Desert Dreaming – 2020 Arizona Auctions

The hammer falls, cars sell, and the auto auction year opens with a bang

The annual automotive auctions in Scottsdale, Arizona (and surrounding cities) are acclaimed as the bellwether of the collector car hobby. Each January, enthusiasts flock to the Valley of the Sun where eight auction companies vie for attention, and thousands of cars are available, some 3,867 this year. Records are frequently set, and the trend for the year is established.

Of course, it’s only one dot on the chart, but it’s significant.

Results from a similar gathering of auction sales in Monterey last August had taken a tumble. Predictably, pundits were certain Arizona would be a bloodbath. Anxious sellers and eager buyers were evident. They needn’t have worried. With nearly 600 more cars on sale than the previous January, at $244.1 million in total sales, results fell just three percent vs the $250.9 million January 2019 tally. The 2020 sell-through rate was 77 percent vs 81 percent in 2019.

But the aggregate numbers can be deceiving.

©2020 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s

Looking at individual sales, for every 7-figure success, there were many important cars unsold. Although five of the top 10 sales were Ferrari’s, vintage Ferrari’s, normally leaders, were somewhat static. Of course there are exceptions. Gooding & Company sold a Ferrari F50 for $3,222,500 million, the highest single sale of the weekend, but the exciting Ferrari trio from RM/Sotheby’s had mixed results.  The gorgeous Series 1 Pinin Farina Spider was a no sale at $5.5 million, and a pristine red short-nose, 6-carb 275GTB ($1.7MM N/S) also failed to sell. RM’s silver 330 GTS went for $1,710,000, somewhat under the estimate. Similarly, Gooding’s 1965 Ferrari Superfast 1, a stunning black Berlinetta, stalled at $2,250,000, and did not sell.

Overall, while there were a few solid Ferrari results, the scarlet marvels from Maranello set no other records. Truly great Ferraris, like outstanding cars from other marques, were in short supply. I heard more than one pundit state that overall quality seemed to be down this year, and they opined that owners of outstanding examples simply hadn’t consigned.

That said, Lamborghini Miura’s are much in demand, especially if they are “S” or “SV’s.” Gooding managed $1,242,500 for a P400S and RM/Sotheby’s SV went for $1,391,000. Interestingly, the Miura went head-to-head with the Ferrari 365GTB/4 Daytona, when they were new. Daytona coupes routinely sell for one- third as much today, but Daytona 365/GTS Spiders are still high, witness Gooding’s sale of a lovely Fly Yellow 365/GTS for $1,930,000.

©2020 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s

In previous years, a few cars reached double-digit 7-figure sums. There weren’t any of those this year. Barrett-Jackson sold the first new Corvette C-8 to megadealer Rick Hendricks for $3 million with the sale benefitting Detroit Children’s Fund, so that high figure for brand new car, is not a reflection on vintage Corvette values. Perhaps more importantly, Bonham’s prewar Alfa Romeo 8C2300, a red-and-gray cabriolet with a rather staid cabriolet body by Figoni, was bid to $8.7mm yet failed to sell. Bonhams did manage $1,930,000 for a lovely Ferrari 212 Inter Cabriolet by Vignale. Gooding had eight cars over $1MM — they sold a massive Hispano-Suiza J12 for a surprising $2.425,000, somewhat over the estimate. A low-mileage Waltz Blue Tucker 48 sedan, in the same sale, brought just over $2 million — not a record, but higher than the last RM Tucker sale.

Some models were in large supply, if not in high demand. Early Porsche 911’s are the new flavor of the month, with beetle-like Porsche 356’s not far behind. They were everywhere. Prices ranged all over the lot, depending upon condition. Following their “barn fresh” tradition, Gooding presented two ratty old Porsche 356 barn finds – both were dirty and disheveled, neither one running, and each was definitely a restoration challenge. They sold, but not for stupid money. It would appear that people aren’t willing to pay a premium any longer to clean up a dusty, long-neglected barn dweller. One Porsche shocker – Gooding’s 914/6 GT Targa, with proper racing history, sold for $995,000. Another bargain:  Gooding sold a older restoration 1940 Lincoln-Zephyr 3W coupe for just $44,000. (I was very tempted).

©2020 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s

Out at sprawling Westworld, Barrett-Jackson had a plethora of ’05-’06 Ford GT’s, most with low mileage,  a couple of 2017 Ford GT’s, scads of “Winged Wonders,”(Plymouth Superbirds and Dodge Daytona’s), dozens of domestic ‘50s-era pickups (a hot trend), beaucoup Toyota FJ-40’s (many resto-modded), and scattered Austin-Healey’s and Jaguars. There was easily something for every price range. But if you wanted one of these highlighted models, scattered among the over 1,900 vehicles on hand, you had to track them down amidst miles of tents, and inspect each one. In most cases, they weren’t grouped together.

As always, there were surprises. Barrett-Jackson flogged a pristine, 8,000-mile 1989 Jeep Wagoneer for $110,000 – about triple the going rate for one of those classic, ‘old money’ 4X4’s. And they received $88,000 for a 1990 Toyota Supra Mk III Turbo. Watch these Japanese sports coupes. Worldwide sold a classy red Auburn 852 SC Boattail Speedster for $880,000 (its top sale). There are many replicas of that Auburn extant – it’s nice to see that the genuine article still commands a tidy sum. Even more interesting, Worldwide managed a heady $742,000 for a well-restored 1956 Chrysler-Ghia “Plainsman” Concept Station wagon, and a smart $132,000 for a 1935 Chrysler C-1 Airflow Coupe. Streamlined, with uni-body constuction, the mid-‘30s Airflow was ahead of its time. Enthusiasts have realized their inherent worth and prices are inching up, at last.

©2020 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s

Crowds surrounded a stylish Jaguar special at Gooding & Company. It was the XK140-based “Aerodyne,” designed by the late Nissan designer, John Toom, and completed by the late Ron Kellogg. Resembling a curvaceous Figoni and Falaschi Delahaye, in this swoopy French Racing Blue coupe was estimated at $120K-to-$150K and it sold, after spirited bidding, for $275,000.

Another lot that attracted attention was Bonham’s 1955 Lancia Aurelia B24S Spider America, which hammered for $810,000. These pert, limited-production roadsters, with wraparound windscreens and snappy V-6’s, were  delightfully stylish, then and now.

RM/Sotheby’s’s biggest sale was a 2018 Pagani Huayra Roadster at $2,370,000, while a 2019 McLaren Senna was bid to $1 million and passed. Considerable interest was shown in a rather original 1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K with a lumpy coupe body by Hebmuller. The $995,000 result reflected its odd configuration. About the same bid would have bought you RM’s 1957 300SL roadster ($973,000), and a 1955 300SL Gullwing in the same sale found a home for $1,270,000. 300SL’s have definitely leveled off – history, provenance, originality and/or a fine restoration are the key indicators. Mercedes-Benz built a fair number of both models, so top dollar goes to the car with the best story.

Money aside, one of the real reasons to attend the auctions, whether you’re eagerly bidding or just watching, is the action. At Barrett-Jackson, the, loud, staccato patter of the auctioneers is an assault on the senses at times. B-J’s callers change frequently but they all sound the same – their persistent yammer is often interrupted with shrieks of Sold! Sold! Sold! That’s in marked contrast to suave Charlie Ross’ measured British tones at Gooding, as he expertly and patiently coaxes the bids from the audience, one by one. “Not yet Madam,” he’ll intone, “I know you’re eager but the bid is to the gentleman on your left. Aaaaah, thank you sir, and now Madam, it’s your turn. Are you willing to advance. Splendid!”

All it takes is two determined bidders, and a record may be set. The audience’ heads swivel as though they’re at a tennis match, looking to see who’s bidding. The cars on the stage gleam in the artificial light, looking perfect, while the camera makes love to them. At Barrett, where they’re intent on rushing cars past, a sale lot will move off the block even as bidding continues at a frenetic pace. The only way you know the actual bid there is to watch the screen change. At RM/Sotheby’s, Worldwide or Bonhams, an auctioneer’s performances are more deliberate, but no less intent.  I do miss Max Girado, formerly with RM, who could flow seamlessly from English to French to Italian, never losing the count. (He has his own company in London now).

The next series of auctions will take place at Amelia Island, Florida, during the week of March 2nd. Many of the same companies and players will be there, and we’ll have a chance to see if Arizona’s trends are continuing. This much is certain. The auto auctions are an entertaining and exciting way to acquire cars and sell them.

Thanks to Jonathan Klinger of the Hagerty Insider, Rory Jurneka of Automobile Magazine, Jim Pickering from Sports Car Market/American Car Collector, and Harley Cluxton IV, whose “Hammer Price” app is invaluable. I’d like to acknowledge Rick Carey for his tireless reporting.