big auction house like Cowan’s will be VERY poorly served. It is not a matter of fraud or sloth, it is just that single cartridges are too far out of their line of work to get proper attention.

It always baffles me why anyone with a large number of worth-while cartridges such as those in Cowan’s recent auction would sell them anywhere other than on Gunbroker or else a dedicated cartridge auction. There is of course the SLICS auction, but that can’t really accommodate 2000 cartridges. There were certainly steals in that Cowans auction, but then again the aggressive collector who goes all-out scouring all the random auction sites and viewing the upcoming lots is rewarded with this kind of thing. I used to check them all, but they are so random, you really have to be non stop to catch a deal, and the cartridge lots are usually no where near as nice as the ones shown above.