Hoard is a new monthly column on collectibles, collections, and collectors outside of the fine arts by Shanti Escalante-De Mattei.
Every wonder what kind of person spends a small fortune on old guns? Meet Joe Hatfield, heir to a chicken empire, and one of the few heavyweight collectors to make it in person to Rock Island Auction Company’s Premier Auction of Fine, Historic & Investment Grade Firearms in late August.
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“Ever eat chicken at Chipotle?” Hatfield, 61, a jolly portly bespectacled man, asked me by way of introduction. I nodded. “That’s my chicken you ate. Ever eat chicken at Panera Bread? At Culvers? If you’re in the South, at Waffle House? That’s my chicken.”
Over the past decade, Hatfield — who noted that his family is of the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud — has bought everything from World War II era guns, in honor of his grandfather’s service, to Class III weapons (i.e. machine guns, suppressors, and short-barrelled rifles, among others) that require a special license to purchase. “Silencers are great because ladies and children can shoot without fear,” he said, after swiping through images of his cherished guns arranged around his home.
Of the hundreds of guns in his collection, Hatfield bought most at RIAC, driving from Georgia to Rock Island City, Illinois several times a year to make his purchases. Sitting next to the Iowa-Illinois border, the city is home to the Springfield Armory, one of the larger gun manufacturing plants in the country, and two important John Deere factories that produce combine harvesters and hydraulic cylinders. The flat landscape outside RIAC’s auction house hosts soybean crops and algae-plated bogs full of lilies and dead trees, all of it fed by the Mississippi River, which sat unusually low on its banks in August.
By the end of RIAC’s three-day auction, the company auctioned off some 2,000 firearms, realizing $23 million in sales. A decade ago, RIAC would have made that amount over the course of an entire year. Demand for firearms, both antique and modern, has been steadily increasing, the company said. Last year, a boom year for all collectibles, RIAC reported $123 million in sales. And, this spring, it broke a personal record with a $5.7 million pair of revolvers that belonged to Ulysses S. Grant. But though business is good, it could always be better.
The big-ticket items that RIAC had advertised for the August Premier auction were Han Solo’s gun from Star Wars and the pair of pistols that Angelina Jolie wielded in Tomb Raider. Sourced from a London prop house, the folks at RIAC hoped that they could attract new buyers and draw pre-auction buzz. These were clean guns, after all, never made to kill. Most of the firearms that RIAC offers are weighted, burdened with history and politics. To want them is to declare something severe about your beliefs, or that’s how many Americans see it, though that’s not how RIAC wants people to see it.
The auction house was founded in 1993 by Patrick Hogan, a serial entrepreneur, who was not so much a gun nut as a man who saw an opportunity. After leaving the Navy in 1978 — he piloted nuclear submarines during the Cold War — Hogan started a series of businesses, including a video store franchise, a string of gas stations, and finally, RIAC. His son, Kevin, took over day-to-day operations as President in 2015.
The younger Hogan, an intelligent confident person who lacked the region’s distinct Midwest accent, told me that he hopes that people might come to see antique firearms as the highest quality examples of a complex, beautiful craft, tied to interesting histories. The company’s slogans include “Real Art. Real History. Real Iron,” and “Treasures in History. An Investment for All Time.” But the world resists. RIAC can’t advertise through Google, YouTube, Facebook, or Instagram. The best they can do is talk about guns informationally, but, even then, Hogan explains, channels get shut down “for political differences.”
“No, seriously, it’s just like, it’s very unfair,” he said.
Hogan jabbed at the cover at the auction catalog between us that depicts an engraved black revolver with an ivory grip: a mint condition Colt 1855 Sidehammer Pocket Revolver given to Samuel Colt’s timekeeper, James McClatchie. The gun, which lists for $275,000, is a veritable crown jewel. It even has its own nickname — the McClatchie Root, “the best of the best,” in Hogan’s estimation.
“It’s a ton of money, but this is the highest level of what we do,” said Hogan, who commented that a ‘55 Ferrari recently sold at Sotheby’s for $22 million, that truly unhinged prices for collectibles are achieved everyday, but not at RIAC. When asked why guns hadn’t realized the prices of other categories, he said curtly, “Because they’re guns.”
I’m no fan of guns myself but I didn’t realize the sheer symbolic weight they occupied in my mind until I walked into the preview hall. There, all the firearms on offer sat out in display cases while young men in camo clicked at shotguns and peered down their long barrels. Others admired the beagles, pheasants, and curling scrolls engraved on certain guns’ brass fittings. I felt immediately as if I had violated some taboo just by being in that room, and I zoomed in on the constellation of Bad Things that surrounded these guns: the derisive comments I overheard about congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, the tragic paintings of Confederate loss hanging in the halls, the thin-blue line flag waving outside and the donation boxes for the Illinois chapter of the NRA. But these quotidian details paled in the face of the larger, more ordinary picture. The majority of the attendees were old men in baseball caps wearing flannels tucked-in over their bellies. They came to RIAC for the free food and company. The employees were kind, young, and couldn’t even afford the guns they sold.
It took days of exposure and many conversations to look at these guns with some emotional distance, to see what people could love about them. Most of the men at RIAC, from collectors to the mostly window-shopping locals, are “serious history buffs,” as Hogan told me. Each gun has an exciting story to tell. For many of the collectors, that history is personal.
“People want what their grandparents owned,” Joel Kolander, RIAC’s interactive production manager, aka the social media guy, said as he walked me around the auction floor. “They want to know what he held, what he felt, what he saw.” And intimacy with history tends to bring its prescriptions.
Another RIAC employee who proudly identified himself as Kevin Hogan’s cousin stopped me to explain that when semi-automatics were invented, they were first offered to the military. When the military declined, manufacturers offered them to civilians instead. “So you see, when people say they’re a military gun, that’s just not true,” he said. It’s this reasonable tone I encountered the most while out in Rock Island — like the divides of this country are the result of some misunderstanding or simple ignorance.
For others, the draw of the antique firearm is in its particular embodiment of history, a capsule of style and invention. Out on the show floor, a Wyoming man in a cowboy hat by the name of Joe Reeno gave me a crash course on the development of the gun, from lighting gunpowder with flintlocks and matchlocks to the earliest machine guns. It is fascinating to see time play out on these machines; the constraints of available materials, the problem solving, and the decoration that follows, irresistibly, all handmade things. Reeno dislikes modern guns, plain black with plastic grips. “No, what I like is blue steel and beautiful wood,” he said.
Reeno peered into a glass case holding a mid-19th century Henry repeating rifle to show me another pivotal moment in gun design.
“It was a gun like that that won the Wagon Box Fight,” Reeno said, recounting how, in 1867, a band of American soldiers were ambushed by hundreds of Lakota Sioux warriors. In his telling, while most of the men were stuck stuffing gunpowder into their muskets after each shot, a man with a repeater fired off 17 rounds without pause. The Lakota Sioux had won battle after battle with the speed of their bows and arrows, but the Henry turned the tide. His rendition of the Wagon Box Fight wasn’t quite right — many of the men had repeaters, not one — but the ending was the same. The Lakota-Sioux lost the battle and, from there, kept on losing. My budding enthusiasm withered.
Most everyone I spoke to seemed to have a completely different relationship to American history than I had. They appreciated the minuteness of it: the inventions, the battles, the characters and icons, and the stories. Whereas when I hear a story like the Wagon Box fight, I see not a victory, but a tragedy, one too painful to delve into and feel the human texture of each factoid.
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Towards the end of the day, I ended up in a conversation with a fit, silver-haired man with a gold chain tucked under his polo collar. He told me he’s an epic poet, has three masters degrees, lives in Italy, and is very educated, “But the media portrays us all like some stereotype, but I’m educated,” he said excitedly. Then, he told me that states like Kansas and Illinois are the real America, but New York isn’t; Colorado is America, but not Denver. “Liberals care about appropriation but why is it okay to destroy American culture, to say horrible things about Christianity? Why should we feel ashamed?” he asked. Then he told me that the Chinese would soon invade the US and kill “you guys.” “The Chinese hate the LGBTs!” he said, perhaps in a bid to make common cause.
“I can tell that it’s painful for you to listen to me,” he said. “And that’s the issue, you people, well, not you maybe, but the media, don’t want to listen to us. All the journalists live in New York and talk to each other.”
When I asked why he collects guns, he answered curtly. “Because I’m male. It’s in my blood.” He asked me what comes next, in a country where the culture and the history can’t be revered. I didn’t know what to tell him.
After we finished talking, a few RIAC higher-ups apologized. “He has PTSD, he was a pilot, he’s a … high maintenance client,” one said, before adding that she hopes I haven’t gotten the wrong impression.
But I don’t know if I have. The man was right about me, at least. Sometimes I’ll feel a twinge of nostalgia for Americana. Then I remember what it was built on, and how it could have never been mine, so I suppress it and settle with looking unhappily into the future.