“SOLD! SOLD! SOLD!” yells the “ringman,” or bidder’s assistant, as the hammer drops and he wades from the audience, fist-pumping the air. It’s just another day for Mecum, the world’s largest collector car auctioneer.
When the dust settles, Mecum Auction Company will have finished 2017 with over 15,000 vehicles crossing its block. The auctions are big business and one of America’s newest spectator sports, thanks to robust classic car values and a flood of televised automotive programming. “I like watching a car auction more than a football game or any other sport,” says Bay Shore attorney Stephen Siben, who’s bought most of his two dozen classics at auction.
Rock-'em, Sock-'em Entertainment
Beyond Mecum, powerhouses Barrett-Jackson Auction Company and Russo and Steele offer gobs of rock-‘em, sock-’em entertainment and thousands of cool rides hammering from $5,000 to $5 million or more. “We’re American tobacco-style auctions, so it’s very loud, very fast and very exciting,” says Mecum CEO Dave Magers. Adds Barrett-Jackson CEO Craig Jackson: “It’s great fun. Barrett-Jackson brings a festival, a party, and it’s a destination.”
To keep calm and bid on, your cup of tea might be the more reserved Bonhams, Gooding & Co. or RM Sotheby’s, where you’re greeted with aplomb and frequently a British accent. “Auctions have a habit of bringing fresh, long-term-owned and special cars to the market, often providing buyers with unrepeatable opportunities,” says Bonhams vice president Rupert Banner. One such opportunity: Bonhams’ 2014 sale of a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO for a record-shattering $38.1 million.
In 2017, key U.S. auction venues in Arizona, California and Florida produced over $800 million in sales. Barrett-Jackson drew 350,000 people in Arizona alone. Other auctions, large and small, dot the country year-round. While the northeast isn’t an auction hotbed, Jackson vows a 2018 return to Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun resort after two successful events there, thanks to location advice from Long Island auto dealer and collector John Staluppi.
Experts Offer Advice
If you have assets for a rare classic, the experts have advice. Do your homework on a model you love. Observe your first auction without bidding. Educate yourself through auction companies’ symposia, web sites or publications. Have an expert vet your car, and even bid on your behalf. Purchase for passion, not profit. And bid only after most others quit. “It never made any sense to me to bid early on a car because you’re just bidding against yourself,” says East Hills collector Howard Kroplick, who’s bid for four of five rare rides.
“If you really don’t have the knowledge, hire the knowledge,” adds Connecticut dealer, consultant and restorer Wayne Carini, star of Velocity Channel’s popular “Chasing Classic Cars” TV series. “And the worst thing to do is drink at an auction because you get real loose and your hand flies up in the air very easily.” Veteran Smithtown appraiser Steve Linden recommends auctions if a car is unique or a discounted price allows for the inevitable surprise repairs.
Today’s hottest rides include European exotics and vintage racers, such as a record-setting $22.55 million 1956 Aston Martin DBR1 roadster sold at Monterey. Younger buyers, says Jackson, like 1970s-1990s cars and wildly popular “resto-mods” restored with classic looks and modified with newer technology.
With fewer younger car enthusiasts and the prospect of autonomous vehicles, the market’s adapting to new demographics and periodic bumps. “You’ve got a whole generation that’s grown up watching us and you’re got to sort of pay attention to what they want, not what we think we want to give them,” says Jackson. Carini’s take: “Art will always be there and classic cars are art. Everything’s going to be just fine.”
This column first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Luxury Living magazine. Read the published column here.