From Arizona To Paris: Where are we Heading?
By Simon Kidston
The year of the bulls...or just plain bull? "New World Record" seems to be the default phrase after every auction right now, but is the classic car market entering a new recession-proof era as some would have you believe, or is it just business as usual for the marketing departments?
The sale totals just keep growing, the percentages sold are hovering near all-time highs, and even most magazines tell you that the market's hot. It's a far cry from the financial markets. Press releases can be useful but if you want to understand the whole picture there's only one way to be sure: go there and investigate for yourself. We've just returned from Paris where the atmosphere in one saleroom is still buzzing tonight, and before that from five days meeting and talking to the players in Arizona to assess the mood and find out what was really behind this year's headline figures.
If all the US auctioneers agreed on one thing in private before the action kicked off, this wasn't a vintage year for discoveries, exciting fresh merchandise or big ticket Lots. Times have changed since Scottsdale's heyday in the late 1980s, before the Pebble Beach auctions achieved their world class status and creamed off the best cars. That hasn't stopped the Arizona sales week developing in its own direction. Let's take a closer look.
A mind-boggling array of over 2,000 cars, not to mention trucks, bikes and other oddities converged on Scottsdale, a suburb of Phoenix, to parade in front of a mostly American audience almost as varied as the offerings themselves, from window shoppers who look like they've enjoyed one Big Mac too many to the clique of powerful movers and shakers arriving by Gulfstream. And battling for the wallets of this diverse clientele under the desert sun were no fewer than six auction houses whose style couldn't be more different.
Big, brash and very, very loud, Barrett-Jackson is the granddaddy of classic car auctions in the USA and its formula is as much about entertainment as what's being sold: this year the 1,322 Lots up for auction under the worlds biggest tent ranged from a hot-rodded hearse to a new auction-within-an-auction formula which B-J have styled their 'Salon Offering Collection' (nothing to do with haircuts). This featured 'investment grade' collectors cars, taking the fight back to the newcomers who've largely snatched B-J's share of the market in multimillion dollar classics. The roped-off Salon enclosure, spot-lit and overseen by the charming and immaculate Gordon McCall- a recent defection from Bonhams- displayed the infamous '47 Bentley MkVI bodied by Franay complete with frogskin upholstery, one of just 51 Tuckers built and - one of the most talked about cars of the weekend - a regular steel Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing showing just 4,149 miles on the odometer. B-J's clientele may not ask quite the same detailed questions as your average well-heeled collector, nor do they seem to read the same value guides, but they aren't shy when they want something. The Bentley and the Tucker sold, apparently to the same young bidder, at $2,750,000 and $2,915,000 respectively (yes, more records...), whilst the Gullwing, twice repainted and last sold at auction by Sotheby's in 1995 for $200,000, drew applause when the hammer fell this time at $2.2 million. Whether the odometer was correct is probably as irrelevant to the wider market as the price itself.
Outside and somewhat in contrast, accompanied by blasting rock music and the omnipresent smell of fried food (courtesy of an 18-wheeler mobile grill: 'the world's largest', of course), independent 'vendor booths' hawked everything from a monumental ten ton granite mausoleum, perhaps to accompany the hearse, to cowboy boots in every colour and exotic skin (except frog, presumably already used up), light aircraft and- bizarrely the biggest seller of all- water mattresses. Consider that B-J's merchandising shop sold $190,000 of T-shirts in just one hour, and their week-long event was attended by no fewer than 270,000 fee-paying visitors: there's no doubt that whatever it may lack in finesse it more than makes up for in sheer dollar income. B-J claim 99.69% sold for a total of $92 million...excluding T-shirts.
Now for the serious stuff. At the other end of the spectrum and almost unnoticed in comparison, old school British firm Bonhams bravely chose to enter the dragons den in what, despite the firm's venerable origins, at this most American of venues seemed like a David vs Goliath contest. A lonely signpost on the highway directing visitors to the auction adorned with the year '1793' of the company's founding looked strangely at odds leading to the über-modern hotel where the event was held, in a town and state which didn't exist in 1793. Top sellers here were a Mercedes-Benz 540K Cabriolet C, a ponderous tourer whose star has long since moved on (returning to Europe at $667,000), and the ex-Marlene Dietrich Rolls-Royce Phantom I ($524,000). Buy of the sale had to be the 'barn find' '55 Porsche 356 Speedster which, at $100,620, looked great value compared to the finished product at RM for over three times the price. More than one onlooker remarked, though, that arriving in town with a higher buyers' premium than your rivals but little in return doesn't help Bonhams, where turnover was a modest $6 million, for a 70% success rate.
RM returned to Scottsdale to go head-to-head with arch-rival Gooding, but despite being the older kid on the block they now find themselves playing catch-up. Headlining RM's sale was the wildly finned Ferrari 410 Superamerica which the late Greg Garrison had reconstructed in the early 1990s from a bare chassis, the car having been stolen and its body cut off and thrown in a lake. Love or hate the styling, you have to wonder whether Scaglietti would have added a lurid engine-turned finish to the unpainted wings and roof, or contrast piping to the interior. Last seen at Gooding five years ago ($1.32m), here it was rescued for $1,815,000 by the now-familiar 73-year old American Ferrari buyer who's been busy shopping over the past year.
Bidding was more competitive on the ex-Lee Iacocca Ferrari F40 with just 283 miles from new. Key to the price was the garage queen mileage and provenance, and it sold for $781,000 to a Texan supercar collector. The Ferrari Daytona Spyder, a well-presented US version showing 38,000 miles and repainted Retail Red from the original green, stayed Stateside at a representative $990,000. One of the most admired cars of the sale, the Ferrari 250GT Lusso which had finished the '64 Targa in a remarkable 13th place overall driven by its private Sicilian owner before a more sedate life on the concours circuit, cost its new American owner just under a million dollars. Bringing Gullwing prices elsewhere down to earth, RM's unremarkable example reminded us that average car = average price ($632,500).
Held in a conference hall, this sale had a businesslike feel and did no more or less than was expected: 90% sold, mostly to US buyers, for a very respectable $25.6 million. If you don't have the best cars to sell, you can't sell them.
And the winner is...without question Gooding & Co. For the fifth year running they achieved the highest price of the Scottsdale week ($4.62m for the alloy Gullwing- see the profile in the next SCM magazine) and this time the highest sale total of the traditional-style auction houses, $39.8 million, with a 98% success rate.
Whilst the array of cars available was a far cry from what we've come to expect in Monterey, Gooding presented what they had on offer better than anyone and auctioneer Charlie Ross worked relentlessly, cajoling, teasing and occasionally reprimanding bidders to draw out every last dollar. From the atmosphere inside the saleroom you'd never have known you were in a tent in a shopping mall car park. It just shows what you can do with imagination- and a decent budget.
Looming large in Goodings results is one man, bidder no. 306, a figure making waves in the global classic car market. He's believed to be the same mystery buyer who set a new world record last year, paying over $16m for the Ferrari Testa Rossa at Gooding. Rumour has it he's spent far more than that privately since then. In Scottsdale he was back, represented by his man sitting quietly in the fifth row, raising his paddle when he wanted something and keeping it raised until other bidders gave up. Here he took home the alloy Gullwing (yes, another record...), the Bentley 4 ½ Litre tourer ($2.145m, arguably double the going rate) and my old Maserati Ghibli SS Spyder ($880,000). Who he is, and where the cars are going, is the best kept secret in the business- it's said even the auction house doesn't know his name- but he certainly has good taste and the means to back it up.
And so across the Atlantic to the rather chillier climate in Paris, where the European big guns have just finished dueling as the worlds collectors, making their annual pilgrimage to the French capital for the Retromobile show, watch the outcome. The final Lots are still crossing the block as we write this, but the pattern is already clear to see. Bonhams, with a rather sparse dispay in the Halle Freyssinet, a more industrial venue than last year's lavish Grand Palais (hired after losing the coveted Retromobile in-house spot to Artcurial), had been outmanoeuvred by their Gallic rivals in the complicated battle to secure the collection of the late Jean-Claude Bajol, a colourful, chain smoking Ferrari collector of the old school who had, at various times, owned some of the greats including a 250GTO. Boosted by the Bajol cars and headlined by his ex-Roger Vadim Ferrari 250GT California Spyder, Artcurial's auction was the one to watch and it didn't disappoint. Their man in charge, Mathieu Lamoure, confided to me before the sale that he had dreamed a few nights earlier the price it might fetch. And guess what? He might have a career as a fortune teller.
So what should we conclude after two frenzied weeks of auction activity on both continents? The frequency with which records continue to be set suggests that interest in great cars- really great cars, not just average examples of high value models- is growing at an even faster pace than previously. A word of caution, though, as press releases don't usually tell you when two bidders alone battled it out to set a new benchmark. Consider what happens when one isn't there or has already bought a car...
Everything else, no matter how much gloss is applied, is either changing hands at fair market value or, where owners are unwilling or intransigent, not at all. So for now, business as usual.
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The cars everyone's talking about:
1959 Ferrari 250GT LWB California Spyder: €4.4m ($5.79m) (Artcurial)
You read it here first. Sold late tonight in Paris, it blitzed its pre-sale estimate. Bidding opened at €1.4m and, with nine telephone lines active, climbed steadily until one of them defeated the last remaining bidder in the room, a Brit. A great specification, with covered headlights, hard top and an elegant colour scheme, fresh to the market and of course that history. The California was made for characters like Vadim- call it the French Steve McQueen factor.
1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing (alloy): $4.62 million (Gooding)
One of the 29 built and the first offered at auction since 2006 (when one sold for $924,000), this 300SL had been acquired by the late Ken McBride in 2008 for $1.2m and subsequently re-restored. With no known famous ownership or race history, it could be described as a fine example but not the best. The family had declined $2.5m before the auction. Two bidders, however, wanted the same car on the same day: Mr Mystery prevailed.
1954 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing (steel): $2.2 million (Barrett-Jackson)
A perfectly normal Gullwing to look at, except that most can't claim to having covered just 4,149 miles from new. The tongues have been wagging online about this one, which with two repaints is hardly a shoo-in for the Preservation Class at Pebble, but its history is accepted and at least two bidders at Barrett-Jackson believed the mileage. A unique price for what may well be a unique Gullwing, and likely to remain that way, at least for now.
1959 BMW 507: $990,000 (RM)
Particularly handsome in black with green leather (the restorers choice) and very shiny, but experts faulted small details and, critically, the engine was a later replacement. Good value for the buyer.
1971 Maserati Ghibli 4.9 SS Spyder: $880,000 (Gooding)
The ultimate spec for one of these, beautifully presented and documented, in its distinctive original colour scheme. An average red, 4.7 litre, manual Spyder sold at RM for $302,000 the same day. The best and the rest just get further apart.
1956 Lancia B24 Convertible: $561,000 (Gooding)
Make no mistake, this was a regular convertible, not one of the sexy Spider Americas, but its restoration was superb and bidders fell over each other to own it. It may take some time before the price is repeated but at least owners and restorers might now be inspired to go the extra mile.
Winners and losers so far in 2012
Barrett-Jackson: 99.69% sold for a total of $92 million
Gooding: 98% sold for a total of $39.8 million
RM: 90% sold for a total of $25.6 million
Bonhams USA: 70% sold for a total of $6 million
Bonhams Paris: 61% sold for a total of €7.18 million
Artcurial are still having dinner
Images courtesy of Artcurial, RM Auctions, Bonhams and Gooding & Company (Pawel Litwinski).