The comeback gains traction as prices soar for rarest cars

Last Updated: Sun, Jan 29, 2012 07:15 hrs

The collector car community left its annual week of auction extravaganzas here with much to think about.

After some uncertain years, have the value fluctuations caused by worldwide economic turmoil ended? Are the record-breaking sale prices limited to the finest and rarest vehicles, or will more common offerings also benefit from the rising tide?.

A total of 2,143 vehicles were auctioned at six events here, with total sales of at least $182 million, according to, which tracks auction results for its collector-car price guide. One indicator - subject to the influence of available cars, to be sure - was the average sale price: $84,985, a healthy $17,142 higher than last year.

By genre, particularly strong sales were attained among European sports and racing cars like mid-1950s Mercedes-Benz Gullwings; rare classics like a Tucker Torpedo and a one-of-five 1933 Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow; and vehicles with celebrity provenance, like a 1932 Packard Twin Six roadster once owned by Clark Gable. But over all there was strength, relative to recent years, from the top of the price ladder to the bottom rung.

2012 Collectible Car Season

"Our totals were only a couple million off from 2007," Craig Jackson, chief executive of the Barrett-Jackson Auction Company, said in an interview, referring to the peak year before the economy went into a tailspin. "It's coming back."

Barrett-Jackson's six-day event, the largest of the annual January auctions in the Phoenix area, accounted for more than half of the vehicles that changed hands during the week, with total sales of more than $90 million.

Barrett-Jackson's top sale was a 1948 Tucker Torpedo that brought a surprising $2.9 million. The previous record for a Tucker was $1.1 million at Monterey, California, in 2010. The marquee sale of the week, however, was by Gooding & Company, which sold a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing - one of just 29 produced with an aluminum body - for $4.62 million, a record for that type of vehicle.

"It was aggressively estimated before the sale at $2.5 to $3 million," the president of the auction house, David Gooding, said in an interview. "Eyebrows were raised at that amount. But the sale absolutely soared past that. We had no idea it would do that well."

What might such a sale mean for the collector car market as a whole?

"It is a strong but discerning market," Gooding said. "It's very, very strong for the best of the best. But average cars didn't set the world on fire."

Even so, six auctions in town during the week may be one or two too many. Bonhams joined the party this year with a one-day event, while at auctions conducted by RM, Russo & Steele and Silver there was a drop from 2011 both in the number of cars consigned and in gross proceeds.

"I do see the scene as a bit diluted around the edges," Gooding said.

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Even Gooding's catalog offered some vehicles a bit out of its usual range. These included a 1953 Simplex motorcycle and a garish 1948 Chrysler Town & Country convertible once owned by the actor Leo Carrillo of the Cisco Kid TV series, that had a Texas longhorn head mounted on the hood. The longhorn's eyes even lit up, blinking left or right to signal turns. "Such a unique vehicle," the auctioneer, Charlie Ross, said with understatement.

At RM, notable deals included the $781,000 paid for a 1991 Ferrari F40 Berlinetta bought new by Lee A Iacocca, the onetime Chrysler chairman, and the $990,000 sale of a 1959 BMW 507 roadster - one of only 251 built.

Barrett-Jackson, long considered a specialist in 1950s and '60s American sports and muscle cars, extended its reach in the other direction. The company's seven-figure sales - nine in all - included prewar classics from Daimler, Duesenberg and Isotta Fraschini.

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The high-end cars of Barrett-Jackson's new Salon Offering Collection are part of what it called the 5000 series, named for the special lot numbers assigned to them. These cars, which carried reserves of at least $500,000, included the Tucker and a 1947 Bentley Mark VI from the collection of Ron Pratte, a Phoenix-area businessman.

"The 5000 Series cars brought in some excitement - and we are all about excitement," Jackson said. "We could do small, European-style, one-day events only for a small, select group of high-end cars. But we prefer the large-scale American-style events. It's a lifestyle event now, with tours of the Phoenix area for our people who come in from out of town. We take the wives - more than 100 of them this year - shopping, golfing and to the casino. We have dinner and receptions. So do our sponsors."

On the other hand, the auction house is getting very picky about the vehicles it accepts, Jackson said. "We turned down a lot of cars this time." Cars were rejected, Jackson said, for not being in sale-ready condition; for the type of restoration or modifications done; and for those of questionable provenance.

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