Sotheby’s Puts New York on the Car Auction Circuit

Posted December 28, 2017 7:04 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — For one evening early this month, the gravity of Manhattan’s auto marketplace shifted crosstown, from the dealerships on the northern reaches of 11th Avenue to the Upper East Side. While many of the same brands were offered — BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche among them — the selling prices realized on the 10th floor of Sotheby’s New York auction house were on another scale entirely.

So were the cars, for that matter. Classics from Aston Martin and Rolls-Royce, available alongside modern exotics from Bugatti and Pagani, were the focus of spirited bidding. By the time the auctioneer’s gavel went silent, $45.5 million worth of cars had found new owners.

The sale, titled “Icons,” was held during RM Sotheby’s “A Life of Luxury Week” series, which also included events for watches, jewelry and fashion. It was the third such auction held by the company, after a 2013 sale that brought in $63 million and one in 2015 that rang up $73 million. It was also evidence of RM Sotheby’s interest in making New York — and Sotheby’s — synonymous with high-end car auctions.

It’s reasonable to ask whether it makes sense to hold an auction of important collector cars in New York, perhaps one of the least car-compatible cities in the United States. And why in December, when shoppers are not likely to be searching for a classic sports car for their weekend sortie to the Hamptons?

“New York is a hub for luxury buying,” Jake Auerbach, a cars specialist for RM Sotheby’s, said before the sale. December, he added, is a time of brisk shopping activity that coincides with a lull in the car auction calendar.

Dave Kinney, publisher of a collectible car price guide from Hagerty, a Michigan insurer of classic vehicles, said the auction company’s strategy of raising New York’s profile was in evidence in November when it sold a four-wheeled engineering marvel — a Formula One race car. The auction’s other offerings were far more likely to be enjoyed at the most sedate of paces: standing still.

“A move like offering the Ferrari Formula One car that Michael Schumacher drove to a win at the 2001 Monaco Grand Prix in a New York sale — of contemporary art, no less — is a pretty good indicator of intention,” Kinney said.

That Ferrari F2001 sold for $7.5 million, well above its presale estimate and a particular triumph given the long-standing difficulty of selling race cars. It followed an October display, also in Manhattan, of 10 noteworthy Ferraris to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the carmaker — another example, Kinney noted, of RM Sotheby’s taking a creative approach to promote interest in the city.

That logic was affirmed by some outstanding results in the most recent sale: A 1959 Ferrari 250 GT California Spider commanded $18 million, and 10 other cars each brought more than $1 million. (All prices include the buyer’s premium.) The auction also offered automotive artworks as well as a lot comprising a helmet and racing overalls worn by Steve McQueen in the filming of “Le Mans” ($336,000).

Such attractions brought a crowd of bidders and spectators to York Avenue that seemed interchangeable with any others during the luxury sale series. And the air of refinement in the room ranked a notch or more above warm-weather sales that typically accompany high-society concours events.

That Sotheby’s would be in the auto trade, a position it committed to with the purchase of a 25 percent interest in RM Auctions in 2015 to form RM Sotheby’s, is hardly surprising. It’s a huge business, with two big events in the United States — Scottsdale, Arizona, and Monterey, California, each with a handful of auction houses participating — totaling more than $500 million in sales alone. (RM Sotheby’s sold $526 million worth of cars globally in 2017.) Not only does the customer base overlap with Sotheby’s other offerings in fine art and jewelry, but so do the competitors, including Bonhams and Paris-based Artcurial.

Though there are prominent collectors who call New York home — even if their garages may be outside the city — proximity is not a decisive factor for siting a sale, Auerbach said. Discerning buyers have access to the full biography of significant cars, including online photos and documents. Bidders represented 18 countries; of bidders from the United States, one-third were from within the state, Sotheby’s said.

In an auction season of record-breakers — when a flawed da Vinci painting brought $450 million at Christie’s and a Paul Newman Rolex wristwatch went for nearly $18 million at Phillips — the RM Sotheby’s combine presented design icons from various eras that included a 1973 De Tomaso Pantera ($146,000) and a 1958 Austin-Healey 100-Six ($179,000). Among the cars offered with the intent of drawing crossover interest from culturally savvy collectors was a 2000 BMW Z8 roadster formerly owned by Steve Jobs, which included Jobs’ BMW-branded Motorola StarTAC flip phone ($329,000). Cars of historical significance are the prime attraction for auctions, of course, and the sale of a 1948 Cadillac with flamboyant coachwork by Saoutchik ($857,000) and the 1952 Chrysler D’Elegance design study by Virgil Exner ($885,000) delivered. But in New York, nearly new models can earn a spot, too: A 2018 Bugatti Chiron, the first in the United States, brought $3.8 million.

Manhattan may have difficulty stealing the audience from Scottsdale in January or Monterey in August to become a center of classic car transactions. Those sales, involving hundreds of cars, are less constrained by space, and can make room for novelties like microcars and the occasional amphibian.

Still, the New York crowd is not immune to the charms of vehicles entirely out of context, those that have neither the come-hither appeal of a midcentury Ferrari or the powerful elegance of a Depression-era Marmon.

When a 1960 Volkswagen Microbus, the desirable 23-window Samba version, took its turn, the audience greeted it enthusiastically. The adorably underpowered VW surfmobile turned the crowd nearly mute when it reached $150,000, and then drew gasps when it was hammered, sold at $185,000. Including the buyer’s premium, its total came to $207,000.

An auction of collector cars in Manhattan does not end like a sale of paintings or jewels, with bidders walking into the night and transactions settled later in a conference among agents. The precious metal is removed from the seventh-floor display when the last bid has been recorded, and the cars are rolled onto an elevator for transfer down to the eighteen-wheelers that will take them to secure storage until their new owners retrieve them.

It’s a sight that gives pause even to the city’s late-night denizens, gathering crowds as the multimillion-dollar artifacts are winched into the transporters.

“We could sell tickets,” Auerbach said.