Guns of the Concours
The Gold Medal Concours d'Elegance of Fine Guns takes place twice a year: in the spring in California and in the fall in New York, at The Vintage Cup. It features fine shotguns and rifles-new and old, from around the world, none of which are for sale-that are panel-judged in a variety of classes and categories. This column showcases shotguns (with the exception of this first rifle) that have appeared in the Concours that are notable for their expert craftsmanship, historical significance, provenance or rarity.
/i> [img 1 left] The judges had been wrong: Selecting the Best in Show at the first Gold Medal Concours d'Elegance of Fine Guns, in January 2001, at California's Rock Springs Ranch, would be easy-despite the fact that the collectors had brought out their best for display and competition. And there were many "best" guns to evaluate. Not since this first Concours have the judges unanimously agreed on the Best in Show. The "First Best" was to be this outstanding vintage Purdey. Hammer rifle No. 9568-a .450 31/4" BPE (blackpowder express) snap-action underlever side-by-side with its original oak & leather case and accessories-was delivered to the second Lord Keane by Purdey's in 1876. The client also had ordered a similarly embellished 12-bore toplever hammer shotgun, Serial No. 9563, but more about that later. The first Lord Keane, Sir John, was of land-owning Irish ancestry. He joined the British army and served in the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. For his courage and leadership in the first Afghan War, where he helped capture the fortress town of Ghunzee in 1839, Queen Victoria granted him his title and peerage plus Â£2,000 per annum for life, transferable to his next two male successors. The elder son succeeded his father in 1844 as the second Lord Keane, and his younger brother succeeded him as the third Lord Keane in 1882. The second and third Keanes were in fact keen gun collectors and ordered five unique Purdeys. The second Lord Keane's Purdeys, of which this rifle is one, were elaborate exhibition-grade guns. He had them embellished, with engraved and inlaid semi-relief flowers and vines, by a noted French artist named Alfred Desiré Barre. Purdey's records do not show the price paid for No. 9568, but a "normal" double rifle then cost about Â£60. This one easily could have been twice that. Alfred Barre was the son of a famous French coin and medal engraver named Jean Jacques Barre and succeeded his father as chief engraver for the Paris mint upon his father's death, in 1855. Alfred died in 1878, so Purdey No. 9568 was one of his last and possibly best guns. The second Lord Keane followed this Purdey rifle with the hammer shotgun mentioned above, No. 9563, and then, in 1877, with a matched pair of 16-bore bar-in-wood Purdey hammerguns, Nos. 10110/11, gold-inlaid in the "Indian style." After the second Lord Keane's death, in 1882, the third Lord Keane followed with a third bar-in-wood hammer shotgun, No. 12177, in 1886, engraved in the Barre style. The third Lord Keane, aware that the royal pension would cease with him and fearing that his and his brother's guns would be cashed in by their heirs, willed them to the Prince of Wales instead. Today the four Purdey shotguns remain in the Royal Collection at Sandringham House. (Sandringham, in Norfolk, was built as a country retreat by the Prince of Wales in 1870; in 1876, as Edward VII, he added the gunroom. Sandringham is now open to the public.) How this Keane rifle came to the Colonies is a mystery. The last owner of this magnificent and pristine Purdey was Norman R. Blank, of Pasadena, California. Blank was an avid hunter and collector of arms and armor. In the early '60s he received Safari Club International's Teddy Roosevelt Award, and he was past president of the Roland Club of London and an NRA Life Benefactor. Blank died in March 2004, but not before winning many fine-gun awards at the Gold Medal Concours on the West Coast. As Blank's estate is settled, the details of No. 9568's journey to America may come to light. (Blank was a friend and protégé of the late Keith Neal, Britain's most renowned gun collector; a clue?) Will No. 9568 someday be reunited with its "siblings" at Sandringham? For now we offer simply a photograph and these tantalizing bits of provenance. The 7th Gold Medal Concours d'Elegance of Fine Guns, held this past April in California, was dedicated to Blank's memory. And henceforth the judges' selection as "top gun" will receive the Norman R. Blank Best in Show award. Authors' Note: Special thanks to David Baker and Roger Lake for their research on the Keane family and on Purdey No. 9568. David Baker, of Wales, is author of The Royal Gunroom at Sandringham; Roger Lake, of California, is a Sporting Gun Specialist at Bonhams & Butterfields. Editor's Note: To learn more about the GMC, see "The Gold Medal Concours" (March/April '04) or visit www.GoldMedalConcours.com. Roger Sanger is founder and president of the California Side by Side Society and co-founder of the Gold Medal Concours. Steve Helsley is the Gold Medal Concours photographer and rifle-course designer.
- By: Steve Helsley
- and Roger Sanger