It sat on a shelf in the closet for years, a rosewood case containing two Civil War-era revolvers with ivory handles. The guns had been a gift from a friend to Sharlene Perez’s late husband, but they held no sentimental value for her. So in June, she decided it was time to sell them.
She slipped the case into a sturdy Lord & Taylor shopping bag and took a taxi six blocks to meet appraiser Greg Martin in midtown Manhattan, N.Y. She knew that there were engravings on the barrels, that the grips were monogrammed and that an inscription on the lid of the case indicated that townspeople in Watertown, N.Y., had given the guns to William C. Browne, a local man heading off to serve as a colonel in the Civil War.
In her most optimistic moments, Perez hoped the guns might net $20,000.
Instead, she “about keeled over,” Martin said, when he told her the guns were Colt 1851 Navy revolvers and might be worth 10 times as much. He told her there would be an auction in Anaheim in September. He told her he would set the appraisal value at $125,000 to $250,000.
On Sunday afternoon at the Doubletree Hotel Anaheim in Orange, Perez, 74, sat with ice-cold hands and a stepped-up heartbeat as auctioneer Scott Bradley said, “Let’s start the bidding at $50,000.”
Martin, who has an auction business with offices in San Francisco and Irvine, clearly was enjoying the buildup to the auction and Perez’s near-certain windfall. “I’m excited because of the unlikelihood of finding something like this,” he said a few days before the auction. “These could have been a nice couple of unengraved guns and gone for $10,000 to $12,000.”
But the combination of a matched set engraved by Gustave Young -- a master of that time period -- the ivory grips and the personalized nature of the Civil War connection raised their potential value, Martin said.
Perez said she knows nothing about guns and thinks they were given to her husband, Goltran, a doctor, about 30 years ago. “My husband knew nothing about guns,” she said. “He only liked the looks of them.”
He occasionally showed them to friends, but she was never around when he did. “I thought there was only one gun,” she said. “That’s how much I knew about what was in the box.”
Her husband died in 1995, and she put the guns away until she saw a magazine ad for gun appraisals. That eventually led to her June meeting with Martin and Sunday’s auction a continent away from her home.
After months of nervous anticipation for Perez, Bradley began the count that would alter her life. From the starting point of $50,000, Bradley’s rapid-fire delivery matched the bids coming in. Within 20 seconds, bids climbed to $55,000, $60,000, $65,000, $75,000, $85,000, $95,000, $100,000, $110,000 and $120,000. Perez sat stoically, her hands held together.
Bradley never broke stride: "$120 is bid, go $130 . . . $120 is the bid . . . $130 is bid . . . $130,000 is now bid, go $140. . . .”
But $140,000 never came, and after 50 seconds, Bradley slapped the lectern and sold the set for $130,000 to a man bidding over the telephone.
Martin congratulated Perez.
“What do I do now?” she asked.
“I guess you wait for the check,” Martin said, smiling.
Minutes later, in a hotel corridor, Perez was “settling back to earth” after what she realized in hindsight had been a nerve-racking experience. Mistakenly thinking that the auction was scheduled for the day before, she had gone to the meeting room Saturday and found the door locked. “I said, ‘Maybe it’s not real. I’ve been fooled or something.’ ”
The collection sold at the low end of Martin’s appraisal, but Perez had no complaints: “I imagined it might go for more, but I’m happy with the way it came out.”
She has no immediate plans for the money, which Martin said should come in a month. Perez said she was glad to witness the lightning-fast auction in person, rather than hearing about it in a phone call.
“If I hadn’t come, I wouldn’t have had all this excitement,” she said. “The auctioneers, they go so fast.”
The buyer was Bill Katakis, a 47-year-old mortgage banker in Walnut Creek. “I feel incredible,” he said in a phone interview a few minutes after the bidding ended. He had held and studied the guns for hours in advance of the auction and was enamored of them.
“I feel like I slipped into a time tunnel of 140 years,” he said. “My stomach’s been in knots all day.”
Katakis said he would have gone higher and thinks the guns will increase in value.
He said he has a “decent-sized collection” of historical American firearms and his intention isn’t to sell his new purchase.
“Colts and Winchesters are the blue chips of all gun collectors,” he said. “I’m buying them not just from the investment perspective. I’m buying them because they are pure artwork.”
Perez, who planned to extend her Southern California trip for a day to visit Beverly Hills, said she could finally relax and try to make sense of the whirlwind of the last few months.
“It’s one thing to invest in something that you are interested in and see it sold,” she said. “But this is like a gift from up there. Something very unexpected.”