For classic car aficionados, some of the most coveted wheels are Japanese models from the 1970s and 1980s.
Plus, “Ferraris from the ‘50s are always desirable,” said Gordon McCall, a classic and vintage car auction expert and director of motorsports at the Quail Lodge and Golf Club in Carmel Valley, California, who spent over a decade as a specialist at Christie’s and five years with Bonhams Motoring Department.
Mr. McCall knows a thing or two about marketing cars at auction, spearheading the $2.3 million sale of Steve McQueen’s 1963 Ferrari Lusso in 2007 by putting the car in Christie’s showroom—along with Mick Jagger who sat in the car for a time—for all the world to see.
“American classics like Packards from the ’30s and Dusenbergs from the ‘20s and ‘30s are still strong,” he added.
And for most buyers with dreams of riding around in rare—and cool—cars, the best route is via the auction circuit.
In the U.S., “there are two barometers in the car auction sector,” Mr. McCall said. “Monterey, [California] in August and Scottsdale, Arizona, in January.”
“January sales set the tone for how the year will be.”
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Auctions abroad that are equally appealing to car auction enthusiasts include Artcurial Motorcars Paris in February; Bonhams Paris in February; and the Monaco and Villa Erba auctions, both run by RM Sotheby’s, and both taking place in May.
As for the Monterey Car Week starting Aug. 11 in California, there will be 1,200 cars at auction this year. One buzzworthy car from Mecum Auction stands out, Mr. McCall said: A 1930 Cadillac Series 452 V-16 Coupe.
Mr. McCall mentioned that for buyers of vintage cars, provenance is a rather subjective thing. “There are people who would love to own a Lamborghini once owned by Justin Bieber and others who will be disgusted by that. It really depends on the person,” he said.
Keep in mind that if you’re interested in a low-mileage car that has been on display at a museum for the past few decades, there are some things to watch out for, he said.
“Often those are horrible cars to buy because they haven’t been used,” he said. “It may have been polished for 30 years, there may be air in the tires, but museums aren’t equipped to manage the vehicles on display. They aren’t just pieces of art that can be dusted off.”
How auctions work
The car auction business is dominated by a handful of select auction houses, including Sotheby’s and Bonhams.
There are live auctions and online auctions, too.
“A live auction follows a process with a stated opening bid,” said Brian Graves, co-founder of Everything But The House, an online estate sale company. “They’ll start at, say, $100,000 and people won’t engage, but they’ll start to as a lower opener is offered. By contrast an online auction happens over several days with all the bidding converging in the final minutes of the sale, so you can reflect on what you’re doing and go back and do research if you need to.”
Before you register for an auction—you are required to register and show a bank letter of credit for both live and online auctions—be sure to research the auction catalog (all are available online and are printed and mailed out, too). After that, do a deep dive into the make or model that interests you, suggested Peter Haynes of Europe RM Sotheby’s in London.
“We invest many hours researching the histories and provenance of the cars we sell, but many auction houses present either too little or sometimes incorrect information,” Mr. Haynes said. “If the car is a major investment, a buyer must undertake his/her own research so you know exactly what you are buying.”
Whether you’re interested in a semi-ordinary older car or a collectors’ car that’s often well into the seven figures, the same rules apply: It may help to hire a pro, suggested Mr. McCall.
“You should hire someone once you’ve identified a desired car and you’re really serious about it,” he said, adding that, often, buyers don’t see a car until they own it, trusting that expert to serve as a proxy at the auction itself.
Let’s say you want a 1971 Ferrari Daytona in magenta that you see in the catalog,“ Mr. McCall said. "An expert will know if you should stay away from it because it was wrecked and restored.”
Do the research
Photos are important indicators of whether the car has been restored. In addition, most auction houses provide receipts for repairs and modifications done on it as well as who did the work and whether it’s a person well known for restoring these types of cars. “This gives a snapshot as to the provenance and history of a car,” said Craig Jackson, CEO of The Barrett-Jackson Auction Company in Scottsdale.
“Be sure you’re clear, too, on what ‘fully restored’ means,” he said. “The car could have been restored 30 years ago, but it hasn’t been kept in a climate-controlled garage. It won’t look as crisp as something that was recently restored.”
This is where that aforementioned expert comes in again. Your goal, along with your expert, is too make sure all the numbers jibe, to check that the car was thoroughly inspected and when/where, to verify the receipts and claimed work and to finalize a price up front that you’re willing to pay for the car once the auction begins.
“There are disclaimers front to back in an auction catalog talking about how auction house bears no responsibility to claims made,” Mr. McCall said. “It’s a huge buyer beware.”
Live auctions move quickly
Often times, live auctions move so quickly and have such a short preview time that you may not be able to view or test drive the car. That’s another reason why an expert can be helpful. “People are often caught up in the emotion of ‘that’s the car I’ve always wanted’ and then they’re disappointed when they get the car and find out something doesn’t work,” Mr. McCall said.
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For specific day-of-auction advice, Mr. Jackson, suggested that during the pre-auction stage, “mention to the owner that you’re interested in his or her car.” If you can’t make it over to the car owner, definitely let those working around the “ring” convey your interest to the auctioneer. This way the owner can then tell the auctioneer so you’ll stand out when the bidding begins.
You want to be realistic about your needs, but also buy what you love—whether it’s an exotic European car that’s usable for (nearly) daily use, a collector car for a car show or a one that can be used for road rallies, Mr. Jackson said.
“There are so many things to use cars for, but if you’re going to take the family out in it, then I wouldn’t buy a two-seat roadster,” he said.
And be prepared to shell out, too. In addition to flights and accommodations required to attend some of the world’s more prestigious auctions, or even just to preview cars, “there are a lot of fees that go to the auction house,” Mr. Graves said. “A lot do a seller’s fee and a buyer’s fee—they take a commission from the seller and charge a premium on the final price to the winning bidder. Those can be as high as 25% to 30%.”
And don’t expect a car bought at auction to be a sure-fire money making investment either. “I always tell people to think about the value of using and enjoying a car,” Mr. Jackson said.
“If you buy a car for $100,000 and drive it for two years and sell it for $90,000 because the market went down, was it worth $10,000 to enjoy the car for two years?” he asked. “Think about it this way: You don’t get money back for a great vacation you’ve taken.”
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