Contributed by Gary West
The High-End Collector Car Auction (or observing minnows swim with the sharks)
If you've never been to a high-end collector car auction, you should. It's truly an experience that rivals none other save those we can't discuss. Auctions range from almost an intimate venue such as Bonhams in Greenwich, Connecticut to the usual Barrett-Jackson “Circus Maximus.” The collector car auction is as alike and different as the purchase of a used car as escargot relates to okra. On one level it involves the buying and selling of a vehicle. Like all financial transaction there are bargains to be had and ways to waste money. On a much different plain there are opportunities to complete your dreams, watch others fulfill theirs, watch human nature take many forms, sometimes adversarial and wonder who got the keys to the back door of Ft. Knox. Few things are more intriguing than being audience to two or three wealthy, headstrong people that Have To Have the same vehicle. Testosterone and dollars sweep through the auction room floor like a rip tide. Great stuff. Well worth the price admission and occasionally you'll be a witness to automotive history.
For purposes of this article we'll assume you haven't attended an auction and the examples I'll use are from our experiences at the auctions held yearly at Amelia Island. Conveniently, for buyers, sellers and spectators alike, Amelia hosts now six separate classic car auctions within the span of 5 days. Among them are RM/Sothebys, Gooding, Hollywood Wheels, Bonhams and Motostalia. Hollywood Wheels stages two distinct auctions, the first is a Porsche-only event (All Hail to The Lady of the Air-Cooled Engine) and the second auction for the rest of the automotive world. Google will provide you with times, dates, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, locations etc.
Mercifully, and much to our sanity, most all classic car auctions follow the same format. Here's how we do it when plan on attending an auction either for fun, business, profit or outright entertainment. Your mileage may vary. This may sound a bit simplistic but there is a process involved. First, decide what auction(s) you want to attend then visit their website because there dwells the information beast. Get on their mailing list. I create a separate email address for myself because there will be much incoming traffic that will clog your normal email in-box. As the auction day nears the emails get more enticing including an on-line catalog. Click the link and you'll be privy to photos, description, and auction house estimate of the selling price. Auction houses stage a physical preview of the cars, petrolinia and automobile paraphernalia prior to the actual auction. These times and locations are on the auction house web site as is most all pertinent information. This is the opportunity to critique the cars, talk with the seller, photograph and, if you're a serious potential buyer, possibly test drive the car. As a free-lance auction analyst, the pre-auction preview is when I do my objective analysis and photograph the cars that I'll feature in my report. Since every venue is different, the logistics of car placement and preview can be liquid. Most auction houses place their top-tier cars either in a tent or within the bidding room. On occasion it takes some searching. Example: At Amelia Hollywood Wheels place cars inside and outside of two auction rooms plus in a parking garage attached to the building. RM/Sotheby's erects a large tent overlooking the Atlantic Ocean & displays cars both there and in the auction room. Bonhams and Gooding traditionally have huge tents.
Getting in the door on auction day usually demands that your wallet be a part of the process. Since you don't intend to commit to the process of acquiring a bidders paddle, chances are there will be some form of admission fee. Traditionally the purchase of the auction catalog will include two admission tickets. A few auctions are bidders and sellers only due to lack of seating. RRM/Sotheby's at Amelia is a good example. ALWAYS check ahead of time. When there is doubt feel free to phone or e-mail the auction house. They will return your inquiry. If you do attend, please sit in the back of the room, not in the Bidders Only seats or the reserved seating area. Be advised the bidding rooms quickly become SRO so early arrival is advised unless you wish to stand for the duration of the auction.
A word about catalogs: before most high-end auctions the auction house will publish and sell a catalog that contains photos and information concerning the vehicles being offered for sale. One to two pages is usually devoted to each offering. Included will be a general overall description of the marque, a brief write-up of the specific vehicle penned by the seller and either a dollar amount at which the unit is expected to sell or a note that say “No Reserve ”. These catalogs can be ordered online or purchased at the auction itself. Cost is usually between $80 and $120, and include two admission tickets. If bought ahead of time you show the physical catalog at the registration desk and receive admission wristbands. Purchased at the desk gets the catalog and bands right then. These catalogs can be true works of photographic art….some vehicle descriptions are an adventure into the world of creative writing.
What to expect. While a high-end auction isn't High Tea with the Queen it's not a frat house kegger either. A certain amount of decorum is expected although I've seen the Happy Dance of the Winning Bidder done on occasion. There is a cast of characters controlling the action. On the dais and under the spotlight are the auctioneer and a second person. The second person typically reads an introduction to the next car up for bid and assists the auctioneer by pointing out bidders in a large room. The auctioneer is the drill Sargent in the selling process. He, or she, has to wield the whip as it were. They recognize bidders both in the room and the phone, keep the flow going, encourage bidding to go as high as possible, entertain and educate. All are very very good at their job. Some have a relaxed pace, others speak as Evelyn Wood reads, and one, Charlie Ross of Gooding, is worth the visit just to hear his asides and one-liners. In addition there are auction personnel throughout the room called auctioneer assistants or ring-men. Their job is to recognize and relay a potential buyers bid to the auctioneer. A hint: when the bidding is in progress, especially if it's intense, don't jump up and down, wave to friends, dramatically signal the bartender or generally break into the Chicken Dance. It's not like your gyrations will be mistaken for bidding but it will create a pause in the action as you will be asked if all is OK or should the EMTs be called. Unmentioned but well known is another person said to play a part in the process and that is the bartender. It's not that excessive amounts of spirits are consumed but 'tis a fact that Glenlivet and Jack Daniels have purchased more than one classic car.
A word about Reserve-No Reserve: A car with a reserve means the seller has established a dollar amount that, below which, the car won't be sold. This dollar amount is mildly adjustable. (As an aside, the creation of this price involves past sales history, consultation with the seller, dice, ganja, Ouija Boards and hope springing eternal. Madam Zoodoo, Psychic, could make a fortune here.) A car marked No Reserve indicates the owner has no intention of taking the car home and it will be sold to the highest bidder regardless of the bid. Yeah, I see the gears turning. Hummmm, says you, I'll sleaze around the perimeter and pick me up a million dollar classic on the cheap when nobody is looking or bidding. Ain't gonna happen, boopie. Professional bidders can spot an opportunity coming their way faster than a hooker can spot an aircraft carrier heading into port. There are a few bargains to be had but no outright thefts. This is not to say there aren't hidden pearls in the automotive oyster bed. It's all a matter of luck, opportunity and the willingness to leap at the proper time.
It's always eyeopening to note the cars offered for sale at these auctions. The prevailing thought is that every car appearing at these venues as the rarest of the rare and priced in the stratosphere. Yes and no. We've seen rolling art sold for megamillions, some justifiably so and some questionable. All manner of cars, trucks, scooters, motorcycles and bicycles appear . There is literally something for everyone. This is the center of the caveat emptor universe and there tends to be few Type “B's” in the crowd. This is buying and selling in its purist form. Cars are sold “as-is, whereis”. When the hammer falls the deal is sealed. It's sold, bought and the hammer binds the contract, no funsies or do-overs. As a friend once said, the classic cars auction can be the world's financial crystal ball in microcosm.