Bargain Hunting: Inside the Niche Market for Collectible Weapons and Armor
With all due respect to Christian Louboutin, you haven’t really seen a stiletto until you’ve seen the 15th-century assassin’s model. There is an improbable beauty to the design of arms and armor. One of the most traditional categories of collecting, arms and armor have attracted tastemakers from Horace Walpole in the 18th century to Ronald Lauder in the 21st. The enduring appeal? “The finest craftsmanship, the finest techniques, the finest materials, and the highest technology,” explains Donald LaRocca, curator in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s arms and armor department, which is celebrating its centennial through September with a new installation of the permanent collection.
WHAT IS “ARMS AND ARMOR” AND WHERE DO I FIND IT?
Classically defined, the field includes European armors (sometimes called harnesses; the colloquial “suits of armor” is incorrect), edged weapons (swords, etc.), and firearms from the 14th through the 19th centuries. German and Italian armorers all but monopolized royal patronage, with the exception of the monarchs — such as the Hapsburgs and Henry VIII — who established court workshops. A separate studio might design and execute ornamentation. The art of firearms reached its peak in 18th-century France, with gun makers like Nicolas-Noël Boutet, who was the directeur-artiste of the arms manufactory at Versailles after the French Revolution.
Biannual arms and armor sales are held by Hermann Historica, in Munich; Bonhams, in its San Francisco salesroom; Christie’s South Kensington, in London; and Thomas Del Mar, in association with Sotheby’s London. Fischer, in Lucerne, Switzerland, has a yearly sale. Peter Finer, in London, is the field’s preeminent dealer. The same specialists generally handle materials from antiquity, the Middle and Far East, Southeast Asia, Africa, and the United States, each a collecting field unto itself.
DO I HAVE TO BE THE MET TO BUY IT?
No, although the core material — ornate medieval and Renaissance full armors and important royal arms — has largely disappeared into private collections and museums. The record at auction is £1.95 million ($3 million) for an armor made for Henri II of France, between 1540 and 1545, by Giovanni Negroli, of Milan, which sold at Sotheby’s in London in 1983. Privately traded examples go much higher. In 2009 the Philadelphia Museum of Art purchased a rare horse armor made in 1507 by Wilhelm von Worms the Elder, Nuremberg’s leading armorer of the time, for an undisclosed price (speculated to have been more than $10 million) from Peter Finer.
Given the contentious history of the world, there’s still a lot of material out there. And much was produced during times of peace: ceremonial armors for parade and tournament in the 16th and 17th centuries (by which time guns had rendered battle armor obsolete), sporting arms for hunting, and personal weapons for fashionable dress and self-defense in the 18th and 19th centuries. There is entry at every level, from hundreds of dollars up.
HOW DO I GET STARTED?
At Christie’s, specialist Howard Dixon advises, “Choose your weapon — say, ‘I love rapiers.’ Concentrate on it. Pick an area that you have a passion for.”
“Gain familiarity with the subject,” suggests Thomas Del Mar. “Go to the great museums — Philadelphia, Chicago, the Met. Read. Watch sales.” For the novice, Del Mar proposes buying individual elements, such as a breastplate, as a relatively affordable way to begin.
As with furniture, the collector should be looking at originality, provenance, and condition. Originality covers the integrity of the piece: Is it what it claims to be; has it been restored, altered, or changed; is it a composite of parts taken from several sources to create one superb example? The last is not necessarily a bad thing, but it must be acknowledged and reflected in the price. “Another problem is real armors being embellished falsely,” says Paul Carella, a Bonhams specialist.
Much reproduction material was made in the 19th century to satisfy the collecting tastes of newly moneyed industrial titans, and that material complicates the market today. Good Victorian copies can have their own aesthetic (and budgetary) appeal, but don’t pay top dollar for a fake. Provenance covers the object’s origins (value rises where there is an association with a historical person, court, or campaign) as well as the lineage of its collectors.
WHERE ARE THE OPPORTUNITIES?
Arms and armor is a very steady, conservative category, fit for investment, not speculation. “It’s a fairly flat graph of values,” Finer says. “They don’t leap, but they never go down.”
According to Del Mar, an armor might cost anywhere from $8,000 (for a good 19th-century reproduction) to $5 million. A mid 16th-century harness is likely to average $95,000 to $130,000. With embellishment, that can double. But a good “element” will be far cheaper. “You could have an excavated spur, worn by a knight on the fourth Crusade, for $150, $300,” Del Mar says of the market right now. “You couldn’t pick up medieval sculpture for anything close to that price.”
Robert Weis, at Hermann Historica, advises, “start at the lower end — pole arms, halberd types — which average $1,200 to $2,000. The cheapest material is the youngest, so start with the 17th century, helmets and swords. There are still a lot around, with prices that appeal to the beginner.”
Weis sees a trend toward swords: “well-preserved 9th, 10th, and 12th century. Depending on the general beauty or an interesting inscription on the blade, they could be $4,000 to $40,000 and up.” The small-sword, a civilian sidearm developed from the rapier in the 17th and 18th centuries and worn as a fashion accessory as much as a defensive weapon, has also caught the attention of collectors.
Specialists agree that firearms, chronologically the rear guard of arms and armor, present great entry-level opportunities. “There are amazing guns out there,” says Dixon, who cites collector interest in sporting and hunting weapons manufactured well into the late 19th century, particularly British examples.
Kuno Fischer, director at Fischer, in Lucerne, observes, “It’s a new thing we see now, the comeback of hunting. People who hunt are interested in firearms.” Fischer says that one can have well-produced guns, such as a pair of 17th-century German firearms with inlaid ivory ornamentation, for a starting price of $50,000.
For veterans of the bidding wars in contemporary art and design, that price seems well within range.
This article was published in the January issue of Art+Auction.