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Buying and selling commemoratives.

Commemorative firearms is an area in the used gun business that is different than any other field. To have any hope of selling second-hand commemoratives at a profit the dealer must realize that commemoratives cannot be treated the same way we would treat normal used guns.

Before we proceed it's probably a good idea if the term commemorative be defined. A commemorative firearm is one that was made in a limited issue in such a manner as to associate it with an historical event, an anniversary of some event, a particular person, or group of persons or an organization. They often have special serial numbers, special finishes, engraving or etching and other deluxe appointments. They are also often specially cased or packaged. While they are functioning firearms, as a rule commemoratives were originally sold as potential collector's items, albeit artificial ones, rather than for shooting purposes. They also normally have a new retail price substantially higher than the standard model of the same firearm.

Commemoratives should not be confused with limited editions though there are a couple of similarities. Limited editions are also manufactured in limited numbers and usually have features different from the standard model of that gun. However, they don't commemorate anything or anyone. They are made to be used rather than looked at and many of the different features of a limited edition gun will be oriented toward shooting. Also most limited edition guns are priced at or near the price of a standard model instead of significantly higher as is typical with a commemorative. Limited editions will be dealt with in a later column because they are handled distinctly differently than commemoratives.

The modern commemorative firearm fad probably started in 1960 when Marlin made a 90th Anniversary Edition of their Model 39A. Only 500 each were made in rifle and carbine configurations. They were well received and sold quickly.

The next year, 1961, saw Cherry's Sporting Goods in Geneseo, Illinois, order from Colt a small number (104) of the Colt No. 4 derringer that were specially inscribed, cased and finished to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Geneseo. This first Colt commemorative led to a veritable flood of Colt commemoratives that stands today at over 160 different variations.

Winchester entered the commemorative market in 1966 with the Nebraska Centennial Model 94 and then consistently put out two or three more per year till recently. Winchester also marketed many commemoratives for the non-domestic market, primarily Canada.

While Colt and Winchester have been the major manufacturer of commemoratives, most of the other U.S. gun companies also dabbled in it including Marlin, Browning, Remington, Savage, Ruger, S&W, H&R and Ithaca. Even a small number of foreign manufacturers have issued commemoratives including Churchill (Interarms), Franchi, Sako, Walther, Charles Daly and Mauser.

While commemoratives initially sold well and commemorative collecting was popular, the gun companies themselves killed the goose that laid the golden egg. Colt produced far too many different commemoratives each year for the general buying public and commemorative collectors to keep up. In one year alone, 1964, they produced more than twenty-five different ones. Also many of the things being commemorated were pretty obscure and of no particular interest to most people. Examples include the "General John Hunt Morgan Indiana Raid," the "Nevada Battle Born," the "Chamizal Treaty," etc, etc.

Winchester likewise participated in the demise of the proverbial goose by over-producing many of their commemoratives. Total production of their Centennial 66 rifle carbine was a whopping 102,309, their Canadian 67 Centennial rifle and carbine was 90,301, the Buffalo Bill rifle and carbine was 112,923, and the John Wayne carbine was 49,000. Many others were made in limited productions of 20,000 or more. These huge supplies generally far exceed the current demand.

Yet another mistake made was to price some commemoratives far too high. The Winchester John Wayne 1 of 300 set had an issue price of $10,000! Practically none actually sold at that price and existing specimens trade at $2000 or more below retail. Probably the single worst example was a 1984 collaboration between Winchester and Colt to create the Winchester/Colt Commemorative Set consisting of a Winchester 94 carbine and a Colt Peacemaker, both in .44-40. What the set was supposed to commemorate is a bit nebulous. About 2,300 sets were assembled at an issue price of $3,995. To the best of my knowledge not a single set sold at that price. To move them the sets were severely discounted and in many cases the sets were broken up to move the guns separately. The individual guns commonly trade at about $800 apiece and complete sets sell for about half the issue price.

As you can see while many commemoratives sell for much more than their original issue price many sell for much less. There is no hard and fast rule. To make matters worse, collecting interest in commemoratives has dropped off severely in the last decade. Since the supply of any given model is virtually constant, a decrease in demand makes the market value actually drop. This is one of the few cases in the firearms field where values are not in many cases even keeping up with inflation. Consequently, commemoratives have often proved to be slow movers.

When a dealer finds himself in a situation where he can buy or trade for one or more commemoratives, there are a few things he should remember. First, to have any significant value above a standard firearm of the same model, the commemorative must be in mint unfired condition. It must also have its original paperwork and box or casing which also must be mint. By mint I mean the gun and accompanying case must be new in every way - no cylinder bolt wear, no bluing wear on the bolt, etc. In general if a commemorative has been shot or shows any wear it should be priced at or near what you would price an excellent specimen of the same gun in a standard model. If the wear is more significant downgrade the price accordingly.

It is also imperative that you research the market value of the commemorative in one of the price guides. The best two sources are the Blue Book of Gun Values by S.P. Fjestad which covers the commemorative under the individual manufacturer listings, and the Gun Digest Book of Modern Gun Values by Jack Lewis, which has a section devoted solely to commemoratives of all makes.

When you find the specific commemorative listing, check out how many were made. As a rule if the production is quite small (1000 or less) there is sufficient demand so that the gun has a decent chance of moving quickly. For the ones made in huge quantities the opposite is true unless it is severely discounted.

It has also been my observation that the thing being commemorated is extremely important to whether or not the piece can be sold at a decent price. For example a Colt, Columbus, Ohio Sesquicentennial Scout, may be tough to sell in Seattle but easy to sell in Ohio. Similarly a Texas Sesquicentennial Winchester 94 commemorative will sell best in Texas. In general the broader the appeal of the thing being commemorated the easier it is to sell it.

Also it would appear that a gun that commemorates something about a gun company itself such as the Marlin 90th Anniversary, the Colt 125th Anniversary, the Walther 100th year, etc. has some appeal to general collectors of that specific model or brand rather than just commemorative collectors. That often makes these type commemorative sell easier if they were not overproduced in the first place. Check the references on total production numbers.

Selling commemoratives as part of your used gun business can be financially rewarding as long as you are careful to inspect the guns closely and research them thoroughly. One of the hardest things about handling commemoratives is dealing with people who purchased them at full retail for investment purposes who cannot or will not believe that their purchase may actually be worth less today than they paid for it because of lack of demand or because they took it out and shot it. In the past when I have encountered such cases I've found it easier to just say I was not interested rather than trying to educate the seller on his folly.

A strong selling point to customers is that the current market price on commemoratives is down and that they might actually be a good long term investment as a result. However, be careful not to make any promises or guarantees!
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Title Annotation:used guns
Author:Karwan, Chuck
Publication:Shooting Industry
Article Type:column
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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