FRIDAY, APRIL 19, 2024

Rock Island Auction Company is the brand name most firearms collectors think of when they think of high-end firearms auctions. While its grown to become a substantial company with locations in Illinois and Texas, it’s another of those second-generation family businesses so common in the firearms industry. Today, QA Outdoors talks with second-generation leader Kevin Hogan about Rock Island’s past, present, and future.

QA Outdoors 
30 years ago, your dad-described as a serial entrepreneur- decided to get into the auction business. Thirty years later, you’re Rock Island Auction Company. What did you think about it at the time?

Kevin Hogan
If you looked up the definition of serial entrepreneur, you would find my father. He's lived this odyssey of a guy who never graduated from college. His father passed away when he was young. He was third oldest and he was working when he was in middle school. Like, really working, not just a paper route.

Went to college. Left after his freshman year, and joined the “nuclear Navy.” Ran a reactor on a nuclear submarine for, well, he can tell you “two years, eight months, six days and four hours.” He ended up getting out of the Navy because he kept breaking his ankles. Broke both of them twice. Not super conducive to running around a submarine.

So he got honorably discharged out of the Navy and he was like, hey, I got this nuclear power stuff down. But, he was last in his class and on the book work and first in his class in the field when it was actually hands on on the reactor itself.

So he gets out and thinks he's just gonna go to some place with a nuclear power plant and get a job. He does, and they say “we can hire you today- and here’s how much we can offer. But..if you graduate to from college, we can pay this much more.”

He says “OK, I’ll take the college route and use the GI Bill.” About half way through he was going to school and he and my mom were married. He took a night shift working at a gas station and worked his way up to management.

The owner said “Pat, how would you like to run your own gas station?” So they offered him a station. He thought it was in Blue Island, Illinois which is actually Chicago -where he’s from. But it was Rock Island, Illinois. So dad's first business was owning and operating a Shell gas station. He ended up parlaying into several Shell gas stations. Which he parlayed into several Shell gas stations. And he got out of that - which is a story for another day.

So he starts Hogan’s video. I was born in 87. Dad started the video stores in 84-85. And so he built up Hogan’s video to a top 100 chain in the United States competing with the likes of, you know, the big boys at the time: Family Video and the 900 pound gorilla in the room, Blockbuster.

But we were a local chain just in the Quad Cities, really in Western Illinois, right on the Mississippi River. And I think that got up to 20 stores and the surrounding area. And this is all relevant, I promise. He opens up a one hour photography, in conjunction with the video stores themselves. Hey, come rent a video. But drop your film off and we'll develop the film, too.

QA Outdoors 
When the movie’s over — we'll have your pictures, right?

Kevin Hogan
Exactly. This is the genesis moment about how we got into the firearms business. Because he understood photography and color printing was becoming a “thing” he got approached to do a book with Richard Ellis. They did “Luger, the multinational pistol”.

Dad approached it from “I'm going to take the photography, and we're going to work with this printer.” That’s because in his video store business was actually doing color ads. At the time, it was revolutionary. He was a pioneer in that -especially from a local standpoint.

So he builds this book and he goes to work. So they parlayed the book. Dad was never a gun guy. So back then my my dad will tell you, “I couldn't point to the muzzle of a firearm back then I was just I was the businessman. They were the gun guys.”

But he saw an opportunity. So he got into Richard Ellis auctions along with Richard in 1991. They had one auction and ’91, one in ’92 and one auction in ’93.

Rock Island actually didn't become Rock Island until 95. But we say we're 30 years in business because the business didn't change. So 93 is when we say we started.

And so to get to your original question, I was around. I followed my dad around like a dog. If he was going to the gym to play basketball, I came along. I was only four, five years old. But dad’s from a family of eight -and is a work-ethic guy. So I’m helping by cleaning guns. I mean, he was watching, but he was like “you’ve got two capable hands, so you’re going to clean guns while you’re here.”

Then he said, “Kevin, I'm not going to pay you. But you can buy any gun in the auction.” We sold Teddy Roosevelt's “golden light” in that sale and luckily for him, I didn't pick it. Not that he would have done it anyways.

But I picked out a an antique Smith and Wesson first model, third issue. The lot number it was 908, I'll never forget it.

And he let me sit in the auction Hall. I'm six years old, with my grandmother. Nobody wanted to bid against a six year old kid with a bidder card on his head sitting next to his grandmother and I think I think we got the gun for like 300 bucks, not that it was worth much more.

QA Outdoors
I'm laughing because I grew up at horse auctions. We did the same thing. I used to bid on things that my dad really, really wanted because nobody is going to bid against the kid. People frowned on it, because either I ran the bid up or stopped the bidding - depending on whether we were buying or selling. You know, you look at your dad like “I don’t have another dollar” and everyone stops bidding.

Kevin Hogan
I'm not gonna be that guy. The adage always has been as far as I've been in the business for fine and historic antique arms collecting is, well it's really buy a book, buy gun. But we bought a gun, then bought a book. I always had a love for history, like a huge passion for history. Walking into our new Preview Hall down here, it says “history lives here”, because that's the richness, the passion that we have for it. And it's so exciting.

QA Outdoors
A lot of people have never been to an auction or never been into stuff, old stuff. They don't understand that attraction for the craftsmanship that goes into some of these collectibles.

Look at the engraving, the gold work, whatever it is. Or you just look at an old, three screw Colt and you realize, essentially, that someone with a pig of metal and a bastard file built this thing and it looks and works like a fine watch.

Kevin Hogan
We have somehow forgotten how ingrained firearms, specifically firearms manufacturing, is to the whole American system. Manufacturing is based on interchangeable parts. Everyone points at Mr. Ford, and says “the assembly line” - and he gets the credit.

But Samuel Colt was the original industrial tycoon. I just don’t know how or why there hasn’t been an epic blockbuster movie made about Sam Colt and his contributions to America. He’s entrenched in everything we do.

I don't want to jump ahead, but my mom saved my rocking horse from my childhood, you know, and my son’s on it. Now, we’re drowning on plastic shit from China -for lack of a better word -because that’s what it is.

QA Outdoors
We have given up the the long term for the temporary.. Maybe that’s where collectibles and auctions really get the allure? But…is there a “type” person that participates in your auctions? You’ve done 220 of them, you have a pretty good idea who’s buying and who’s selling. What do they look like?

Kevin Hogan
Anybody who’s going to close their eyes and picture that “collector” we like to joke about, sees someone male, gray hair or balding, but that’s not true.

Young people are engaging in what we do, just doing it in a different way.

If you want to check the temperature in the industry, you go walk around a gun show. If you do, you’re like “hey, it’s a bunch of old dudes” - but there are young people doing it too. They’re, unfortunately, doing it online where it’s a “click and be satisfied” world- but that’s the way they participate. So it’s a challenge for us.

For me, they’re missing half of the attraction by missing out on the social part of what we do: the gun shows or going to the gun shop - and coming to our auction. That’s why I will always produce a physical catalog for our Premiere Auctions, because I’m a hands-on guy and guys like catalogs. So we’ll never just go online- Rock Island will always produce a catalog.

We say, “we're not just having an auction, we're having an event.” You can physically touch this stuff. And that's the best part. But you're gonna learn, too. You're gonna learn something about something either you're already interested in, or you didn't know you were interested in.

All this knowledge gets passed down through guys who've been doing it for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, 50 years. It's like our greatest generation. We lose them every day -and that institutional knowledge isn’t written down, it’s just passed down. That’s the sad part about what we see going away.

Being there, talking to the guys, and building that relationship. You know, “hey, I’ve got a question - I can call this guy I met at Rock Island.”

That’s the most valuable thing we have.

QA Outdoors
Rock Island Auction’s sold guns from Napoleon. From Alexander Hamilton, Ulysses Grant. Theodore Roosevelt, Annie Oakley. Okay, that's history. You’re selling history.

But you also sold, and I've held them in my very own hands - guns had belonged to Elvis Presley, and a blaster from the Star Wars movies. That’s “Wow!” stuff for me.

The historic stuff appeals, but, my gosh, these were contemporaries for me. I remember Elvis, I met him, you know? To see guns that had laid around at his house, at auction, to know the guy who got them in the circumstances that he got them under, It’s cool to know “the Beatitudes” of how this gun came to this person. What do you call that -provenance in the auction world?

Kevin Hogan
That's right. I'll tell you a cool one. Because you'll appreciate the what's the neatest thing you've sold in the story.

We had a pair a French dueling pistols or French target pistols. They were on the USS Arizona. They were recovered from the USS Arizona. I’m not sure what the owner’s rank was, but he had to have immense “juice” -because they were in a safe on the USS Arizona when it went down in Pearl Harbor. And this guy had enough clout to get divers to go in and pull his safe out of his state room on the Arizona.

I don't know what else was in that safe. Obviously, they didn't do it to get these pistols, but they went down, they recovered that safe. And these pistols were in that site. We had all the documentation to prove it.

So, you know, a gun can have two histories, three histories. And that's a special case.

Like you said, provenance is important. When we go into a world-class collection, and pick the best gun, we believe that when we present that collection, being associated with the collection will bring the worst gun in that collection up 20-30-40 percent.

That’s because not everyone can afford that $5,000 gun or $10,000 gun or $20,000 gun. But I want to own a piece of firearms history. Norman Blank was a legend. Greg Lampe was a legend. I want to own a piece of his collection. It doesn’t just have to be someone “famous.”

QA Outdoors  
So, it’s just someone you know or some sort of connection to something? How much does that “connection” have to do with what you get for the “collection”?

Kevin Hogan
I'm immediately thinking right now of Greg Lampe. Because Greg Lampe was like, pure and simple, one of the best men I knew. He also built like what I call like a Mount Rushmore, first ballot Hall of Fame collection of 19th-20th century Colts.

If a gun was good enough for Greg, it's good enough for you. You know, his stuff’s photographed and, and in every important book on the subject.

We're selling his collection. And it's a one-stop-shop on some of the best there is.

But just because it was associated with his collection is the caveat. It will advance every gun in that collection.

The Greg Lampe Collection covered guns from the American Revolution to the Wild West. His collection of Colts was unmatched. Rock Island Auction image with permission.

QA Outdoors
The rising tide thing? OK, Rock Island has done, what seems to me to be a crazy number- $1.1 billion in gun sales. That's a lot of metal.

Kevin Hogan
That's a good way to put it. I actually like that. But I'll go the opposite way. I always say we live in constant frustration.

I want to shout it from the highest mountain that antique and collectible firearms are the most underrated, hard asset, alternative investment, tangible collection item out there.

Look at sports memorabilia, which has had a pretty impressive renaissance.

Look what COVID did for collecting. The federal government just shoots $3 trillion out of a T-shirt cannon. People are like “Oh, inflation is going crazy. I want to own something tangible. How do I hedge against all this stuff? Or I just want to own something I can touch and feel that's not gonna like ebb and flow with the s&p based on news that I can't control.”

So a Mickey Mantle rookie baseball card, which- by the way- I don't have as much a generational connection of baseball cards as your generation does. But you guys, you know, a 25- 50 cent bubble gum pack, and you got your baseball card.

Well, a Mickey Mantle rookie card that came out of one of those GM packs brought 12 and a half million dollars at auction in 2022 - 12 and a half million! We're sitting here and the barrier for entry on what we do and what we sell is lowcompared to a lot of other collectible assets.

In my opinion, the history is so much more profound with what we do, because it just spreads. I could be interested in German Lugers. I could be interested in high art European guns, you know, that have been around for 300 years. I could be interested in Smith and Wesson Performance Center guns that have been around for 40 years. It's just I mean, there's just so many different avenues.

Then I look at like Pebble Beach week when they do the Concours d'Elegance in California.

There's, you know, all the big Ferraris and Rolls Royces and stuff.

They’ll do - between the four major auction houses that put it on- t half a billion dollars in four days.

It's taken us 30 years to do a billion point one. When you actually look at the math, we did 50% of that in the last 10.

What that means to me is, I think I think our field is coming of age to a certain degree.

And people are kind of tuning in and turning on to it. We have a lot more work to do. But it's very encouraging. And it's fun. And it's it's great to see.

I remind our people - who needs a $5,000 gun who needs a $10,000 gun. Nobody, right?

We can never forget that - and all of this is so important. Dad's Winchester Model 70 is just as important to me, you know, as John Wayne screen-used gun to other people…because of that connection to it.

That's something that we can never forget.

QA Outdoors
I’m winnowing down my accumulation. I'm not a collector, I'm an accumulator. A collector has a theory I'm just like, “oh, a gun. Thanks, I’ll take it.”

A friend was looking at one of them the other day and he said, “That looks familiar.” Then he says “that gun’s on one of the backgrounds of Guns and Gear TV!” I said “yeah, I took the pictures.” Then he says, “you can’t sell that.” So I put it back in the safe. He says “what you doing - I want it.” I responded, “You said I couldn’t sell it -and that’s good enough for me. I’m keeping it.”

Let’s pivot and talk about where auctions are headed.

You said the new generation tends to disengage rather than engage with it because they want to do everything online. How do you and Rock Island get around that?

How do you motivate them to come see things?

Kevin Hogan
I'll go back to the late 80s. I'm 36. I was born in ’87. If I've studied anything, it's this marketplace and the people that were active in it. I'm a student of the firearms marketplace.

When Christie's sold a Winchester 1873, an original one of 1000, they sold that gun for about $36,000. It was kind of an “aha!” moment. It proved the viability of American firearms at auction, because everybody talks about how young a country we are and everything like this.

So that was a big moment.

Greg Martin ran the Arms, Armor and Western Memorabilia department at Butterfield and Butterfield. They sold Carl Presses’ collection in 1990 and 1991. They sold the John Woods collection Winchesters roughly the same time in 1992.

Up until then, it was a dealer with a dealer network. Dealers had the Rolodex as they traveled to, you know, 40 gun shows a year. When they were going to Tulsa, they had their clients they'd call. They’d bring their merchandise, they would sell it, and it never changed.

QA Outdoors
Like the blade shows today.

Kevin Hogan
Exactly. They had their Rolodex. That never changed. “We're coming to town, what do you have, let's go out to dinner.” There's a romance to business like that. It was a relationship game. It was playing long and, and building collections. That’s my passion today.

But the internet changed everything, like a lightning strike.

Auctions were taking over from the dealer network and have the internet. What happened- not to throw the dealers under the bus- was a lot of them didn’t adapt. And it didn’t take too-long before it was too late.

If I had $1 for everything I heard “I don’t believe in the internet” I’d have $500.

The dealer network got left in the dust. Their clients shifted, they were looking online. Dealers weren’t online, so the clients satisfied their desire elsewhere.

Dealers fell off because of the internet, and then the auctions really, really took over.

The GunBrokers and dealers that did have their own websites were game changers.

But I am old school in this respect: I believe this is still a relationship business. Our thing is let's have a relationship with our people. Let's understand what they want to do.

What do you want to build?

What are you looking for?

Then, as we're when we're out and about and we see something, whether it's at our auction house or somebody else's or a gun show or a dealer, we can we can call them and say “Hey, Jim, like, I know you're building this great model 70 collection. This guy's got a super grade with the original box and it's brand new. You got one on the wall or can we upgrade yours?”

My other thing is to see if I can get somebody to my auction. Once there, they might not come the next time, but they're gonna come again, because we make it in an event.

We want to know who our clients are. I can relate to the young side of the business - young’s relative, right in our field - I've gotten a little gray in my beard now. I'm not necessarily the youngest guy in the room anymore. But I can I can talk to the 28 year old, 27 year old 25 year olds who's interested.

I was that 12 year old kid walking around the gun shows. Some of the dealers would go “Hey kid, you don’t got any money, don’t touch my stuff” where they should have seen their future.

They should have said “Let me show you something. Or let me teach you something.” A lot of them did do that - but some didn’t.

QA Outdoors 
About the new customers…because of the internet, and online auctions are they smarter or more knowledgeable coming in for the first time than many of the older customers?


Kevin Hogan
There has definitely been a decline in scholarship. They haven't dedicated the the hours on the books, or the hours at the gun shows talking to those people and learning from them.

So I’d say some of them aren’t as well read as the old school. But that’s kind of under the microscope of where we are as a society.

QA Outdoors  
I say they're not intelligent, they're Google smart. It’s a nice way to say intellectually lazy. What they get are what they can search for and read -in short form.

Kevin Hogan
I look at like some of some of our clients who are highly successful people, and know the world's changed. Now you're dependent on your cell phone. In my business I have to answer my phone all the time, whether it's nine o'clock at night, or 10 o'clock at night, on a Saturday or Sunday, when when those guys want to chat.

That wasn't the case 20 or 30 years ago, so I think that translates to them and their business as well. I think everybody has like, a delusion of importance.

QA Outdoors
A wrap up question…What what's next for Rock Island?

Kevin Hogan
Great question. We're really good at guns, we know that. We know we’ll stick with that. What I’d like to do is expand into other areas. I really like the idea of Western Western wildlife and sporting art. I try to understand what our clients consume and what they like. And that is a natural crossover.

I'm passionate about the guns and passionate about what we do - and while we’re pushing harder, we’re sticking with what we sell with passion. We know what it means to be a collector.

Then there’s our jump down to Texas. It’s been years in the making. So we're trying to get our feet under us here.

So what's next for Rock Island? To dig in down here in Texas, and keep growing in our space. I'll look for other opportunities, but Rock Island has a standard and I want to stick to it. I'm not going to jump into something I don't think we can hold our standard to.

So we’ll keep growing in the firearm space and see if there are there are other opportunities.

The world is an ever-changing place. And we're slaves to fashion. In the gun business, some things are hot and some things are not. Paying attention to that is, is important.

QA Outdoors 
When's your next auction?

The Alan Cors Military Vehicle Collection will be part of the next RIAC auction, set for May 17-19 in RIAC’s new facilities in Bedford, Texas.

Kevin Hogan
Our next big sale is May 17 18th, and 19th here in Bedford. And that's the sale. So I have to give you an example of that.

We sold military vehicles four years ago. And that was a big job, like in every sense of the word . Selling, you know, a 90,000 pound tank. We'll be selling the Allen Cors collection in this next sale of military vehicles. That's a little bit of a departure, but we’ve got a great sale lined up for May.

The unfortunate part about our business is we’re always on to the next one. So while we’re working on this catalog -we’re also working on our next one.

The other thing we're doing is our Sporting and Collector sales. The flagship of finding historic firearms in the world is Rock Island Auctions’ Premiere Sales.

But we call our Sporting and Collector sale “beginner antiques.” Because not everybody can afford that $40- $50,000 Henry. But the desire doesn’t diminish. So they’re beginning antique collectors. Can’t tell you how many guys say “Hey, I really like this stuff, but I don’t want to go in, like, headfirst…”

QA Outdoors 
I don't want to spend my estate…

Kevin Hogan
Right, I want to see what I like. Many guys start off thinking they know what they want to collect. “I started collecting 1877 colts, but I realized that my passion’s 1911.”

So they get out of it. So it's a really great way for people to dip into the hobby and not truly break the bank. We're gonna we're gonna lean in and continue to improve that sale.

QA Outdoors
Great. My wife now has another date where she has to keep me in check. When you have an “accumulator sale”, that will probably be my estate.

Kevin Hogan
Well I respect the hell out of a mindset is like: “Do you like it?” “Yes.” “Do you love it?” “Yes."

“Can you afford it? “ “Yes.”

“Is it gonna make a difference?” “No.” “Well, I think you need it, you know?”

QA Outdoors
Well, I'm an American. I'm not about need. I'm about want.

Kevin Hogan
My North Star is first of all, you need to find out what you like.

People that say I want to do this for an investment, I respond you know that’s great, but you don’t make your money when you sell it, you make your money when you buy it. There has to be a want and enjoyment factor.

If you get into this field just to make money -there are are plenty of other ways to make some money.

What do you love? What do you want to do? It's that Northstar: what do I love is the perfect place to be That's the only place to be in some respects.

QA Outdoors
You're supposed to enjoy it while you have it. We're caretakers for the next generation the way I like to put

Kevin Hogan
It's the truth.

QA Outdoors
Can't think of a better place to stop than right here. Kevin, thank you.

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