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LITTLE boys who play soldiers - "Bang! Bang! You're dead" - turn effortlessly into collectors of obsolete weapons of death in adult life. Antique arms and armour is probably the only seriously sexist field across the whole range of collecting interests. It is indulged in almost exclusively by men, the grown-up versions of the boys who played soldiers. "Many collectors start young, often as children," says Howard Ricketts, London's leading dealer in seriously valuable arms. "I started at the age of six. My mother wouldn't let me have a cowboy pistol, so I began collecting swords."

When he was a schoolboy in Canterbury, Ricketts explains, antique shops were out of bounds; he and Timothy Stevens, now deputy director of the V&A, used to sneak off together. "He'd watch out for monitors while I looked at the guns. Then I'd stand guard while he looked at snuffboxes and objects of virtu."

Arms and armour is virtually the only collecting field to have been unaffected by the recession. Its popularity is one of the unsung sensations of the 1990s art market. In Christie's bi-annual auctions, it is rare for more than 2 or 3 per cent of items to be left unsold, whether they are cheap or expensive. They range from a dagger worth from £200-£300 to a richly ornamented duelling pistol worth £30,000.

The reason, according to Peter Hawkins, who has run Christie's sales for a quarter of a century, is the passionate interest of collectors. "There are no speculators in this market," he says. The grown-up schoolboys start with cheap items and, as they grow richer, gravitate to the rarer pieces. There is always a new generation of buyers coming in at the bottom. "The market has been consistent over the 25 years I've been in the business," Hawkins says .

He highlights another common factor that turns men into arms collectors - an interest in hunting, shooting and fishing. A high proportion of the antique arms that pass through Christie's were made to kill birds and animals for the pot. Their October 1994sale, for instance, contained a late 15th-century sporting crossbow at £13,800; on 29 March they will offer a 12ft wildfowling gun of the 19th century, with an estimate of £600-£800. Fired from a camouflaged hide on a freshwater lake, it could take out a whole flock of duck simultaneously.

Broadly speaking, collectors buy arms and armour for three reasons, sometimes in combination: as works of art, as slices of history and as intriguing early technology. The first truly magnificent European arms were made in the 15th and 16th centuries forroyal and princely families, especially in Germany; guns had their steel parts embellished with silver and gold, often elaborately chiselled or engraved, while the wooden stocks were either carved or set with inlays of ivory and other rich materials.

The highest price ever commanded for an antique European gun at auction is the £137,500 paid for a wheel-lock sporting rifle of around 1680, which was sold from the armoury of the Princes zu Salm-Reifferschiedt-Dyck at Christie's in April 1992. The fruitwood stock was richly carved with hunting scenes and foliage and inset with ivory plaques depicting scenes of the chase and mother-of-pearl eagles .

Great early pieces are now extremely rare. The few items that turn up tend to bypass the auction rooms, according to Ricketts, but there are not many of them. Great suits of armour have also nearly disappeared from the market; collecting armour was in vogue in America just after World War I and the most treasured items from many of Europe's princely armouries have ended up in American museums.

Only two spectacular suits of armour have been seen at auction since the war. In 1981 Christie's sold a suit of tournament armour commissioned from the royal armouries at Greenwich by Charles I's elder brother, the short-lived Prince Henry Frederick. It combines blued steel with richly engraved gilding and sold for £418,000 to Ronald Lauder, the son of Estee Lauder of cosmetics fame, who is America's leading collector of Gothic and later armour.

Two years later, Sotheby's offered a richly embossed three-quarter suit of armour made in the 1550s for Henry II of France in the Milanese workshop of Giovanni Paolo Negroli. A bidding battle pitted Lauder, represented by Howard Ricketts, against anotherAmerican millionaire who was "investing" in art on Sotheby's advice. This was his only venture into the arms field. He paid £1,925,000 - and resold the armour three years ago at a loss.

"Investing" in art was the great fashion of the 1980s and prices collapsed in many fields when the investors withdrew in 1990. Because there had been no investment-buying of arms and armour in the first place, there were no investors to pull out, and themarket has remained strong. The American's £1.9m purchase was an exception. The picture may be changing, however, as a boom in collecting American guns gets under way. Guns played a crucial role in American history, from the War of Independence, to the Civil War, the Gold Rush and the taming of the Wild West.

There has long been a keen collectors' market in the States for 19th-century guns, particularly Colts and Winchesters. Until recently it was mainly handled by dealers through fairs and exhibitions. In 1990, however, the leading art auctioneers in San Francisco, Butterfield and Butterfield, moved aggressively into the arms field. They took on a new consultant, Greg Martin, and raised finance to buy collections for sale; they have had some sensational successes.

Greg Martin explains that the Butterfield auctions have made information on market structure accessible to the general public. They have revealed the high prices collectors will pay for rare items: $770,000 (£485,000) for a Colt Paterson belt-model percussion revolver; $517,000 (£325,000) for a presentation Win-chester rifle of 1876; and $132,000 (£83,000) for a Bowie knife made in Sheffield in 1870.

These results have given a new group of rich men the confidence to start buying arms, says Martin. But the new buyers are "investors" and could well upset the applecart. American investment interest is beginning to spread from Americana to European arms,according to Nick McCullough, Sotheby's consultant (Sotheby's holds its main sales in America while Christie's concentrates on London).

The price rise in American arms has been the big sensation of the last few years - Greg Martin calls it "the most vibrant market of the Nineties" - but prices of Oriental arms are also on an upswing, with new buyers across the Middle East and Far East. Weapons made in Turkey, Iran, Arab countries and Moghul India are richly ornamental. Often studded with precious stones or mounted with carved jades, they resemble jewellery. This market has not yet been opened up at auction and Ricketts remains the kingpin and market maker.

With a boyish grin, he refuses to elucidate what prices collectors will pay. "Moghul jade daggers can sell for £15,000-£25,000," he says. But he won't name a price for two coral-mounted Turkish pistols, the only pair preserved in their original holsters."Their rarity makes them more valuable than the daggers".

Ricketts is actively involved with the return flow of arms to the Middle and Far East from the European and American collections in which they have been preserved for the last century. The best example of this is a pair of large cannon he found in America some years ago. Research showed them to be the very first bronze cannon cast in China by a Jesuit priest for the Emperor K'ang Hsi in 1688.

Taken from Peking during the Boxer Rebell-ion, the unsuccessful uprising in 1900 against foreign interests in China, the cannon were taken to Europe and then to America. Ricketts sold them to a collector in Australia 10 years ago, then last year resold them to the Chi Mei Culture Foundation in Taiwan for £125,000. The cannon had finally returned home. !