THREE DAYS IN THE DESERT
Attending the Scottsdale auctions is bucket list stuff—whether you’re in the market or not
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
1958 PORSCHE 550A SPYDER SOLD: $5,170,000
’90S-ERA NISSAN 300ZX SOLD: $12,000
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 R).
1954 JAGUAR D-TYPE FACTORY NO SALE: BIDDING $10M
1967 TOYOTA 2000GT SOLD: $665,000
1965 FERRARI 275 GTB “SPECIALE” SOLD: $8,085,000
1956 JAGUAR D-TYPE NO SALE: BIDDING $9M
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.