Now, at the age of 47, he is regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on guns of all kinds and is the worldwide consultant for the internationally renowned auction house Sotheby’s. Just this summer he traced the “holy grail” of vintage firearms, a pioneering pistol of which only one had ever been made and which no-one believed had survived.
“Occasionally you do come across a real rarity which is always exciting, but this one gave me a tremendous buzz,” Gavin says. “I was amazed when I saw it and realised what it was – something no-one thought still existed. I can’t talk about where I saw it or even precisely what it is, as total confidentiality is vital in my line of work. For me it’s enough that I’ve seen it and recognised it for what it is, though I know it isn’t for sale.”
Discretion is Gavin’s watchword as many of his travels, both in the UK and further afield, take him to stately homes and magnificent mansions where he is invited to value and identify guns originally made for the patriarchs of great houses whose lifestyle once rivalled that of Downton Abbey.
As a 13-year-old I went to help with weekend viewing of a sporting gun auction at Sotheby’s and from that moment I was hooked
It all began when Gavin was aged three or four. His father, Gordon Gardiner, is a renowned auctioneer and dealer and for a quarter of a century was a consultant to Sotheby’s arms, armour and militaria department, so Gavin’s childhood home was filled with fascinating items.
“As far back as I can remember I used to wonder what my father was doing and although I was intrigued by it all, it was the guns which fascinated me most of all,” he recalls. “As a 13-year-old I went to help with weekend viewing of a sporting gun auction at Sotheby’s and from that moment I was hooked. I spent as much of my holidays as I could on work experience in the gun department at Sotheby’s – it seemed a lot more fun than stocking supermarket shelves and I was getting paid for playing with things I knew about and loved.
“At home there were books and magazines about firearms on the shelves and my father was a great mentor. I was always asking him questions, wanting to know why one gun would be worth £10 while another would be £100. I just kept on absorbing information and getting even more interested.”
His passion for guns led to a full-time job in 1987 when he joined Sotheby’s, initially as a porter on a one-day-a-week assignment to the gun department, soon leading to five days a week and as his knowledge grew, becoming involved with many memorable auctions.
He took a brief break from the auction house to work for one of the leading gunmakers which gave him a unique perspective of the trade, returning to head Sotheby’s worldwide sporting gun department in 2001, since then he has continued to develop the auctions.
In 2006, with a wealth of experience and knowledge in his arsenal, he set up his own company, based in Pulborough, to take over the running of Sotheby’s London sales, as well as remaining as a consultant for its renowned Gleneagles auction, and he has never looked back.
He has had a hand in the sale of some of the most exciting sporting guns to come to the market in the past 20 years, such as ones which were custom-built for members of the Royal Family, Lord Mountbatten and important statesmen and Prime Ministers including Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Home.
He has handled the sale of many rare specimens which have fetched more than £10,000, including a pair of Purdeys which sold for £105,000, and has notched up several world record prices.
“The highlight was a pair of guns built for Edward VIII when he was Prince of Wales,” Gavin says. “The mystique surrounding Edward and Mrs Simpson helped raise the price.”
From the historic to the more recent, when Eric Clapton decided to sell his collection of vintage sporting shotguns, he turned to Gavin and the sale attracted interest from all over the world, with the guns selling to private collectors for very strong prices.
Some people might shy away from the notion that guns should be something cherished by collectors, regarding them as weapons of destruction. To Gavin, however, magnificent rifles, shotguns and pistols built by leading makers are things of beauty.
“A lot of people think of firearms as hideous tools for killing lions and really big game, the kind of animals no-one in their right mind would want to shoot nowadays,” he says. “But I see a good gun as a finely-crafted piece of evolved design, beautiful shapes and proportions, beautifully finished and superb quality.
“Most of the vintage guns sold at auction now will never be fired again, they are collectors’ items. Buyers just want to have them in their gun rooms, probably taking them out only to rallies or to show them off to other enthusiasts. Like vintage classic cars, new owners will maintain them, enjoy and love them.
I see a good gun as a finely-crafted piece of evolved design, beautiful shapes and proportions, beautifully finished
“The very best vintage examples could probably all tell a tale. The golden era of firearms was from 1890 to 1930, the classic Downton Abbey period, with a lot of wealthy people spending a lot of money on their lifestyles. The guns they bought were
bespoke pieces, hand-built to order, made to measure for their original owner, just as new ones are today.
“London is still home to the ‘Big Three’, Purdey, Holland and Holland and Boss and Co, the crème de la crème of gun makers. To order one new today would cost about £150,000 and around 15,000 man hours of work go into each one, taking about two years. The process can be even longer if a client wants particularly elaborate engraving, for instance. Master engravers can take three or four years to complete their part of the task.
“The number of superb guns being made in the past two years has actually increased. Over the past 15 years a great deal of money has been generated, so there are many very wealthy people prepared to spend that kind of money to get the very best. Russian oligarchs, people who have made a lot of money in hedge funds, for instance. Nowadays you don’t even get into the Sunday Times’ rich list unless you have £400 million. That has fuelled the luxury goods market and of course it applies to vintage sporting guns.”
With the responsibility for Sotheby’s two London sales and one at Gleneagles each year, as well as his involvement in tracking down and valuing fine firearms all over the world, the pressure on Gavin is relentless. As soon as the hammer falls on the last lot of each sale, he is busy preparing for the next.
“The bulk of my time is spent travelling, drumming up business for our next auction,” Gavin says. “We have three auctions a year and there is a solid three months’ work before each one.
“As Sotheby’s worldwide consultant, I go all over the British Isles, Europe and America, but because of our strict confidentiality, there is a lot of work I can’t talk about. I take a lot of European flights, usually getting the first flight in the morning, doing three or four hours’ work at the destination and then flying straight back. A long day. When I go to the USA, it’s usually just one night, though sometimes I’ll do a three- or four-day trip if I can tie in several valuations while I’m over there.
“Just recently I had a last-minute one-day trip to do an insurance valuation at one of the famous big houses in Scotland and had to dash up there. Ironically, only days beforehand I’d done a trip up north and on my way back had actually driven past the main entrance to that stately home.”
On his travels, Gavin encounters pleasant surprises and disappointments in equal measure. “I get to all kinds of interesting places, from grand houses to council flats and everything in between. And I never know what I am going to find – that’s what makes my job so fresh and interesting.
“Sometimes you go into a gun room and see things which have been sadly neglected, their barrels worn out. Then tucked away at the back you spot something the owner didn’t think was of any value but is rare and interesting. It seems to be a generational thing. The first generation who had the guns built took great care of them, the second generation slightly less. The third generation isn’t interested and by the fourth generation they have inherited a big house which is falling down and they want to sell the guns because they need the money.”
Rarity value or great provenance are the elements which make the difference between a firearm being worth £15,000 or more, rather than just £500.
“Some have very interesting stories behind them and that plays a large part in how much they will sell for. Others belonged to real celebrities of their day, such as the celebrated shots who enjoyed the same kind of fame as top sportsmen do today.
“As soon as we announce that an important or interesting piece is going up for sale, that will get the classic gun market buzzing, with all the major international collectors on the telephone and enquiries flooding in. Recently, as soon as the catalogue was released, I had 35 emails overnight, all asking about the same thing. That’s the name of the game – the more competition the better in terms of sending the price rocketing.
“I never know what I’m going to come across next and that’s what makes my job so exciting – a voyage of discovery.” Or a shot in the dark.