The booming world of auto auctions offers exciting experiences for casual hobbyists and serious car collectors alike.
By Joe Yogerst
“While fine art and wine are exceptional in their own way, they are rather static enjoyments and investments,” says Alain Squindo, vice president of collector car auctioneer RM Sotheby’s. “Classic cars, on the other hand, appeal to each of our senses, and offer entry into an exciting world of rallies, races, tours and concours events. It’s an interest in which people unite in a shared passion in a very practical and exciting way, and it’s this passion-driven quality that is most important to the long-term health of the hobby.”
Events for Enthusiasts
With the hobby booming, there are plenty of opportunities for new and seasoned buyers to indulge their passion for classic chrome. In addition to RM Sotheby’s, Barrett-Jackson Auction Company and Mecum Auctions offer a nationwide slate of auctions that double as antique auto festivals where serious buyers mingle with those who just want a close-up look (and maybe even a fleeting touch) of some of the most coveted cars on the planet.
Barrett-Jackson’s 2016 calendar included a late January auction in Scottsdale, Ariz., part of a nine-day celebration of the company’s 45th anniversary in the city. Among the approximately 1,500 rare and collectible vehicles on the auction block was a 1947 Talbot-Lago T-26 Worblaufen Cabriolet offered for sale for the first time in 24 years; a buyer took it home for $715,000. Another highly anticipated vehicle was “The French Connection,” a one-off custom beauty with an Italian 12.8-liter, all-aluminum HEMI V12 engine and Turbo 400 transmission. It was California hot rod master Boyd Coddington’s last build before passing away in 2008, and sold for $407,000. Other Barrett-Jackson events planned for this year include an auction in Palm Beach, Fla. (April); Uncasville, Conn. (June); and Las Vegas (October).
Mecum Auctions is also holding a variety of can’t-miss events in 2016. It is auctioning a thousand cars each at NRG Park stadium in Houston (April 14-16) and in Louisville, Ky. (Sept. 8-10), among many other auctions. If you can’t be there in person, many will be televised in select cities on NBCSN; the schedule is available on mecum.com.
Meanwhile, RM Sotheby’s is hosting auctions during the Grand Prix de Monaco Historique week in Monaco (May), while its U.S.-based events include those in Detroit (July) and California during the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance (August). The latter entered the history books last year when it became the highest grossing collector car auction of all time, with a staggering $172.9 million changing hands.
With so many events to look forward to, it can be difficult to decide which to attend. Prospective participants’ specific interests, traveling preferences and purchasing plans can help narrow it down. Different auctions attract different kinds of buyers, which means the auction houses offer a distinct selection of cars for sale at their various venues. Location alone can play a major factor in the experience.
“You never can tell, but you see at our Palm Beach auction, the locals buy more cars that they want to take out and drive,” Barrett-Jackson Chairman and CEO Craig Jackson explains. “The people that fly in, they are there to collect collector cars. In Florida, we might sell more late model exotics and late model Rolls-Royces. Las Vegas is sort of the same thing—people want to buy a cool car and drive it right away. In Scottsdale, it’s a whole different world because everybody comes to Scottsdale—you have every kind of buyer. And I think we’re going to see a good cross section of cars at our inaugural Northeast auction at Mohegan Sun. I think we’re going to see buyers from that whole region and we’re going to see a whole lot of diversity.”
Each RM Sotheby’s event also has its own distinct style and character. For example, the Pebble Beach sale is best known for sports and racing, while the Detroit “Motor City” auction places a strong emphasis on American-built classics. Buyers at these events hail from around the globe—in 2015, RM Sotheby’s welcomed bidders from nearly 60 countries.
“The fact that we design our sales as ‘destination’ events also helps draw international audiences,” Squindo says. “Overall, we find that European sports and GT cars enjoy a truly global following and regularly top the bill at each of our events, irrespective of location. The appetite for American automobiles is not quite as strong in Europe, something we are very conscious of when it comes to handpicking select American-built vehicles for our European sales.”
Looking to the future, Squindo is confident that interest in purchasing classic cars will remain robust and demand for the best of the best will stay strong: “The demand for high quality is driven by the fact that the market is still fundamentally underpinned by enthusiasts.”
While every auto enthusiast has his or her particular passions, GT cars (for Grand Touring or Gran Turismo) have long been auction favorites and offer entry into an assortment of hobby events. These high-performance luxury vehicles run a broad gamut from vintage Porsche, Aston Martin and Alfa Romeo sports cars to classics from Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz. But the king of the GT auction block is Ferrari.
The all-time auction record is $38 million for a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO purchased in August 2014 at a Bonhams’ Quail Lodge Auction. That beat the previous record of $30 million for a 1954 Mercedes-Benz W196R race car sold the previous year.
Many of the other top-grossing auction sales of 2015 were also manufactured by the prestigious Italian marquee, including the $17.6 million purchase of a 1964 Ferrari 250 LM offered as part of RM Sotheby’s The Pinnacle Portfolio. Last year also saw a new benchmark for another vintage race car—a Jaguar 1953 C-Type Works Lightweight that sold for $13.2 million.
However, Squindo says he has noticed a subtle yet definite evolution of collector buying habits within the last year. “Most notably a rise in values for modern supercars as those who cherished models like the Lamborghini Countach and Ferrari 512 BB as ‘poster cars’ of their youth from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s find themselves with the disposable income to enter the market and purchase their very own drivable example.”
Although sports and racing models continue to dominate top-seller lists, blue-chip American classics also have a strong following. RM Sotheby’s presentation of the Paul and Chris Andrews Collection in spring 2015 established a new auction benchmark for a number of vintage Detroit cars with several coach-built examples well-exceeding expectations.
Highlighting the auction was a striking 1934 Packard Twelve Individual Custom Stationary Coupe by Dietrich, which soared past its high estimate to achieve an incredible $4 million-plus—a new world record for a Packard sold at auction. “At the end of the day, one trend remains clear—no matter the marquee, quality sells,” Squindo says.
Barrett-Jackson has also seen a rise in interest for classic Detroit options. “Americana is hot right now,” Jackson says. “We’re not necessarily concentrating anywhere, but probably less on prewar cars and more on postwar cars. Less on European cars, unless it’s modern supercars. We have a good quantity of restomods [classic cars that have been restored with modern parts]. Probably the best selection of Pontiac GTOs we’ve ever had.”
New to the Block
Even the most passionate car fans may find that high energy (and high price) auctions can be daunting for a first-time buyer. Jackson recommends that newcomers really think about what they want in advance—a pretty thing to show off in your garage, or a fully functional vehicle to tool around in.
“Know what you’re looking for,” Jackson says. “Do you want a driver, a restomod? Or do you want a car to show in a concours? It’s all about what you want and what you want it for.” After that, Jackson recommends going to the auction early and asking a lot of questions—auction houses are more than happy to help newcomers. Barrett-Jackson, for example, offers an Experts’ Symposium in Scottsdale. “We have experts on hand at the symposiums to help explain what to look for when buying a car. It’s all about doing your homework and making sure you are buying a car that’s right for you and for what you want to do with it,” Jackson says.
Squindo agrees. He says that potential buyers should always do their homework and seek out as much information as possible to ensure an informed purchase decision. “Take advantage of the resources and research tools available to you, from various classic car magazines to the Internet, and trust the experts. In the case of RM Sotheby’s, treat our team as a resource; don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek out advice from our expert team of specialists, that is after all, what they are there for.”
Most importantly, Squindo advises to simply “buy what you love.” He believes these cars are, or at least should be, highly emotional purchases and not just instruments of financial speculation. “If you don’t love it, it probably shouldn’t be in your garage,” he says. “If you do love it—get it—they probably aren’t making any more of them. In brief, a classic car should, first and foremost, be an investment in pleasure—if it goes on to appreciate in value, that’s a bonus.” Squindo also recommends that newcomers buy the best they can afford. “As is the trend each and every year, quality sells.”
Sea Island’s Classic Car Club
The Georgia coast isn’t immune to the car collecting bug, where the new Sea Island Auto Club (SIAC) has already amassed several dozen enthusiasts and quite a few chrome classics.
Launched in April of last year, the club already has 26 members and more people interested in joining. “Being its first year, we’ve been gathering once a month and have opened the club to any car enthusiasts in the Sea Island family,” says Blair Webb, director of events at Sea Island.
Among the vehicles in the SIAC stable are a rare convertible 1930s Ford, seldom-seen Porsches from the 1960s and 1970s (along with fun-to-drive ones from the 1980s and 1990s), a “barn find” 1967 Shelby GT500 that’s been completely rebuilt, several hard-to-find BMWs and a couple of vintage Volkswagen Beetles.
The number of events is also increasing. “Currently we have a gathering once a month and plans for quarterly rallies/parades,” Webb says.
Several SIAC members recently raced their vintage Porsches at the 2015 edition of the Classic 24 Hour at Daytona, and club cars will participate in the 2016 version of Sea Island’s annual Fourth of July parade. Down the road, the club is thinking about organizing its own concours d’elegance for classic autos.