Monterey Car Week (Pt. 4): The Auctions

Written by & Photography by George Webster on .

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By my count there were five different car auctions during the week. The Gooding & Company auction was the ‘official’ one and it was held near the Concours site at Pebble Beach. RM Auctions was the other big one, held off site in a large hotel in downtown Monterey. RM had the largest sale take at $125 million and the highest single sale at $27.5 million while Gooding was close with a total sale of $112 million. Vintage Motorsport, on their website, claimed that, once all the post-auction sales were completed, the auctions, taken all together, had seen record sales of over $311 million.

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I arranged for media credentials for the RM and Gooding Auctions and spent some time at both. On Thursday, I checked out the preview at RM’s downtown location. I have a particular affection for three of the cars which RM were featuring: 1953 Ferrari Mondial 2-litre (sold at $9 million), 1955 Ferrari Monza three-litre in the Scaglietti bodywork I like and which inspired the prolific US fiberglass body maker Bill Devin ($4 million) , and the 1960 Birdcage Maserati – the one which won at the Nürburgring with Gurney and Moss driving ($2 million). All these were highlighted in the lobby of the hotel.

I found my way out to the back of the hotel where most of the other 130-odd cars were on display. This was not the Barrett-Jackson style of offering we are used to from television – I only counted about five cars going to the block with an estimate below $100,000 – a million and more being more common valuations.

Of course, the big news came on the second night when the 1967 Ferrari 275 GTB/4S NART, which had an auction estimate of $14 to $17 million was hammered down at a record $27.5 million. Amazing! The Canadian entrepreneur, Lawrence Stroll, who also owns the Mont Tremblant race circuit, was the buyer – adding the car to his collection of vintage Ferraris.

I had met a neatly-dressed gentleman siting down relaxing on a wall at the side of the preview area. We had a brief casual conversation and at the end he volunteered that, among the cars he was considering buying, was the 1939 Mercedes 540K roadster, a car that had caught my eye. I’m not sure if he bought it or not but it sold for $7.5 million.

RM also celebrated the fact that they had been the restoration house for the 1934 Packard which won best of show at the Concours on Sunday.

After yet another traffic mess trying to find a parking spot somewhere near the action at Pebble Beach late Saturday afternoon, I visited the Gooding Auction on their first auction night. The auction was held in an immense array of big circus-style tents seemingly big enough to house a Zeppelin airship. There was an open-air stage at the front, next came the preview area with the 127 cars on offer on display and then you passed into the auction itself. This huge tent was dominated by a big stage with the auctioneers to one side and the cars being wheeled across the rest of main stage one after the other. In front of the stage was a huge section of white upholstered chairs for the actual bidders, while there was another section of seats – even bigger – behind. There were wide aisles around the three sides which allowed people to flow around the room. And there were kiosks all around the outside selling food and drink appropriate to this high-roller crowd.

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Of course, few of the people there could get close enough to the cars on the stage to get a good look so there were a number of video cameras, including one on a long mobile boom providing shots of the cars – and the auctioneers – which could be viewed at home or on screens distributed around the auction room.

I did spot my friend from the RM preview and I asked him if he had bought anything and he said yes, and mentioned a mid-‘30s car (not the Mercedes) that he had bought. That’s some shopping list!

Gooding’s top sale was a 1957 Ferrari 250 GT which sold for $9.5 million. While I was watching the auction, the auctioneer called for an opening bid of one million and he got it. That’s a long way from the farm auctions I used to attend with my parents where they would be bidding a quarter (i.e. 25 cents) or so on a basket of assorted tools or dishes. But I remember farms being sold at these sales and, for the farmer bidders in attendance, this would have been a bigger deal for them than Stroll bidding his millions on yet another Ferrari.

I had spotted a few curiosities in the catalog before I got there: 1967 Volkswagen 21-window bus (sold at $126,500), a similar 1956 DKW panel truck which sold at $102,000 despite an auction estimate of $200,000, and a well-turned out 1970 Toyota jeep-style Land Cruiser ($72,000).

I was interested to see what kind of price the Gurney F1 (1967 AAR Gurney-Westlake Eagle Mk 1) car would command. This car’s sole win was a non-championship F1 race, the 1967 Brands Hatch Race of Champions. It sold at $3.74 million.

There are many different collector car auction companies. The Barrett-Jackson auction is probably the best know given its exposure on the SPEED channel. While that auction does see many sales over $100,000 it seems to me that, but contrast to RM and Gooding, its concentration is on American cars, particularly cars from the muscle car era – and it’s obvious that there is a strong market for those cars. The two auctions I visited at Monterey are in a different stratum. Very few American cars from any era and more sales over a million than under $100,000. This is the big time and, despite the prevalent talk of hard financial times, there seems to be, as Rob Meyer of RM put it "...a lot of money chasing too few automobiles."

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It was a blast to attend these two auctions but I don’t expect I’ll be raising my hand to bid anytime soon.

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