Market Insight: Presentation, Presentation, Presentation...
It's no different to 'location, location, location' in real estate and it can make all the difference when you're selling your car, especially at auction. Gather thirty beautiful automobiles, publish them in a lavish, no-expense-spared catalogue and then show them off in a carpeted pavilion in the grounds of a lakeside villa as part of Europe's most exclusive concours d'elegance, and you're on the right track.
Of course presentation isn't a substitute for quality, and no matter how slick the catalogue text, when you enter the realm of 'blue chip' motor cars buyers are very, very savvy. Auctions serve as a magnifying glass for both assets and blemishes and vendors need to have answers ready to questions they hadn't even thought of.
So when lot number one pulled up in front of the audience at RMs inaugural Villa d'Este auction after months of anticipation, the grandstand was packed with buyers, sellers, dealers and press from around the world, all eager to gauge the state of the market. Dealers were quick to point out that many of the offerings weren't fresh and gave the outcome as a foregone conclusion. Sellers were optimistic that some of the concorso's magic dust would be sprinkled on their consignment, and - failing that - at least a fistful of euros would be preferable to the same in dollars. Either way auctioneer Max Girardo knew he had his work cut out.
Two hours later, RM had shifted almost three quarters of the heavy metal on offer including some surprisingly bullish prices. Top sale was the dazzling, two-tone liveried Ferrari 375MM with unique, tail-finned Pinin Farina bodywork, a veteran of as many concours d'elegance as 'for sale' adverts in recent years, heading for a new home back in the USA and some well deserved seclusion at a slightly-below-estimate €3,360,000. Not far behind on price, and every bit as striking in appearance, the 1938 Talbot-Lago T150C SS 'teardrop' coupe by Figoni & Falaschi generated just enough bidding from a European collector for its Forbes 500-ranked owner to let it go at €3,136,000; good value compared to the less dramatic, long wheelbase 'teardrop' RM sold last summer for $4.6m.
The real surprises came further down the scale when a 'starter level' Ferrari 250GT LWB California Spyder- an open headlight, drum braked example which has racked up more airmiles en route to auctions in the last decade than most bidders- was sold at €2,520,000 after a protracted contest between three Europeans and the American who prevailed. To put the price into perspective, consider that this car changed hands for $3,600 in distant 1968 and $395,000 in 1999, before auction bids of $850,000 in 2003 and $1,975,000 in 2009 were turned down. Why did it soar to almost $3.6m at Villa d'Este? It looked great in navy with a silver hard top, with open headlamps at least you know it's not a fake and it was freshly Ferrari Classiche certified. In short, great presentation + "I want it now" (x 4)= 30% more than the market price. Who said it's a logical science?
The same could be said of the diminutive Alfa Romeo TZ which set a new benchmark at €627,200 despite having the wrong engine and a largely new body, but it oozed charisma, had greatly prized Le Mans history and, perhaps most importantly, was offered from almost 25 years in the same hands.
Another old warrior, but for different reasons, was the Ferrari 500TRC. Like an ageing prize fighter it had soldiered on racing at the Targa Florio well past its prime, and in recent years has been a veteran of the auction arena; this was its third appearance. And yet, confounding the cynics (who were numerous, including whoever allocated it to the back end of the auction catalogue...) to prove it still has some of its old mojo, this handsome four cylinder slugger, looking better than the day it left Maranello, drew a thumping bid of €2,800,000 from the UK. The auctioneer wasted no time in hammering it down.
It wasn't all one way up though. The flamboyant Bugatti Type 57S Atalante, another auction veteran with a colourful past and an even more colourful paint scheme (courtesy of the late Bill Harrah- he of very loud check sartorial fame), failed to light much of a fire under bidders, as did the Ferrari 250MM with two chassis numbers ("two-for-the-price of one" fell flat) and the Ford GT40 roadster which had come back from the dead- in this case an East London lock-up garage- in recent years also went nowhere.
The unexpected highlights of the auction, though, were the cars consigned by the liquidator of Carrozzeria Bertone, sadly fallen on hard times, and here at last the 'once in a lifetime opportunity' patter was true. All unique, never offered before, and directly from the hands of those that built them: it really doesn't get any better than this. The irony, though, is that these styling exercises- and some of them were hugely influential in design history- were valued by buyers first on the name of the mechanics underneath and secondly by what clothed them. Thus the three Lamborghinis- the iconic Marzal, well used Bravo (no longer running) and almost forgotten Athon- all soared and will, thankfully, be staying together thanks to the determination of a Lamborghini collector. The Sibilo- brown and reminiscent of something unmentionable but nonetheless Stratos based- was good value at €95,000, whilst the bargain of the auction had to be the original Lancia Stratos Zero concept car. Not recommended for those who suffer from claustrophobia, nor heat exhaustion, this ultimate wedge was car-meets-spaceship design at its most euphoric. Michael Jackson even borrowed it for one of his videos: need I say more? It's headed to a new Asian buyer in the US who snapped it up for €761,000 on a whim. Lucky him.
Better still, the landmark Corvair Testudo, one of Giorgetto Giugiaro's most famous creations whilst cutting his teeth at Bertone in 1963, was bought back by the maestro himself. He'd asked for it when he left in '65 but had been turned down...
"Hard work but a good result" was Max Girardo's summary as he stepped from the rostrum, and a bit more of the same turned some no-sales into deals including the imposing Mercedes-Benz 540K (€1.4m), a modernised Bizzarrini 5300GT Strada (€400k) and an average but inexpensive Ferrari 275GTB/4 (€660k). By the end of the weekend over €23 million had changed hands; there have been bigger auctions, but none in recent memory has achieved a €1 million average per lot...
Rather different in style and content, Bonhams returned valiantly to Monte Carlo the same weekend where the numbers were also of another calibre. The Ferrari 512BBLM cover car, wildly estimated at €1.25-1.45 million, disappeared without trace from the post-sale press release, with honours left to the 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing at €563,000- a car which perfectly illustrated the difference between a car restored by a local M-B dealer and one done by M-B. Total turnover from this 64-car auction was €3.3 million: if one thing is worth betting on, it's a new formula for next year.
One wouldn't normally expect the big spenders in Newport Pagnell (population: 15,020) to eclipse those in Monte Carlo, but the 2,000 hopefuls who crammed into Aston Martin's Works Service department for a chance to snap up something at Bonhams' auction suggested otherwise, and so did the results. If you thought £507,500 for a beautifully restored DB4 Series V Vantage convertible was strong, how about £309,500 for a DB4 convertible laid up for 31 years and fitted with the wrong engine? Best of all was the roughest DB5 saloon seen in a long time ('barn find' would be unkind to farmers), offered in the 1990s for £2,500 with no takers: no fewer than 11 telephone bidders duked it out to own this car for...£282,500. Yes, more than you thought it was worth when restored. When we stressed the importance of presentation, you'd be amazed what a coating of dust and some straw can do. Blame it on 'shabby chic'...
Our tips: watch out for the Ferrari 275GTB/4 at Artcurial's Champs Elysées auction on 13th June (likely to fly despite the wrong engine- more barn find dust and the magic words 'no reserve') and the Aston Martin DB4 Vantage convertible at RM's Salon Prive auction on 23rd June (here the magic words are Vantage, Peter Ustinov and left-hand drive), both of which carry just the sort of 'come on' estimates that auction houses know make bidders go weak kneed.
Photos courtesy classicdriver.com / Nanette Schärf / Gudrun Muschalla and www.astonmartins.com