Market insight and what's ahead
"Keen buyer at today's market prices". Whenever adverts like this start to appear, it's a fair assumption that the market- any market- isn't headed upwards. The past few months have seen mixed results at auction, usually the most transparent market indicator, but the fact that anyone at all is buying motor cars whilst other collectors' items, let alone investments, are clearly softening has arguably boosted general confidence. So far we've seen no signs of the 1990-1991 crash despite a far wider reaching global economic crisis.
Setting the early tone for 2009, the year's first major sales took place in Arizona, where Gooding and RM went head to head whilst local firm Barrett-Jackson, once the flag bearer for January's auctions in the desert, nowadays provides the lower to mid market 'filler'. With turnovers of $32,442,950 and $18,211,025 respectively (not to mention B-J's $60,813,390, achieved with 1,075 cars- not a misprint), it's probably fair to conclude that David Gooding's affable professionalism is earning him an ever greater share of the upper end of the auction market. For the first time, both auctions were broadcast live over the internet: great for marketing and a feature you can expect to quickly become the norm.
Top price of the weekend went to Gooding, who sold an unrestored Ferrari 250GT SWB California Spyder with the all-important covered headlights for $4,950,000. Offered by the late owner's family without reserve and now ripe for 're-commissioning' (translation in restoration-speak: $300,000 and counting), it was bought by a Seattle based collector who, perhaps tellingly, has waited until now before investing in cars of this value. Amazing what a discount you get if it wasn't driven by James Coburn...
For those who are wondering, an identical unrestored, covered headlight SWB California Spyder has since been sold privately for within 5% of the auction price.
Across town at the glitzy Biltmore Resort where RM has held its Scottsdale sales for almost a decade, bidding on their heavily publicized Corvette Grand Sport was taken to $4.9m and abandoned. This may be the king of muscle cars, but the market for Detroit V8 iron of any variety is down and pure racers like this trade among a rarified circle of collectors almost exclusively in private deals.
Another high profile casualty was the 1958 Ferrari 250GT Tour de France. The value of these cars has risen dramatically in recent years, but they've recently been hit by the new Mille Miglia organizers excluding cars built after May 1957 (the date of the last 'real' Mille Miglia, although the previous management allowed later TdFs to run if they looked the same) and two recent auction no-sales. This car's luck wasn't helped by a non-matching engine and a recent foray into the scenery during a race in Florida. It stalled at $1.8m.
There's an old British saying that you wait ages for a bus and then three come along at once. It took seven years for another Bugatti Type 57S ('surbaissée') to appear at auction after the last one was sold by Bonhams at Quail Lodge in 2001 for $1.7m. Suddenly, in a six month period no fewer than three have come up for sale: the first was from the late Peter Williamson's collection and headlined Gooding's Pebble Beach sale last August, setting the record price for the weekend at $7.9m. When both RM and Bonhams announced similar offerings late last year, everyone wondered how they would fare. At first sight, the 'high bid' of $4.4m on the car at RM (which didn't buy it) might suggest that the market has been hit hard since last summer, but dig closer and the car in question was modified to long tail configuration during a 1970s restoration when owned by the Harrah collection, much of the bodywork being re-skinned at the same time, and the engine appears to have been re-stamped at some stage in its life. At these price levels, and with just 17 such cars built, buyers tend to do very detailed homework and sit on their hands unless it's exactly the car they want.
More telling, perhaps, was the sister Bugatti Type 57S Atalante offered by Bonhams at Retromobile in Paris. This car had been pursued by historians, dealers and fellow collectors for many years but its reclusive late British owner, Dr Harold Carr, steadfastly refused to show the Bugatti to anyone, only serving to heighten interest in the car which he had bought in 1955. Originally owned by racing aristocrat Lord Howe, it had been hidden in Dr Carr's garage for almost half a century and news of its appearance at auction generated headlines around the world. When it finally broke cover to star centre stage in Paris, some observers were taken back by its state. Where does preservation end and neglect begin? No amount of oil would free the engine and saving the original aluminium bodywork will cost far more than restoring it 'as new' (you can see why Bill Harrah chose the latter route back in 1976), but there's no questioning this car's provenance- arguably the best of any 57S- so despite a final price of $4,408,575 it seemed very good value compared to Gooding's example, even factoring in a dollar that had gained 14% against the Euro in the intervening six months. Once can also speculate how the appearance of yet another Type 57S for sale, this one privately, might have affected the Retromobile price. Not hard for bidders to miss- it was displayed on a dealer's stand about fifty paces from the Earl Howe car- it will have inevitably taken some of the wind out of Bonhams' sails. Better to let the 'barn find' car first do well then begin marketing? The result suggests so.
Food for thought, surely, for anyone out there who believes that the value of 'blue chip' collectibles- and I'd challenge anyone who says this isn't such a car- are recession proof, but equally for those who suggest that buyers have gone into 'economic hibernation' (a phrase borrowed from a well-known US dealer).
There was no shortage of bidders for the other 'star' car at Retromobile, an even more famous Bugatti known by its nickname 'Black Bess'. The 1913 Bugatti Type 18, boasting a formidable 5 litre displacement and timed in period at 99mph (it's been suggested this is the model responsible for Ettore's retort: "I design my cars to go, not to stop"), was first owned by French aviator Roland Garros and was hammered sold to a major Dutch buyer after frenetic bidding at $3,131,475, soaring over its $1.5 million reserve. This really was irreplaceable and the bidders knew it.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, the Citroen Owners Club was celebrating late into the night after an immaculate and ultra rare DS23 ie ('injection électronique') Cabriolet established a new record: $435,375 seemed scarcely believable. One wonders what the Ferrari Owners Club thought when a 275GTS sold for $371,520 a few minutes later, albeit one where the purchase price looked like just the start...
Across town at the Palais des Congres, best summed up as a conference centre set inside a shopping mall, French commissaire priseurs Poulain Le Fur doggedly soldier on with their annual auctions. Heading the non-sales were a one-off 'targa style' Ferrari Daytona shown by Pininfarina at the 1969 Paris Salon (taken to $1.8m and declared invendue) whilst a charismatic 1969 Matra MS650 Sports Prototype did actually sell at $1,922,933. The Ferrari Enzo, Lola T70, Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 and Porsche Carrera RSR 3.0 did not, but one wonders how motivated both the auction house and the owners were about selling.
Back across the Atlantic, RM's Amelia Island auction in March has become a major fixture and increasingly attracts 'heavyweight' lots, but this year bidders were increasingly picky. The headline offering, an open headlight 1959 Ferrari 250GT LWB California Spyder, was beautifully presented but the frequency with which they are appearing at auction cannot be helping; this one stopped short of reserve at $1.95m bid (it needed to make $2.2m). To put this into perspective, just over a year earlier an almost identical yellow example sold for $3m plus premium in Arizona.
A 'big block' Cobra 427 with a claimed 16,000 miles from new seemed a good deal at $610,000 in a post-auction sale, whilst a 289 Cobra sent over from the UK went home again. RM worked hard to sell 83% of the lots on offer, a high success rate even in boom times, but a $12m turnover compared to $16m in 2008 highlights what a difference shifting just one or two 'big ticket' items can make.
So much for what's gone before: what comes next is even more exciting.
Far from playing it safe, we'll soon be witnessing three of the most valuable cars to appear at auction this decade. This Friday US auction company Mecum will bravely put an original '65 Shelby Daytona racing coupe (America's answer to the Ferrari GTO and similarly revered) 'on the auction block' with a $10m-plus estimate. It's not a newcomer to the market and has changed hands specifically with a view to being auctioned. Suggesting uncanny clairvoyance, Mecum claims: "We know without question that it will set a record for an American car at public auction; it could set a world record." Not to be outdone, RM's Maranello extravaganza in a couple of weeks sees the Canadian outfit also vying to set the world record for a car at auction with two possible contenders: the first a classic, 'pontoon fendered' Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa which carries an estimate well over $10 million ($14-16m has been suggested); the second an even more exotic 350 Can Am which the auction house chooses to refer to in its earlier incarnation as one of the three P4s built, and which carries a similar estimate to its forebear.
My money's on the 350 Can Am- P4 if you prefer- as it's the first time such a car has come to auction, despite the best previous attempts of the US Revenue Service (always thwarted at the last moment by the seller, who must be a mean poker player), and sports prototypes don't come much sexier than this. Although Ferrari won't give this car Classiche certification if returned to P4 configuration, as it last left the factory as a Can Am, they would give it their new Attestato di Interesse Storico (Historical Interest Attestation) which at least gives it the official seal of approval, for those to whom this is important...
Needless to say there are both varieties of California Spyder- LWB and SWB- plus a host of more affordable road cars. Perhaps not the most fashionable, but my tip of the sale is the two-owner Ferrari 500 Superfast. Delivered new to UK peer Lord Hanson in British Racing Green without the rear 'Superfast' script ("Too flashy") and handled by us on his behalf in 2000, it's covered just over 15,000 miles and modestly estimated at Eu.450,000-500,000 offers history and exclusivity in abundance.
The next day Bonhams will be hoping to tempt bidders a few hundred miles up the coast to Prince Rainier's car collection overlooking the harbor in Monte Carlo where offerings include three modern era racing Ferraris from a well-known Swiss collection- F40LM, 333SP and 575GTC- together with the first Porsche 906 built and a selection of post-war sports cars.
Looking still further ahead, Bonhams have bravely decided to offer the formidable '39 Auto Union D-type Grand Prix car which caused red faces at Christie's in 2007 when withdrawn shortly before it was due to be auctioned 'whilst research continues into its history'. The irony is that although it wasn't the chassis number that was claimed, it's still genuine and any 'Silver Arrow' racer will always be a world class museum piece (to paraphrase an old saying, if you need to ask about useability, you can't drive it) with a value to match. I'm not sure how bidders will react so soon after the first aborted sale, but here's hoping it finds a new and appreciative home.
Our overall take on the market? Values are down compared to their 2007/2008 peaks, probably by an average of 15-20% (less for older, rarer cars; more for younger and more plentiful models), but at these new levels there is a buzz of activity. Of course many sellers take the view that if they can't achieve yesterday's record prices they'll wait, but those who can afford to- sellers who bought well and long term buyers with cash- are keeping the market busy. Watch this space...
What the others say:
Adrian Hamilton, leading British competition car dealer: "Pleased to report that we've just sold the ex-Rob Walker 1960 Ferrari Dino 196S to a new owner in Europe for a figure close enough to the $6m asking price to put a smile on the face of the British seller."
Dale Miller, classic racing Porsche expert and broker: "Great history cars are still very strong...having just completed two deals on significant history Porsche Prototypes. Mediocre cars are of minimal interest to refined collectors, as they should be."
Rafael Pueche, Spain's best-known classic car dealer: "In Spain the economic situation is worse than the rest of Europe (8 of every 10 people that lost their work in EU are from Spain and our unemployment rate is 18% - average in EU is 8%- THANK YOU ZAPATERO!!!!) but the collector car market is not that bad. The year began with the sale of a nice looking Bugatti T44 with a very extravagant interior and more recently an Auburn 851 SC Speedster and a red 300 SL Gullwing. But I would suggest that the opportunities for us are now in buying cars. We just bought an excellent Maserati 3500GT Touring, a very interesting Hispano Suiza T49 sport and the H6B Saoutchik was a nice purchase."
Gregor Fisken, leading UK historic road and racing car dealer: "The last month has seen an increase in activity after what would have been a quiet winter had we not taken part at Retromobile and Essen, where we sold a racing GT40, ex-Le Mans XK120, SS100, Blower Bentley and a 'time warp' 289 Cobra. Prices are off compared to 2008 asking prices, perhaps by 10% or more for anything which needs explaining. The best of the best is still selling well if appropriately priced."
Photographs courtesy: Marcel Massini, Pawel Litwinski/Gooding & Company (Ferrari 250GT SWB California), Rivers Fletcher, Octane Magazine, www.classicdriver.com, www.ultimatecarpage.com, www.supercars.net, www.pmimage.ch