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Market Spotlight — Behind the scenes in Monterey

Anticipation? There hadn't been anything like it in the classic car world since the record 1987 Royal Albert Hall sale of the Bugatti Royale which heralded the last market boom. This time around, collectors, dealers, speculators and journalists waited intently to see if the market would hold its ground in the face of strengthening economic headwinds: eight figure deals had been put on hold pending news from the Monterey weekend. Over a four day period in mid-August this seaside Californian resort town, nowadays a far cry from the sleepy backdrop for John Steinbeck's novels, hosts no fewer than three major international auctions, the ultra exclusivePebble Beach and Quail Lodge concours d'elegance events, several up-and-coming equivalents, endless corporate parties and gala presentations (the new Ferrari California and Rolls-Royce Hyperion coupé by Pininfarina were just two of the premieres this year) and historic racing at dusty Laguna Seca nearby...to put it into perspective, the bag of complimentary catalogues and invitations given to Pebble Beach judges upon their arrival this year must have weighed close to 10kg. It's glitzy, fast paced and without doubt the most important gathering for car collectors anywhere in the world, period.

  Laguna Seca
Left: Ostentatious...moi? The bold Rolls-Royce Hyperion makes its debut.
Right: Ready for action at Laguna Seca: US historic racing is an orderly affair

So what did we get this year: meltdown or mayhem? Let's take a closer look...

Now that Christie's car department has folded, with most of its members defecting to Bonhams, it was left to the latter British firm to open the sales weekend. It's exactly ten years since Robert Brooks, then presiding over a boutique firm which still bore its founder's name and handled only classic cars, held its first US motor car auction on the grounds of the Quail Lodge Hotel and Golf Resort just outside Carmel, in conjunction with the Concorso Italiano show themed around Italian sports cars. I was part of the small team which put together that first sale, highlighted by the Porsche collection of racer and team boss Vasek Polak, but in the face of strong competition from Christie's and, latterly, RM and Gooding, Bonhams has struggled to establish the dominance in US car circles which it has enjoyed in Europe for over a decade, despite growing into a multi-faceted auction business which now employs over 800 people worldwide.

This year was different. Bonhams had beaten their rivals to consign one of the most famous of all Jaguars, the ill-fated E2A racer which, despite a rather Quixotic competition record, provides the recognizable link between D and E-types and had remained in the hands of a low-key British family for some four decades. The pre-sale estimate of some $7 million had been widely questioned, and on auction day the lady vendor wisely nodded from her seat in the audience the instruction to auctioneer Robert Brooks to let the car go when bidding in Bonhams' saleroom reached $4.96 million. E2A joins a C-type, D-type and Lightweight E-type in a Swiss collection, thus completing the set. It's hard to see, when a car is marketed as widely as this and fails to meet the vendor's initial expectations, where else it might achieve more, and the $4.4 million paid at Bonhams' recent Goodwood sale for the Moores' family's D-type, a more widely useable and understood car, puts the E2A price into the right context: fair on both sides, and a new world auction record for a Jaguar.

1960 Jaguar E2A Le Mans Sports-Racing Two-Seater Prototype  Talbot-Lago T150CSS barn find at Bonhams
Left: Ill fated Jaguar E2A racer: $4.96 million rewarded four decades of private ownership
Right: $4.85 million is just the start: Talbot Lago will keep restorer busy this winter...and a few more

The other feature car at Bonhams was a wonderfully dilapidated Talbot-Lago T150CSS bodied by Pourtout which took patina to a new level. Even the most ardent supporter of preservation over restoration would have a hard time leaving this car in its present 'barn find' state, but despite this (or perhaps thanks to it), this rare, streamlined French Pur Sang with racing history climbed all the way to $4.85 million as two bidders fought it out, a major league colonial British collector prevailing. This was a huge price for an attractive but less flamboyant bodystyle than the iconic Goutte d'Eau coupés by Figoni & Falaschi which traditionally get top billing and have recently been selling in the mid-$3 million range: Gooding has a sensational one consigned for his Arizona auction next January, which now looks good value at $4 million after the Bonhams result.

1972 Porsche Carrera RS  1913 Isotta Fraschini
Left: $480,000 paid for simple looking but lovely pre-production 1972 Porsche Carrera RS
Right: Isotta Fraschini rescued from junkyard: $350 in 1940s, $1.5 million today

Other highlights at Bonhams included a pre-production '72 Porsche Carrera RS without the model's trademark 'duck tail' spoiler (they weren't yet homologated when this car rolled off the production line), beautifully presented and sold for $480,000. An imposing 1913 Isotta Fraschini powered by no less than 10.6 litres, which Bonhams freely admitted was reconstructed from a wreck bought in a Long Island junkyard after the war for $350, soared to almost $1.5 million showing that there are no shortage of buyers for really exciting Edwardian cars. A famous and handsome 1936 Lagonda LG45 Rapide known by its UK registration 'EPE 97' and raced at Le Mans and Brooklands in period went to a Connecticut based banker for just under $1.4 million.

1936 Lagonda LG45 Rapide  1964 Ferrari 275GTB_4
Left: 'EPE 97', historic Lagonda remains Stateside at $1.4 million
Right: No takers for Daytona class winning, alloy bodied Ferrari 275GTB/4

There were some high profile casualties too, compounded by owners of models which sold well here last year all jumping on the market bandwagon. If you wanted aFerrari 275GTB or Daytona Spyder, a Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing or Roadster, or a Lamborghini Miura or LP400 Countach, you were spoiled for choice in Monterey. The really great examples did well, but buyers saw through those which weren't. At Bonhams a shiny but not perfect black Ferrari 275GTB/4 was taken to $1.35 million and passed over, whilst an ultra rare aluminium-bodied example of the same model, with Daytona class-winning NART racing history, caused mutterings amongst the Ferrari experts about its presentation and originality. The auctioneer persisted to $2 million but there were no takers.

By the end of the evening, including a few unsold Lots which changed hands in the usual post-auction scrum, Bonhams had taken $22,386,437, their best US result ever and more than double their 2007 tally.

Quail Lodge - RM auction Aug 2008  Gooding auction inside
Left: If you thought the RM saleroom was a change from those in Europe...
Right: ...the Gooding one was large enough for a political party convention

Since taking over the Monterey Sports Car Auction franchise from '80s pioneer Rick Cole a decade or so ago, hard charging Canadian outfit RM have established a reputation as the most aggressive and creative dealmakers at the upper end of the market (rivals Barrett Jackson having now abandoned the high ground in favour of the 'pile 'em high' approach). With a network of agents finding cars for their auctions around the globe, and the willingness to partner dealers or even purchase cars outright for their own auctions, RM are very effective at consigning merchandise and leave no stone unturned in getting it sold.

Having led the Monterey turnover stakes in recent years, as Christie's faded from first place after losing their top players, last year RM were toppled from the coveted top spot by former employee David Gooding, his record-breaking 2007 turnover boosted by cars from the late Greg Garrison's collection. Competition for the best lots was even fiercer this year, and RM's two volume, hard cased catalogue was a work of art in its own right. Headlining their sale was the Virgil Exner designed1958 Chrysler Diablo show car, described as "the breathtaking vision of Exner's forward look", and a pretty 1956 Ferrari 250GT Tour de France which had twice finished the eponymous French race before entering long-term US ownership in the early 1980s. 

1958 Chrysler Diablo at RM  Pretty 1956 Tour de France Ferrari at RM
Left: '58 Chrysler Diablo show car struggled...
Right: ...as did, surprisingly, the lovely early Ferrari 250GT Tour de France

Arriving on stage in front of a packed saleroom at the rather bland Portola Plaza Hotel in downtown Monterey, its "forward look" failed to captivate RM's bidders, and the chrome laden, finned Diablo stalled just shy of a million dollars despite the auctioneer's valiant efforts (the owner was holding out for double)...one can't help feeling that, rather like muscle cars, concepts aren't quite the exciting news they were.

The Ferrari 250GT Tour de France, on the other hand, is hot property: the recent tightening of the historic Mille Miglia rules means that only early models such as this car are now eligible for the event, and the marketplace has been buzzing following the rumoured sale of a 14 louvre 'TdF' close to Eu.5 million. Perhaps showing just how sensitive collectors are to chattering, especially in the Ferrari world, bidding on RM's car ground to a halt in the late $3 million range: talk of a 1970s accident, and three different owners this year alone (including the auction house), may have unnerved buyers, but my guess is that this beautiful berlinetta will be changing hands in the very near future.

RM were luckier with a perfectly normal steel Ferrari 250GT SWB which sold to a friend of their famous Ferrari California Spyder buyer (both given prime seats in the front row), making a knockout opening bid apparently on the basis that "there aren't any others for sale today". Given that recent transactions of sister cars have been at over $1 million less than the $4.5 million paid in Monterey, this seemed like a very expensive case of instant gratification.

RM display at Portola Plaza  RM_ Ferrari 250GT SWB
Left: Ferrari display greeted RM visitors in hotel entrance
Right: Their high sale was this regular steel Ferrari 250GT SWB: a record $4.5 million

Other top sellers included a heavily advertised Ferrari 400 Superamerica, supremely well sold at $1,650,000; a pair of Ferrari 275GTB/4s highlighted the difference between a 'good' example and a perfect one at $1,375,000 and $1,925,000 respectively; Ferrari Daytona Spyders followed the same rule at$1,127,000 for a decent example and $1,485,000 for a great one; a Lamborghini Miura SV converted privately from RHD to LHD was 'on the money' at$891,000; an imposing Duesenberg Model J Dual Cowl Phaeton confirmed the solid demand for 'no stories' Duesies at $1,760,000; one of my favourites, the impossibly rakish 1933 Rolls-Royce Phantom II Town Car by Brewster (dismissed by one veteran English dealer as "just a Phantom with a vee-screen") confounded the critics at $2,310,000; and a handsome anthracite Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing with Rudge wheels and fitted luggage (and not a shred of documentation) took the model a step closer to seven figures ($852,000, to be exact). And at the other end of the scale, how about this? $160,000 for a pretty littleAustin Healey 100M. It could only happen at auction...

SV 4820 at RM  1933 RR Phantom II Town Car by Brewster
Left: Miura SV converted from RHD on its way back to Europe at $891,000
Right: Stunning Rolls-Royce slightly below expectations but still strong at $2,310,000

After a two night extravaganza, RM had shifted $44.1 million, slightly down from 2007 but up on 2006, with an 85% success rate, a little lower than the last couple of years but still higher than we're used to seeing in traditional European sales where the auction houses tend to rely on buyers coming to them.

RM - M-B 300SL Gullwing  Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 B Touring Berlinetta
Left: Better of several Gullwings on offer made $852,000
Right: 'The Immortal 2.9'- Pebble Beach 2008 Best of Show and as good as it gets...

On so, on to the grand finale...Fireworks and confetti filled the air over the manicured greens of Pebble Beach's 18th fairway, announcing with great fanfare that Best of Show in the concours d'elegance had gone to ex-Microsoft president Jon Shirley's sensational Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 Berlinetta by Touring...it's sometimes hard to remember that this is, after all, the central theme of the weekend.  Entrants, spectators, judges and yes, even the odd buyer (you could have questioned whether there would be any left after the barrage of cars offered already over the weekend) headed up the hill to the Equestrian Center where David Gooding had set up his cavernous tented village to display what most agreed was the best selection of cars for sale, including the collection of former US Bugatti Club president, the late Dr Peter Williamson.

All consigned without reserve by his estate and with part of the proceeds going to charity, these had been offered the previous evening (Gooding has now also expanded his auction to a two-day format to accommodate all the entries) and the results hadn't disappointed. Star of the auction, and indeed of the weekend, was the ultra rareBugatti Type 57SC Atalante, selling to a European buyer for $7,920,000, a new North American record for any motor car at auction. To put its value into historical perspective, the last genuine Type 57SC to appear at auction was sold by Bonhams USA exactly seven years ago for some $1.7 million: an annual appreciation of over 50%.

Providing a perfect example of the market's huge differentiation between 'good' and 'best', the Williamson collection's Type 57C Atalante coupe -almost identical to the casual eye but without the 'S' (surbaissé) lowered chassis- sold for virtually one tenth of its sister car at $880,000. Another Bugatti which represented excellent value was the Type 55, considered one of the all-time great sports car designs: at $1.76 million this car was heavily discounted by bidders because of its 1960s rebody, but consider that Bonhams sold a Type 55 with a replacement body (from another car) at their Monaco auction in May for over $3 million to a dealer, and I'd applaud the Pebble Beach purchaser for taking the plunge.

Bugatti T57SC Atalante at Gooding  Steve McQueen
Left: Top price of the weekend and a new US car auction record: $7.92 million for Bugatti 57SC
Right: $137,500 for an old 911 Turbo? But guess who the first owner was...

We've heard a lot about Steve McQueen recently, so the vendor of his immaculately restored Porsche 911 Turbo could be forgiven for expecting fireworks. The$137,500 it achieved might bring back some perspective.

Headlining Sunday evening's line-up was a 1938 Alfa Romeo 6C 2300B Mille Miglia Berlinetta by Touring, billed as 'The Sleeping Beauty' having lain dormant in a French chateau for 34 years before a concours level restoration. It can't have hurt that its big sister, the similar looking 8C 2.9 Berlinetta, had just taken Best of Show hours earlier: as Jay Leno famously remarked, "at Pebble Beach even mere millionaires get to play with the billionaires" and sure enough it cost the final bidder$2,585,000 just to own the more affordable of the two Alfas. When news of this price spreads I expect a few more sleeping beauties will be awoken.

Gooding Alfa 6C Sleeping Beauty  Ferrari 250GT California Spyder at Gooding
Left: 'Sleeping Beauty' Alfa 6C- at $2,585,000 no longer a 'poor man's 8C'...
Right: Yet another California Spyder: $3.63 million was this month's price

No major auction seems complete these days without the ubiquitous Ferrari 250GT California Spyder. Gooding's car had originally belonged to an Italian prince- with even more street cred in Maranello than James Coburn- but it was the long wheelbase version and, crucially, had started life with open headlights. At $3,630,000 it matched the price of the genuine covered headlight LWB version sold in Maranello, so the vendor must have been satisfied.

On the subject of Italian spyders, the $1,265,000 achieved by one of the 20 Ferrari 365GTS models built suggests that Bonhams' comparable Monaco result for a sister car wasn't a fluke, whilst $572,000 for a very shiny Lancia Aurelia B24S Spyder America (albeit heavily reconstructed, having returned from the Lebanon with its rear end missing) showed where the value of these cars lies today. And talking again of good vs great examples, Gooding's Ferrari Daytona Spyder at 'just'$1,023,000 tells us how bidders perceived it. I'd call it well bought and hope the buyer puts it back into its original Marrone Colorado livery.

Lancia Aurelia B24S Spyder America  Ferrari 166 Berlinetta by Touring at Gooding
Left: Battleground survivor: $572,000 for rebuilt Lancia Aurelia Spyder America
Right: Lovely Ferrari 166 Berlinetta at Gooding deservedly achieved top estimate

The market for early Ferraris is narrower than those built from the mid-1950s onwards due to their more upright appearance and rather agricultural design, but the1950 Ferrari 166 Berlinetta by Touring at Gooding's was beautifully restored and clothed in iconic coachwork: the $2,200,000 sale price was at the upper estimate but well worthwhile, and it'll get the new owner into all the 'big ticket' events.

Also worth a mention was a lovely gold Ferrari 275GTB/4 (ex-Bill Harrah) at $1,430,000; a genuine 1931 Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 GS Spyder by Zagato (restored by the top UK experts) at $1,320,000; a well preserved Lamborghini Islero at a staggering $203,500; one of the 50 original Blower Bentleys (described as "matching numbers" followed by "replacement crankcase and block..." and inevitably rebodied as a Birkin team car) slightly below estimate at $1,760,000; and finally, doubtlessly to the delight of our friends in Molsheim, a whopping $3,190,000 for the first Bugatti Veyron Roadster...and it isn't even built yet (they showed the prototype). And although part of the proceeds went to charity, contrary to what has been widely suggested not a cent can be written off by the buyer against tax.

Lamborghini Islero at Gooding  Bugatti Veyron Roadster at Gooding
Left: On the move: $203,500 for a well preserved Islero
Right: Perfect car, perfect venue: Veyron roadster '001' soared to $3.19 million

Although most of his consignors seem to have been flexible, several of Gooding's big ticket items were left on the shelf: bidding on the ultra rare '34 Triumph Dolomite roadster, Britain's answer to the Alfa Romeo 8C 2.3, ran out of steam below reserve; a '66 Ford GT40 and a gorgeous '57 Ferrari 500TRC also went home, as did the '55 Jaguar D-type which came 3rd at Le Mans in 1957 but had a rather less fortunate later career.

1955 Jaguar D-Type at Gooding 
Left: Jaguar D-type: 3rd at Le Mans 1957, less lucky in '58 and in 2008
Right: All in a weekend's work...see you there next year

At $64,228,000 Gooding's final tally again puts him well clear of the field and improves upon his 2007 total, in itself a record, by just under 5%. Overall, the 'big three' auction houses shifted $129,118,500 of motor cars in Monterey last weekend, up 3.8% compared to the combined 'big four' in 2007 and 47.1% more than those same four in 2006. The percentage of Lots sold out of those offered, however, fell from a consistent 85% over the last two years to 77% this year.

And the meaning of it all? On the face of it, the results are encouraging. We see clear proof that buyers are still willing, when given the opportunity to acquire something which ticks all the boxes and is unlikely to be available again soon, to step up and pay over the odds to secure it here, now, today. The real difference this year is that buyers are less willing to pay tomorrow's price for anything which is second best or has the remotest 'story' or question mark lingering over it, and watching the Monterey sales you were conscious that the auctioneers had to work harder this year to achieve their results.

The market is polarizing further, but there's still plenty of firepower out there.

Photo credits: Wouter Melissen (www.ultimatecarpage.com) and Ned Lawler