THREE DAYS IN THE DESERT

At­tend­ing the Scottsdale auc­tions is bucket list stuff—whether you’re in the mar­ket or not

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IT’S A THURS­DAY morn­ing in Jan­uary, and the tem­per­a­ture in Scottsdale, Ari­zona, is a rel­a­tively balmy 70 de­grees, a far cry from the frigid win­ter weather that’s been grip­ping much of the na­tion. There are no heavy jack­ets or snow boots in sight here at the Bon­hams auc­tion. In­stead, those pe­rus­ing the wide ar­ray of dream ma­chines for sale are in their short sleeves nib­bling on fruit and muffins and wash­ing them down with a mi­mosa—or if the pre­vi­ous evening went long, a stiff Bloody Mary.

Scottsdale Auc­tion Week, as it has come to be known, marks the un­of­fi­cial open­ing of the an­nual auc­tion sea­son. It’s also be­come one of the go-to events in the world to buy and sell clas­sic and col­lectible ve­hi­cles. There’s an­tic­i­pa­tion in the air this year, with the pri­mary ques­tion on the minds of most auc­tion afi­ciona­dos be­ing how well the mar­ket has held up since the key sales in Mon­terey last Au­gust dur­ing the Peb­ble Beach fes­tiv­i­ties. There are seven auc­tion houses op­er­at­ing in this tony sub­urb of Phoenix at var­i­ous times dur­ing the week, and we’ll at­tend five of them. The big­gest of the bunch—Bar­rett-Jackson and Russo and Steele—have been up and run­ning since Mon­day. But Bon­hams marks the start of what’s considered the blue-chip auc­tions, sell­ing higher- end, mainly Euro­pean clas­sics for the kind of money that would buy you a very nice home in most parts of the United States. Or 10 very nice homes in some cases.

At 11 a.m. Bon­hams is un­der­way. At­ten­dees fun­nel in from the out­door pre­view area to the large, white auc­tion tent. Clas­sics in the 100-odd lots are strolling across the stage one by one, and the English auc­tion­eer (whose pro­nounced lips can’t help but re­mind one of Mick Jag­ger) is hard at work charm­ing po­ten­tial buy­ers. He leans across the podium with a broad grin and a wave of his arm, sin­gling out a pre­vi­ous bid­der and po­litely ask­ing if he wouldn’t like to con­sider just one more bid in an ef­fort to bring home the gleam­ing sil­ver 1958 Porsche 550A Spy­der that’s the ob­ject of ev­ery­one’s at­ten­tion at the mo­ment. Bid­ding for the Spy­der, one of the most pub­li­cized cars to cross the block at Bon­hams, be­gan at about $2 mil­lion. Mo­ments later, that fig­ure dou­bles. A bid comes in by phone then an­other from the left of the auc­tion room. Af­ter sev­eral min­utes of ping-pong style ac­tion, the auc­tion­eer loudly ham­mers his gavel, and just like that, the Porsche is sold to its new owner for a cool $5,170,000.

Mean­while, at Russo and Steele, the at­mos­phere couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent from the cozy, calm, paced feel of Bon­hams. There are hun­dreds of cars here, ar­ranged in sev­eral rows in­side long, nar­row tents erected side by side in a short-cut grassy field at Scottsdale’s Talk­ing Stick re­sort. In­side the main auc­tion tent, it’s a cross be­tween a prize fight and a live­stock auc­tion, with bright lights, fast-talk­ing auc­tion­eers, and lots of hol­ler­ing and hand sig­nals from spot­ters (as­sis­tants who help spot bids in the crowd for the auc­tion­eer). The stage cuts through the mid­dle of the tent, and there are grand­stands on ei­ther side, with few empty seats. Although we’re sure you can find Cham­pagne at Russo and Steele, the overwhelming bev­er­age of choice is do­mes­tic beer. As we walk in, a ’90s-era Nis­san 300ZX wear­ing gray primer waits on the block. A few pieces ap­pear to be miss­ing from its af­ter­mar­ket body kit. Bid­ding is stalling at $5,000, but then the auc­tion­eer re­minds the du­bi­ous crowd that this par­tic­u­lar 300ZX is pow­ered by an en­gine from an all-Amer­i­can Corvette C6 Z06— surely that alone is worth more than five grand? Not long af­ter, the car ham­mers at around $12,000. Good price? The high bid­der must have thought so.

As we wan­der through Russo and Steele’s ex­pan­sive tents, we en­counter a de­light­fully eclec­tic mix of new and old, Amer­i­can and Euro­pean, with a few Ja­panese cars thrown in for good mea­sure. Some are mun­dane, like the slightly shabby ’90s Mercedes-Benz 500SL that looks like it came from a “buy here, pay here” lot. Oth­ers are mag­nif­i­cent, like the 1950 Stude­baker “Ice Princess,” which is cus­tom­ized with six wheels, an acrylic bub­ble­top roof, and an en­gine and rear body­work from a ’50s Cadil­lac.

Be­ing able to see thou­sands of wildly di­verse and in­ter­est­ing cars scat­tered across a hand­ful of lo­ca­tions in Scottsdale is part of the week’s al­lure.

Yet an­other pic­turesque pur­plepink Ari­zona sun­set of­fers up a stun­ning back­drop to the cars staged in front of the Frank Lloyd Wright­themed Ari­zona Bilt­more Re­sort, where RM Sotheby’s is start­ing the first of its two sales nights. There’s a lot to see here, from pre-war Amer­i­can tour­ing cars to late-model ex­otic su­per­cars and ev­ery­thing in be­tween. The belle of the ball is a Bri­tish rac­ing green 1954 Jaguar D-type fac­tory (or “works”) race car that started at Le Mans but didn’t fin­ish. It’s perched near the auc­tion block, where it is ex­pected to fetch as much as $15 mil­lion the fol­low­ing night. (Spoiler alert: It ends up stalling just be­low $10 mil­lion and not sell­ing.)

The room is buzzing on the first night, with many cars sell­ing with­out re­serve—mean­ing the high bid wins no mat­ter the price. Auc­tion houses make most of their money on com­mis­sion (usu­ally around 10 per­cent from both buyer and seller), so it’s in their best in­ter­est to sell as many cars as pos­si­ble. Among the strong re­sults for the night, a 1948 Tucker 48 once owned by Pre­ston Tucker him­self brings a hefty $1,792,500—more than $200,000 over the car’s high es­ti­mate. Just be­fore that, a 1967 Toy­ota 2000GT sold for $665,000, well shy of the $1 mil­lion peak these cars ex­pe­ri­enced a few years ago but in line with to­day’s mar­ket. There’s a lot of money in the room.

Fri­day dawns, and we make the short drive to Scottsdale Fash­ion Square, an in­door/out­door mall ad­ja­cent to where Gooding & Com­pany has set up camp. Like Bon­hams, the dom­i­nant fla­vor is high-end Euro­pean clas­sics. Two cars stand out: a 1965 Fer­rari 275 GTB “Spe­ciale,” a one-off pre­pro­duc­tion car built and used by Pin­in­fa­rina at pe­riod auto shows through­out Europe, and a 1956 Jaguar D-type that has

some pri­va­teer rac­ing his­tory but is painted red, out of char­ac­ter for a Bri­tish car. When the Jaguar crosses the block later in the af­ter­noon, the bids come in slowly then stall near a stag­ger­ing $9 mil­lion. But that’s shy of the low es­ti­mate of $10 mil­lion. No sale. Not a good week for D-types, ap­par­ently.

On Satur­day, it’s the Fer­rari’s turn. This time, Gooding hits a home run. Bids come in strong and fast at first then slow be­fore it fi­nally ham­mers for $8,085,000 and a big round of ap­plause. Gooding will sell over $49 mil­lion worth of cars in just two days, out­pac­ing its pri­mary ri­vals, Bon­hams and RM Sotheby’s, at $25 mil­lion and $36 mil­lion, re­spec­tively. The Fer­rari 275 GTB will not only set a new record for the model at auc­tion, but it will also end up be­ing the week’s most ex­pen­sive sale.

Three out of the top four sales at Gooding are Fer­raris, in­ci­den­tally.

Although the blue-chip auc­tions score the top-dol­lar cars, BARRETTJACKSON is by far the main event. With week­long sales to­tal­ing over $116 mil­lion, in­clud­ing au­to­mo­bilia and char­ity lots (over $106 mil­lion with­out), Jan­uary in Scottsdale means big rev­enue for per­haps the best-known au­to­mo­tive auc­tion brand in the U.S. In­deed, while other auc­tion houses live-stream their sales lo­cally on their web­sites, BARRETTJACKSON has a full cov­er­age pack­age with Dis­cov­ery tele­vi­sion (a part­ner of Au­to­mo­bile’s par­ent com­pany).

Held at Scottsdale’s sprawl­ing WEST­WORLD venue, Bar­rett-Jackson presents as both a car auc­tion and a state fair, with tents full of nearly any kind of au­to­mo­bile you can imag­ine (B-J sold more than 1,700 ve­hi­cles dur­ing the week), in­clud­ing a ’60s Cadil­lac con­verted to a hot tub on wheels. Out­side, booths sell jumbo turkey legs, foot-long sausages, all man­ner of deep-fried of­fer­ings, and plenty of ice-cold beer to wash it all down. Ven­dor booths hawk ev­ery­thing from ad­justable beds to vin­tage slot ma­chines. The grounds are packed with peo­ple. Some are gen­uinely in­ter­ested in what each car sells for while oth­ers are sim­ply there for the com­radery that comes from be­ing in a room with thou­sands of like-minded peo­ple. An auc­tion­eer is

in­ces­santly shout­ing num­bers, only half of which are dis­cernible. It’s loud. Re­ally loud.

Jay Leno makes an ap­pear­ance, as do Chad Mc­Queen and for­mer Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush. A gi­ant Amer­i­can flag hangs above the stage. The vast ma­jor­ity of the of­fer­ings are Amer­i­can pony and mus­cle cars, with hot rods, cus­toms, su­per­cars, and Euro­pean clas­sics in the mix. Bar­rett-Jackson also prides it­self on char­ity sales where ve­hi­cles of­ten far sur­pass their fair mar­ket value. A 2017 Ford GT fetches $2.55 mil­lion for a good cause, and the first

2019 Ford Mus­tang Bul­litt edi­tion (an­nounced just weeks be­fore at the Detroit auto show) ham­mers at $300,000, with all pro­ceeds go­ing to char­ity. Both bring huge cheers and shouts as yet an­other high bid­der gets their 15 min­utes of fame on live tele­vi­sion. It’s as much a pro­duc­tion as it is an auc­tion.

The to­tal take for all seven Scottsdale auc­tion houses is over $247 mil­lion. That’s down some 5 per­cent from $259 mil­lion the year be­fore, but it’s a solid re­sult that por­tends an­other in­ter­est­ing though prob­a­bly not record­break­ing year. Ei­ther way, we’re look­ing for­ward to see­ing how 2018 un­folds and bring­ing you cov­er­age from the year’s top auc­tions. AM

1965 FER­RARI 275 GTB “SPE­CIALE” SOLD: $8,085,000

1956 JAGUAR D-TYPE NO SALE: BID­DING $9M

1948 TUCKER 48 SOLD: $1,792,500 This six-wheeled 1950 Stude­baker Cus­tom bor­rows its en­gine and rear fend­ers from a Cadil­lac and is a re­minder that you’ll see any­thing and ev­ery­thing in Scottsdale. It sold for $38,500 (about the cost of a new Civic Type...

1954 JAGUAR D-TYPE FAC­TORY NO SALE: BID­DING $10M

1967 TOY­OTA 2000GT SOLD: $665,000

’90S-ERA NIS­SAN 300ZX SOLD: $12,000

1958 PORSCHE 550A SPY­DER SOLD: $5,170,000

By RORY JUR­NECKA pho­tog­ra­phy by E VA N K L E I N

Noth­ing quite pre­pares you for the sheer size, vol­ume, and noise of a Bar­rett-Jackson auc­tion. Thou­sands of peo­ple pack the main auc­tion room ev­ery day.

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