Pre-War Cars Sell for Roaring Numbers at 2021’s First Major Auction

After a year of online sales and virtual showings, car auctions are back for real—in a big way.

During the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance May 20–23, collectors paid a premium for the world’s rare automotive classics in the largest live auction weekend event since the coronavirus pandemic began. Many lots went for well over their high estimates.

Together the two auction houses that sold during the annual car show off the coast of Florida amassed sales of $61.3 million, up from $57.2 million in March of 2020. (The event is traditionally held at the Golf Club of Amelia Island in early March every year; for 2021 organizers pushed it to May).  

The top seller was a 1929 Duesenberg Model J Murphy Torpedo Convertible Coupe that RM Sotheby’s sold for $5,725,000, more than $1 million over its $4 million high estimate. It was the third-highest auction price ever paid for a Duesenberg and the first of five pre-war cars to fill the list of top 10 sellers. The other five in the top 10 were—no surprise—Ferraris, which saw a 100% sell-through rate for the duration of the weekend, according to John Wiley, who manages valuation analytics for classic car insurer Hagerty. 

Other wildly successful sales included a 1965 Porsche 356 Cabriolet that sold for $250,000 (beating a $175,000 high estimate thanks to its unique “PTS Orange” color) and a 1934 Bugatti Type 57 for $1.2 million (high estimate $1 million); a 1971 Jaguar E-Type Series III sold for $115,000, or $15,000 over its high estimate. A buttery-yellow 1968 Ferrari hammered at $2.55 million (est. $2.5 million–$2.8 million).

All told, both Bonhams and RM Sotheby’s saw increases in the average price of the cars sold and in overall sell-through rates, with RM Sotheby’s nearly doubling their average sale price from $263,479 in 2020 to $441,882 in 2021. Insiders called the results a strong retort to the haphazard if not cancelled sales that dotted the 2020 auction calendar.

“It was like 2015 again,” says Steve Serio, a 20-plus-year Amelia attendee who deals in seven-figure Porsches, Ferraris, Bizzarrinis, Aston Martins and the like. “The market disruptor known as Bring a Trailer, combined with the new and literal roaring ’20s, liquidity spreading to hard assets, and folks looking at their own mortality have all led to this perfect sales moment.”

Serious Buyers Only Need Apply

Pre-War Cars Sell for Roaring Numbers at 2021’s First Major Auction

It was a chiseled-down, highly motivated and highly competitive group of buyers who led to the strong surge in car prices. The smaller Amelia leaned heavily toward professional car brokers, dealers, and serious collectors, Serio says, not so much the looky-loo types who would have been the ones cramming the auction room to watch and cheer loudly (though likely not bid) in previous years.

Some of the narrowed attention translated into surprise with the oldest classic cars far exceeding expectations. Whereas in previous years auctioneers had speculated that the 100-year-old Cruella de Vil-style saloons were coveted largely by a dying breed (wealthy octogenarians, mainly), in 2021, the hottest cars sold were the types of pre-war vehicles that would have been popular—you guessed it—in the (previous) roaring ’20s and early 1930s.  

Pre-war specimens like the 1934 Mercedes-Benz 500K Sindelfingen Roadster that sold for $4.9 million (including buyer’s premiums) represented a larger share of the consignments this year than last year, up to 37% versus 25% in 2020, according to Hagerty. Sell-through rates of the Art Deco coaches with swirling fenders and two-tone paint schemes held strong, too, up slightly from 78% to 80%, as did their average sale price, which increased by 6% to $423,728.  

Hagerty’s Wiley chalked up their success to a potential segmentation that is happening across the auction world that sees certain eras of cars gravitating to certain venues. The old cars with the brass on them (headlights, grills, radiators, ornamental trim), he says, are back—if you’re on a golf course. Just don’t expect it to be listed on your favorite Internet auction site any time soon. 

“Online auctions are now the place to go for a youngtimer car from the 1980s and ’90s,” Wiley says, noting that while more youthful collectors are more prone to buy less expensive collectables online, the elder statesmen of the car world—and those who can afford to spend—prefer to do it live in living color across a verdant putting green. “The traditional live auction world is where you’e going to to buy the traditional cars, like a 1960s Ferrari and the Duesenberg,” Wiley says.

Meanwhile the ebullient sales results bode well for the climax of the car auction calendar, the back-on-again Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in August. So far, so good, says Serio, “I hope it stays this way for a while.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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