San Francisco Antique Arms Auctions Await Gun Ban Decision

April 2006
By Robert Kyle

Two major San Francisco auction houses are holding their breath awaiting a judge's decision as to whether a new anti-gun law will let them continue selling antique and sporting firearms in the city.

In municipal elections on November 8, 2005, 58% of San Francisco voters approved Proposition H, a ban of the sale and possession of firearms and ammunition within city and county limits. Unlike the federal government rules, which defines any firearm made before 1899 as an antique and thus immune to regulations and restrictions, the San Francisco law covers all guns, regardless of age or condition.

This is a potential financial blow to two of the nation's leading arms and armor auction houses, Bonhams & Butterfields and Greg Martin Auctions. Each operates in the city. The new law will not necessarily halt arms auctions by these companies, only make it less convenient and more costly to have them.

"We are a Bay Area company, and we will be holding auctions in this area," said Chris Gallo, a spokesman for Greg Martin Auctions, which sold $11.5 million in antique arms in 2005. "I couldn't speak to specifics at this time, but if the ban goes through, our operations will move outside city limits."

The gun ban law was first conceived in late 2004 following public outcry over an increase in the city's murder rate. "Although San Francisco's murder rate did jump by 24%--from 71 homicides in 2003 to 88 in 2004--it's by no means clear that the Right to Keep and Bear Arms is the problem, or that disarming lawful citizens is the solution," wrote Marshall Lewin for the National Rifle Association's Web site.

On November 9, the day after the law was passed, the NRA, with several other organizations and private citizens, filed suit opposing the measure, contending a local government can't supercede a state law that allows the sale and possession of firearms.

The San Francisco Police Officers Association also opposes the law. This group stated the measure "would nullify the personal choice of city residents to lawfully possess a handgun for self-defense purposes," according to the Associated Press. Pink Pistols, a national organization consisting of 38 chapters of gun-touting homosexuals, also voiced its objection to the ban. Using Washington, D.C., as an example, the NRA claimed gun bans don't work. The nation's capital passed a similar law in 1976. According to the 2006 edition of City Crime Rankings, published by Morgan Quitno Press, Washington ranks number eight with 35.8 murders per 100,000, while San Francisco is number 65 with 11.6 murders per 100,000.

By the end of 2005, however, murders in San Francisco had totaled 96, the highest in ten years. Local television station CBS 5 reported on December 30 that city police Chief Heather Fong called most of the murders "unpreventable."

The ban was to have taken effect January 1, in time to eliminate all antique arms auctions in the city and county. But the lawsuits caused enactment of the law to be delayed to March 1 to ban gun and ammunition sales and April 1 for residents to turn in their handguns or take them outside the jurisdiction. It was not to be a gun buyback program; those complying would receive no compensation. The city said it had 22,000 legally registered handguns on the books and wanted them out of people's homes.

This issue was to have been settled [on] February 23 by San Francisco County Superior Court Judge James Warren. After hearing arguments, he postponed his decision for 90 days.

In the meantime, Bonhams & Butterfields is going ahead with plans for an antique arms sale in its main San Francisco gallery on June 20.

Ironically, Greg Martin Auctions will benefit from an earlier management decision to hold an auction in New Hampshire. Part I (800 lots) of the Robert Howard collection of 3000 firearms and edged weapons will be sold April 24 at the Frank Jones Center in Portsmouth. The auction will be simulcast to San Francisco and New York City.

This location is one previously used for James Julia's antique arms auctions, as well as a banquet facility in nearby Hampton Falls. Commencing with his March 13 and 14 firearms sale, Julia will have all his auctions in his new facility in Fairfield, Maine, which is 130 miles north of Portsmouth.

Greg Martin Auctions is no longer owned by Martin and two former executives from Butterfields & Butterfields, where Martin served for many years as the arms and armor specialist. Founded in 2002, Greg Martin Auctions was sold on October 14, 2005, to the Escala Group. Purchase price was approximately $3.5 million, payable in cash and notes.

[The] Escala Group was formed in September 2003 by Greg Manning Auctions, a New Jersey-based stamp and coins specialty house, and Auctentia, S.L. of Madrid, Spain. Afinsa Bienes Tangibles, S.A. in Madrid, Spain is the majority shareholder of GMA-Auctentia. [The] Escala Group deals internationally in the trade of stamps, coins, sports memorabilia, and fine arts. It operates out of New York City and trades on the NASDAQ exchange under the symbol ESCL.

This article can be found in the Maine Antique Digest online, April 2006.

© Copyright 2005 The Antique and Historical Arms Collectors Guild of Victoria. All rights reserved.