FAIRFIELD, Maine — James D. Julia stepped to the podium on Tuesday morning and told a crowd of about 100 bidders, dreamers and “tire-kickers” exactly what some had traveled thousands of miles to hear.

“Today is a day of great opportunity,” the veteran auctioneer said. “For the last 10 years, it’s been difficult to find a bargain. Today, I guarantee you, you can find a bargain.”

That, you could.

But “bargain,” it should be remembered, is a relative term.

On Tuesday, in the rarefied air of the James D. Julia Inc. auction house that has hosted the most lucrative firearms auction in history, this is what “bargain” meant:

“I thought the Anderson guns at 850 were very reasonable,” said Martin Lane, a collector and dealer from New York City. “I jumped in at 800 and then I think it was 850, so that would have been 900 to me.”

Lane didn’t bid the 900. The Anderson guns went to another bidder.

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And that 850 winning bid? That’s not $850.

Try $850,000. The presale estimate: $1.2 million to $2.5 million.

That bid highlighted the sale of 40 lots of guns and memorabilia from the Colt firearms collection of Joseph A. Murphy, a Pennsylvania businessman.

“His collection, which consists of 105 to 110 pieces, is the finest collection, gun for gun, based on rarity, condition and value, ever to come at auction at any time in history,” Julia said.

In all, three lots of the collection will have been sold at Julia’s over the next year.

The other two auctions that will include guns from Murphy’s collection are scheduled for October and next March.

Tuesday’s sale of selected Murphy collection guns garnered nearly $5.25 million. The two-day auction of high-end firearms, including the Murphy pieces, drew nearly $11.4 million.

Julia said 60 percent to 80 percent of goods at his auctions are sold to absentee bidders over the phone. But at Tuesday’s auction, there were plenty of high rollers on hand to add excitement to the proceedings.

“When you get a really high-end, [high]–profile collection such as this, a lot of people want to be here and they want to do it themselves,” Julia said.

Lane was one of those, and he spent about $2 million on three lots from the Murphy collection.

Lane, who said he was buying for himself and some friends, said that many wonder why he collects what he does.

“One would have to say, ‘Why would he do a thing like that in a terrible economy?’” Lane said, explaining that the current economic woes help reinforce his theory that he should invest his money in something he knows: guns.

“Die-hards like us, before I put my money in the bank now, I put my money in iron,” Lane said. “I kind of believe that’s something I can hang onto.”

And when Lane invests in iron, he does so in a big way, at places like Julia’s.

“Primarily, what I buy is only the very best,” Lane said. “The very best in highest condition, the best provenance, the best known, the best history. Those are the top things in collecting. That’s usually what I target. That’s what I buy and that’s what I sell.”

Collector Robert Ferrell traveled from Austin, Texas, to attend the auction and left shortly after the Murphy collection had been sold.

He didn’t end up buying anything but said the experience was a good one nonetheless.

“The main thing is that the Murphy collection’s like a once-in-a-lifetime thing just to see those guns,” Ferrell said. “They’re going to go into collections now and you’ll never see ’em again in my lifetime.”

George Taylor of Fairfield made the short jaunt to the auction hoping to end up with an addition to his modest collection.

“I’ve got a few guns,” Taylor said. “You’ve got to be looking around to find some stuff. There’s always something.”

Dick Burdick made his way to Fairfield from Ventura, Calif., and admitted the journey was a long one.

“The only way it could have been farther [in the continental U.S.] is if I’d been in San Diego and you’d been up on the Canadian border,” he said with a laugh.

Burdick walked away with three pieces, including one from the Murphy collection. He paid $35,000 for his new guns.

Afterward, he figured that he’d found the deals Julia had predicted could be had.

“I thought the prices were a little soft,” Burdick said. “I thought there were some bargains. I was happy to get what I got.”

Burdick is another who believes in the investment power of firearms, especially today.

“I’m afraid we’re in for some high inflation in the future and I think collectibles are a good hedge,” he said. “They have been in the past and I expect that will be the same in the future. So I think it’s a buyer’s market right now and we’re going to look back five years from now and think how cheap this stuff was.”

With that said, Burdick admitted that there came a point when he had to abandon his quest for a bargain.

“I was bidding on one of the big-ticket items out of the Murphy collection but I knew who bought it and it didn’t matter what I bid, I wasn’t going to get it,” Burdick said. “There’s a billionaire buying, so you can’t do anything with that.”

Nothing, perhaps, except sit back, relax and wait for the next “bargain” to reach the auction block.

John Holyoke

John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their...