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Plotting a Course in a Volatile Market

By Simon Kidston

Up, down or sideways? Which way are we headed? At Bonhams' end-of-year London sale last night, a handsome original Mercedes-Benz 300 SL 'Gullwing' owned by the same British connoisseur since 1968 failed to find a buyer at the reserve price. And yet just a few lots later, the audience was left in disbelief as a mystery bidder fought off determined rivals to secure an unremarkable 1960 Jaguar XK150 Drophead Coupé - a US import and not even an 'S' model - for £427,000. That's $650,000.

'John Young Gullwing' - priceless patina failed to sway bidders
Bonhams 'Art Sale' treatment of cars very 2015 - but these were for 'old school' collectors

Adding to the mixed message, a svelte and ultra rare 1955 Fraser Nash Le Mans Coupé was hammered sold for a modest £300,000 (estimate £380,000-420,000) before a 2005 Ferrari 575 Superamerica, arguably more successful as a Maranello marketing exercise than a design classic, romped to a resounding £612,000, or $925,000. Until recently this was considered a secondhand car.

Much scrutiny of catalogues, not always translated to bids
Lagonda Rapide and 'Gullwing' both going home

So what's going on? Is it a demographic change? There may be elements of that, as great pre-War cars are still selling (witness yesterday's one-family-owned 1937 Lagonda LG45 Rapide at £785,000 or the 1929 Bentley 4 1/2 Litre Tourer at £668,000) but seldom soaring wildly over their estimates. Or perhaps the European market's more cautious than its American counterpart? We only have three days to wait until RM's blockbuster New York City sale brings the curtain down on the 2015 auction season, but the Keno brothers' inaugural effort last month didn't suggest that US bidders are any easier to satisfy than Europeans.

Shabby chic, but arguably one of the finest of the 25 LG45 Rapides built. Single family ownership probably unique

I'd suggest that we're currently witnessing a rapid evolution of the market we follow closely and from which many of us earn a living. Currency fluctuations have meant prices rising in euros yet softening in dollars, and Europeans disadvantaged when buying across the Atlantic or in the UK. Buying tastes are also changing, with new money following big brands which can be easily understood, factory certified and recognised by their friends. Technology's playing a part, as the internet empowers private buyers, eroding the barriers between trading partners but also spreading misinformation and frequent confusion. Useability is increasingly trumping intrinsic value, with historically significant racing cars often relegated by buyers behind rare, but series-built road cars, ironic as most don't get used anyway, as low mileage is so prized.

Ordinary XK150 3.8 DHC, out-of-this-world price
Ex-Rob Walker DB5, typical '1980s owners' club car' at $800k

Add to this global instability and economic uncertainty, and you have a recipe for a volatile market which, as in most investing fields, is likely to present opportunity and risk in equal measure. The old money buys a Monet, perhaps a manor house, or maybe a beautiful coachbuilt Grande Routiere, and enjoys them all in the way their creators intended. New money follows Hirst, the Candy & Candy penthouse and the limited-edition hypercar, and tracks their investment on a daily basis until judging it's time to sell. Seldom do these investors' paths cross, and they don't really speak the same language anyway. Who's right? Impossible to say, as they're not measuring success in the same currency either.

$930k bought this Frazer Nash BMW 328: Continental and US buyers prefer the LHD version

All we know is that a year from now the status quo is likely to have changed, with winners and losers in equal measure. We can't tell who's who - just that the one who sits on his hands isn't likely to be the winner.

Ready for its Big Moment in the Big Apple. RM's Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato...
... and 'brutiful', ex-Fangio Ferrari 290 MM. $30m, anyone?

To celebrate the first anniversary of K500.com, in a short presentation at the Bluebird Club in Chelsea last week Simon offered guests an overview of the collectors' car market in 2015. "It's been a year of consolidation, at best, with some models suffering from 'auction overload' coming off the highs of mid-2014."
"Currently at 474.6, the K500 Index has increased steadily, by 9% during 2015, broadly similar to the year before but not the 15% p.a. of the previous two."

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