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One Man, 900 Guns

The Rock Island premier auction of early December had a new wrinkle: Day Three was devoted entirely to the collection of one man, Milan J. Turk. Volume three of the auction catalogue explained who Turk is, and how he came about his outstanding collection, along with elaborate descriptions of each gun. Every piece auctioned that day came from the Turk collection — more than 900 guns altogether.

In the past, Rock Island has auctioned individual items, and even lots numbering in the dozens, from prominent collectors like Robert M. Lee and Bill Ruger, but this is the first time an entire day was devoted to one man, one collection. There were firearms of almost every description, from Ballard schützen rifles to Luger pistols to spectacularly engraved Marlin lever actions to makers I’d never heard of.

Introducing the collection, Pat Hogan, founder of Rock Island, noted that having it displayed in its entirety gave visitors a unique opportunity to see it, browse through, and even handle and examine the pieces. There they were, row upon row of guns, showcase upon showcase, all belonging to one guy. The idea that one man would have 900-plus guns, Hogan said, shocked many non-gun people.

“To us, of course, 900 guns? Pretty normal,” said Hogan.

That brought a laugh from the audience, but he’s right. For gun lovers, it is normal. One collector in my neighborhood, the last time anyone tried to count, had about 1,200 guns. Another had 625, until he shipped 100 to Rock Island, just to give him more space in his three room-sized vaults.

We’ve all read reports about arrests where police found a lot of guns and ammunition, and made statements like “He had enough guns to start a small war!” The implication being that there is something inherently wrong with owning that many firearms, and it doesn’t matter whether you are a serious, big-money collector or just a guy who likes to shoot and picks up a gun here and there because they’re interesting.

I’d count myself one of the latter. In the course of picking up a gun here and there, I’ve accumulated a bunch, ranging from flintlock dueling pistols to German schützen rifles (made for offhand competitions) to custom bolt-action hunting rifles to antique trap guns. At various times, feeling pinched for space, I’ve thought of sending some to a dealer. My problem is, every time I pick one up, I’m reminded of the appeal that caused me to buy it in the first place, and it goes back on the rack. Another time, I think to myself.

Another aspect of the sale of Mr. Turk’s collection is that he arranged the whole thing himself, while still alive, healthy and shooting on a regular basis. Usually, collections end up in the auction hall after the death of the owner, often sent by a widow who has no idea what the collection contains or what it’s worth. Or worse, it comes from an executor who just wants to get rid of “those horrid things” by the quickest and easiest route. I’ve seen both.

Milan Turk wanted to ensure, as far as possible, that his treasures went to good homes. While one can never be sure about such things, there is a better-than-even chance with Rock Island because of the quality of the guns they sell and the collectors they attract. They’re not alone in this, of course, but when they insist that they are the foremost gun auction house in the world, it’s not unjustified.

One should add that, and I’m speaking from personal experience, it’s always a good idea to have a pedigree written out for each gun, giving its history insofar as possible, and exact technical details about what it is. Auction houses all employ knowledgeable people to write catalogue descriptions, but everyone makes mistakes. This is especially true of really old guns without model names stamped on barrels or serial numbers to date them.

The auction of Milan Turk’s collection went very well. Some pieces sold “in the hundreds of thousands of dollars” and others for a fraction of that. Some prices far exceeded the estimate, others did not, but that’s the nature of auctions. If nothing else, Milan Turk set a good example for us all.Terry Wieland is a writer on fine firearms whose latest book is “Great Hunting Rifles, Victorian to the Present.” He has hunted in more than a dozen countries on four continents including, at last count, 14 trips to Africa. He lives in Fenton, Missouri

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