Pebble Beach Market Report: Sharp and Independent Comment
It's amazing what a difference being there actually makes. The press releases- and indeed the headline numbers- paint a one-sided picture. "Prices explode in Monterey" they shout. Sales totals are up dramatically, as are percentages sold. And yet, as you talk with the auctioneers who were actually wielding the hammers on the rostrum, you realize that they had to work harder than ever this year to make it happen. It's easy for critics to question how some can charge more than 20% commission for their services, but the best operators put huge effort in behind the scenes to properly research and present what they're offering, and then to line up potential buyers for each car. Ultimately auctions are a gamble: sometimes they pay off, sometimes they don't. We've taken a look at some of this year's winners and losers and given you the back story.
Once again David Gooding's Santa Monica-based team took honours for the highest sale total of the weekend, breaking the magic $ 100 million barrier for the first time ever. Friday's auction started slowly with American classics from a private collection struggling to excite bidders- the gorgeously untouched 'Blue J' Duesenberg stalled at $ 1m and even the final $ 1,980,000 was arguably still good value- before the saleroom warmed up. The 1928 Bentley 4 ½ Litre team car fulfilled the lower end of bullish expectations at $ 6,050,000 (last sold by Christie's in 2004 for the late Bill Lake's family at $ 2,028,710) and Jamiroquai frontman Jay Kay's Maserati A6G/2000 by Frua- perhaps not the prettiest of the three built- also did well to achieve a bottom-estimate $ 1,650,000. The diminutive Porsche RS60 suggested, at a whopping $ 3,465,000, that the new price level for these pocket-rockets from Stuttgart may not be quite the flash in the pan we suspected after Gooding sold a Porsche 550 Spyder for almost $ 3.7 million in March. I'm more curious to know how the 6'4" vendor of the RS60 ever drove it.
The real fireworks, however, erupted when two very determined 'type A' personalities both decided they wanted the eagerly anticipated, alloy bodied 1960 Ferrari 250GT California Spyder from the Sherman Wolf estate. Estimated at an already generous $ 7-9 million, it was finally hammered down to the Ferrari collector who had flown in for the day just to buy this car...for $ 11,275,000. It makes the alloy bodied, ex-Le Mans SWB variant sold privately 18 months ago look like a prescient purchase.
Mercedes-Benz 300SL experts always get excited when a late, alloy block roadster comes up for sale, which is not very often, as only 208 were made at the end of 300SL production. Gooding's lovely example set a new record: $ 1,595,000. This was closely followed by an equally unbelievable $ 550,000 for a beautiful but not very rare Ferrari 330GTC in elegant Grigio Ortello livery, almost double the market norm. "I may own it for a while" the buyer was overheard saying.
Sunday's session at Gooding is, by common consensus, the world benchmark for classic car auctions. Places for consignments in this sale are fiercely contested, with an average value approaching one million dollars per Lot. And yet this year, even Gooding's magic touch couldn't hide the fact that the starry expectations of some vendors had overtaken an already bullish market. Things started off well, with $ 6,270,000 paid for a Ferrari 857 Sport with a colourful history- variously rolled, repossessed, re-engined and finally rebuilt- but the headline-sharing cream Duesenberg built for Clark Gable, utterly magnificent and driven onto the stage with Gable's son John as passenger, stalled at 'just' $ 6.4 million (est. $ 7- 9m) and never recovered. Despite a 1940s engine swap it's surely the historic equal of the Whittell Duesenberg sold last year for $ 10,340,000, but it's all too easy to forget that the Whittell car was originally estimated at a fraction of that, and now one of the two main bidders won't need another...
Gooding's Lamborghini Miura SV, a decent, late spec example which had been given a quick pre-sale makeover, crept over its ambitious bottom estimate to sell for $ 1,375,000, but to put this into perspective it's still an auction record for a standard SV. After all the pre-sale build-up much was expected of the sinister, black 1936 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster, delivered new to a glamorous young blonde baroness and bestowed by Gooding with its own hardback catalogue. Last year RM sold a similar car for a record $ 9.9 million and Gooding felt theirs was 'even more special' due to its provenance and condition, although RM's example was good enough to win Best of Show at Amelia Island and featured the desirable covered spare wheel, which Gooding's didn't. A new auction record for a motor car was predicted, with figures of up to $ 15 million whispered, and yet bidding stopped at $ 10.6 million with the car seemingly poised to go home until a last minute bid of $ 10.7 million ($ 11,770,000 including buyer's premium) saved the day. Well bought? That depends what the next one makes, but it put into perspective that there aren't always dozens of bidders tripping over each other for every car worth an eight figure sum.
The Canadians were back in town and meant business, determined to take the fight to Gooding with a catalogue laden with multi-million dollar motorcars. RM didn't disappoint: their Friday evening sale kicked off with an extraordinary $ 11,000,000 paid for the Gulf liveried Ford GT40 which had once served as a topless camera car for the film 'Le Mans', appropriately now headed for the privately owned Shelby American Museum. The euphoria continued as a determined US buyer took bidding on a rare manual, LHD Bentley R-Type Continental to $ 1,622,000, a record which is likely to stand for some time, whilst another American paid $ 2,035,000 for a genuine LHD Aston Martin DB4GT. When LHD variants are so much rarer than RHD it's extraordinary to witness the premium they can command. This didn't apply to the bright orange Aston Martin DB3S sold to a US collector at $ 3,685,000 (all are RHD, although not all look like they're sponsored by EasyJet) or the rare '14 louvre' Ferrari 250GT Tour de France berlinetta now headed for England which, according to the auction catalogue, had lain abandoned next to the Hollywood freeway in the sixties. If only passers-by back then had known it would now be worth $ 6,710,000, they might have stopped to collect it.
RM's two headline Lots put in solid performances: the cream Ferrari 410 Sport berlinetta, a racing car which never raced and was well-known in the marketplace, moved from one European collection to another at a predictable $ 8,250,000, whilst the Talbot-Lago T23 'Teardrop' by Figoni & Falaschi - acquired by the European vendor at RM's 2010 London auction - stayed in the USA at $ 2,640,000. Proving fashions change and car collecting isn't foolproof, this was a $ 200,000 haircut on the 2010 auction price.
If there's an equivalent to the Big Mac Index in the classic car world, surely it's the prices of Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwings and Ferrari 275GTB/4s, probably the most recognizable, liquid and frequently traded 'blue chip' collector cars. Here the news was positive, with Gullwings ranging from $ 638,000 for a 'driver' quality silver example (Gooding) to $ 1,127,500 and $ 1,171,500 for the very best (Gooding and RM respectively), whilst a pair of 'four cam' 275s at RM, one beautifully liveried in Blu Sera, the other the victim of a 1980s 'hot rod' conversion, changed hands for $ 1,485,000 apiece. The only logical justification for the 'hot rod' price would be to witness the faces of the Ferrari Classiche staff if it ever turns up on their doorstep...
Maddest result of all? That prize has to go to a lovely Dino 246GTS in so-called 'chairs and flares' spec, sold for $ 467,500. Fellow owners probably celebrated right up until Gooding sold a sister car the next day for $ 231,000.
Bonhams and the rest
The multi-faceted British auction house has held sales in Monterey since 1998 which now makes them one of the longest-established players, but the game changes so quickly out here that it's become a two-horse race, and a quick glance at the sales figures shows Bonhams isn't one of them. Their cover car, a 1997 McLaren F1 GTR long tail racer, failed to reach its reserve during the auction and was sold later, according to the Bonhams employee responsible, "to the annoyance of a group of clever brokers who thought that they could buy it cheaply post sale". Auction houses thrive on strong public results almost as much as on the accompanying commission, so it's unlikely the auction house was the party which wanted the price kept confidential, suggesting someone else considered they'd bought it "cheaply post-sale" instead. We'll spare their blushes other than to quote the verdict of an F1 owner and former racer: "The long tails are pure race cars and cannot be modified to road use because of their suspension geometry and the sequential gearbox configuration. Based on recent transactions [of short tail GTRs] my thought is that a long tail is worth 30% less, [so] the price paid looks about in line."
This left an ex-Sbarro/ Piper Ford GT40 to take top honours at $ 2,205,000, the best clue to this seemingly low figure in the catalogue sentence which read: "The inner roof panel had sagged slightly during the fire and that minor sag is still in the car today as further proof of its originality." Thankfully Bonhams were luckier with automobilia and motorcycles, two fields in which they still lead the pack: when you sell a Lalique mascot for $ 338,500 and a Crocker V-Twin 'bike for $ 302,000, you'd be excused for not worrying too much about cars. Happily their freshly published Goodwood Revival catalogue promises a return to form.
Relative Monterey newcomer Mecum didn't sell their Ferrari 750 Monza - what a difference the extra cubic inches of Gooding's Ferrari 857 version made - but they did shift the fearsome L&M sponsored 1972 Porsche 917/10 Spyder for $ 5,500,000, showing how even open 917s, for generations the poor cousins of the iconic 917K coupe, have come of age. Showmen Russo & Steele still haven't published full results but these will probably include a Cobra 289 for $ 781,000, a Dino 246GTS at $ 363,000 and a Ferrari 365GTB/4 Daytona at $ 379,500.
The headlines mask some high profile casualties this year, and pre-war heavyweights figured prominently among them: the dainty Bugatti Type 55 with unique high-door coachwork (rather than the classic Jean Bugatti roadster design); the boat-tail Blower Bentley nicknamed the 'Green Hornet' for which a bid of $ 7 million was politely declined (having been acquired here in 2007 for a then-record $4,510,000) and the leviathan Daimler Double Six, although a deal was brokered on this moments after the auction for $ 2,970,000- exactly the same price it fetched here three years ago. Add in the lack of fireworks for some of the other pre-war offerings, including the two great Duesenbergs, and there are signs that this segment of the market is solid rather than bubbly.
Another trend is the continuing popularity of 'preservation' candidates and the blurring of the lines between patina and simple neglect. One of the most viewed cars at Gooding was the 1956 Lancia Aurelia B24S which had remained in storage from 1968 until "discovered this year" (usually code for 'bought by a dealer'), sold here for $ 242,000. Another car discovered this year- May 2012 to be exact- was eloquently explained thus: "The consignor purchased this benchmark 275GTB with the intention of reintroducing it to the public eye". It's naughty to speculate whether the consignors negotiations with the previous owner focused more on an "unfettered glimpse of a pure, original 1960s Ferrari" (quoting the catalogue) or the need for total restoration, but it's hard to resist. Oh, the public eye did get to watch it sell for $ 946,000.
And finally, the Pebble Beach weekend brought home the strength of the USA. The auctioneers confided that around 80% of this year's turnover was to American clients, with the rest predominantly headed to Europe and the odd car to the Middle East. Europe may be crying over its problems, and the Americans have their fair share too, but they don't seem to be dwelling on them to quite the same extent. As one well-known journalist remarked to me, "The American collector will sympathise with your plight before excusing himself to go bid on the next car".
Our summary is that the market remains buoyant for the right cars, at the right prices, but shouldn't be taken for granted.
Images courtesy of Classic Driver, RM Auctions, Gooding & Company, Rick Carey and Pieter Melissen.