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Impressions From a First Time Auction-Goer

RM Auctions Arizona (photo: RM Auctions)
RM Auctions Arizona (photo: RM Auctions)

Aside from escaping this particularly bitter New England winter for a few days, getting to experience the solid week of collector car auctions in and around Scottsdale, Arizona this year was refreshing in its own way. I say refreshing because it reminded me just how alive this strange hobby (some might dare to call it a lifestyle) of ours is, and just how many kindred spirits we have across the country and indeed the world. I could also describe it as enlightening, since just a quick stopover at each auction house revealed a variety in atmosphere and approach that I never fully grasped. Never before did I realize there could be such different manners of doing the exact same thing: selling neat old cars. Some very different crowds and very different tastes converge on Scottsdale to buy and sell automobiles. You could even say the personalities of the different auction houses are as diverse as the crowds who come to their sales. The thing is, though, each of the auctions worked fantastically in its own way, and they all complement each other well for what is essentially a week-long escape from the real world to be around top notch cars and interact with some great people.

To start at the top of the food chain, so to speak, my first exposure to Scottsdale and indeed any big collector car auction was Barrett-Jackson. First off, it’s huge. So huge, in fact, that this year it earned the world records for “Largest Marquee” and “Largest Single-Unit Marquee” from Guinness. It feels like a half mile walk through manufacturers’ displays and food stands before you even get to see most of the auction cars, and with around 1,400 of those, there was just no real hope of seeing it all. The size, crowd and activity really do make it an event, almost as much county fair as it is car auction. Walking among the vendors and especially through the outdoor bars, complete with scantily clad waitresses, it sometimes felt like a middle-aged Spring Break. Barrett-Jackson has even been described as a circus, and rightly so, but circuses are all about fun, aren’t they? The sea of people who all paid $25 at the gate would certainly agree. And as for the cars themselves, the 1,000+ lots served a much wider variety of tastes than the TV coverage would lead you to believe and, more importantly, offered choices from the top all the way to the bottom of the price bracket. Barrett-Jackson also started this whole extravaganza in Scottsdale, so we owe them one.

Sir Stirling Moss in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing at Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale 2014
Sir Stirling Moss in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing at Barrett-Jackson (photo: Barrett-Jackson)

Russo and Steele, my next stop, made for a similar but more relaxed and less overwhelming atmosphere. Similar cars, similar venue, similar parking situation, similar food, just on a smaller scale. What really sets this sale apart is its arena-style “Auction in the Round” setup, in which buyers can and do surround whatever car is on the block as it sits between two elevated seating platforms. A fellow named Drew Alcazar, actually the founder of Russo and Steele, wears a nice suit and walks around the car, describing it and encouraging bids as the auctioneer perched above talks on and on. It’s a cool way to do it, almost completely different from other auctions and certainly more theatrical. Even if the car in question is just a ’66 Impala, with everyone gathered so closely around it, it somehow seems more important for buyers, sellers and spectators alike.

Bonhams, RM Auctions and Gooding & Company had sales that were smaller still, but these events were more about quality than quantity, as the ample number of six and seven-figure cars consigned by each would show. They were also different in layout and feel. Gone were the vendors. Gone was the inescapable aroma of fried food. Gone as well was the rapid-fire chatter of auctioneers. The venues were near lavish hotels, most of the people were well-dressed, and the occasional European language could be discerned among the background noise. Like a top tier Concours, you could almost smell the money in the air. The presentation of each car on turf or even its own display stand in some cases, seemed more thought out. It’s simply more sophisticated, but of course that’s the natural approach when there is a smaller number of more big ticket items to deal with. RM in particular, especially after their hugely successful sale in New York last November, has shown that setting up the auction cars like their own museum exhibit really gets people’s attention. Their indoor setup at the Arizona Biltmore was wonderfully laid out, especially given that what they started with was a big room in a hotel.

As for the RM Auctions sale, held in the same big room, seeing auctioneer Max Girardo speaking quickly but intelligibly and switching flawlessly between English, French and Italian was a sight in itself. RM wasn’t without its theatrics. Cars came onto the stage through a gigantic sliding door integrated into the back wall and at times it felt like the only thing missing was a fog machine, but their restraint in that department meant that the whole affair remained, as I said above, sophisticated. The same can be said of the slightly less extravagant sales of Bonhams and Gooding & Company. The previews and sales felt more choreographed (in a good way), and seeing such heavy-hitting classics and race cars clustered together and all shined up for potential buyers just seemed more interesting than seeing them all shined up for spectators at a car show. Gooding’s auctioneer, Charlie Ross, is also just as charming and entertaining as he appears on TV, and for a poor twenty-something like myself, seeing six-figure cars change hands one after the other (without much commotion from the crowd, I might add) was otherworldly.

RM, Gooding and Bonhams had me smitten with their setup and consignments, which included some of my all-time favorites, but that’s not to take away from the other successful and highly impressive sales. These auction houses serve different audiences and even different purposes, but at the end of the day (or end of the week, rather) they bring together enthusiastic collectors, reporters and regular folks who just happen to like cars. And we all get to share in the excitement of seeing top-notch automobiles going to new homes. Whatever your opinion of the recent trends in the collector car market, you are witnessing these trends in action at events like Scottsdale, and it’s impossible to deny that it is exciting, powerful even. For collectors and dealers who snatch up several cars at a time at these sales, it’s probably intoxicating as well. Precedents are set and records are broken. Those moments when the word “sold!” echoes across the room, tent, amphitheater or whatever structure it may be are the ones that people will be talking about for weeks. That is quite possibly the most interesting part, seeing the market evolve so quickly and just feet away. That refreshingly warm week was also long and busy, but it was an enormous learning experience. Whatever these auction companies are doing, they’re doing it right, because in addition to raking in dollars and breaking sales records, they have me hooked.

[Source: Andrew Newton; photos: Sports Car Digest, RM Auctions and Barrett-Jackson]