The annual series of six major collector car auctions that play out over a week each January in Arizona came to a conclusion last Sunday, with more than 2,800 vehicles changing hands for a record total of nearly $250 million. The consignments included the usual array of European classics that fetched multimillion-dollar prices, including an $8.8 million Ferrari; there were even surprisingly strong prices paid for American collectibles, like $3.85 million for a 1967 Chevrolet Corvette L88 coupe, or $2.86 million for a ’69 L88 convertible.
But there were also some shocking seven-figure prices paid for shabby, neglected and even fire-damaged models, such as a partially charred 1967 Ferrari 330 GTS that sold for $2,062,500,
and a rotted-out 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing that went for $1,897,500 – prices that were higher than pristine examples of these cars might be worth in today’s quirky collector car market. (In fact, a beautifully restored 300SL went for $1.4 million at the same auction!) Even an abandoned, rusty 1965 Porsche 911 that was dismissed by some as little more than a “parts car” sold for $116,600.
So much for the mongrels! The mixed breeds included a Lagonda with a Chevy crate motor, as well as a wide array of resto-mods (i.e. old cars powered by modern replacement drive trains). Other offerings included cars from the 1970s and 1980s that not long ago might have been more likely found on used car lots. There were even the first SUVs offered in memory – among them, an old International Scout and a Toyota FJ40. Can minivans be far behind?
To purists, it was almost as if mutts had invaded the Westminster Kennel Club’s Dog Show and had come home with top prizes. To the more charitable, such jalopies are increasingly desirable, and known by more euphemistic sobriquets such as “barn finds,” “un-restored originals” and (my personal favorite) “objects of contemplation.”
“The two cars you mention were two excellent, very special cars, with fascinating histories,” David Gooding, whose Santa Monica-based auction house sold the Ferrari and the Mercedes, said in an interview Monday. Though he declined to say who bought the cars (as is customary with collector car auction sales) or what the new owners might do with them, he noted both were “ideal candidates for a complete, concours quality restoration.”
The problem is, such a restoration effort might cost hundreds of thousands of dollars – and might actually make the cars worth much less than was just paid for them.
What’s the appeal of such rough-edged wrecks? “Restored cars have a certain appeal, of course, but an unrestored car carries the patina and textures of age, as well as its original colors and materials,” Mr. Gooding said, “not to mention its undisturbed soul.”
To a collector, originality is becoming an ever-more highly prized attribute. “You look at the cracked leather of an old seat, and ask, ‘Who sat in that seat?’ or look at the steering wheel, and think, ‘Whose hand was on that very wheel?’ ‘Whose fingerprints are still on it?’” said museum owner and noted collector Peter Mullin of Los Angeles.
His collection includes dozens of original, unrestored vehicles, including a 1925 Bugatti Brescia which he displays in the horrific condition in which it was fished out of a Swiss lake after 73 years. He also has a 1948 Delahaye 135 MS, which was found in a barn; so, he displays it in his museum the way it was found.
“I even built another barn around it,” he said. “I thought about restoring it. But I thought, ‘Why should I touch this car?’ It’s only going to be original once.”
The idea of finding value in original vehicles – no matter how dilapidated or dirty – is not new, Mr. Mullin added, “It’s been a very popular type of vehicle in Europe for a number of years, especially with old race cars, and it seems to be a value component that is gaining in popularity, and spreading to America.”
Indeed, for the past decade or more, the prestigious Concours d’Elegance in Pebble Beach, California, has been hosting increasingly well-subscribed Preservation Classes. But would Pebble Beach welcome the type of cars that were auctioned in Arizona?
Kandace Hawkinson, a spokeswoman for the concours, said in an email that collectors are “learning to differentiate items that have been lovingly cared for and those that suffer from neglect.”
“I think its rather interesting that you reference Westminster and dog pedigrees because to a great extent a well preserved car is a car with its pedigree fully intact,” she continued. “The same isn’t necessarily true of restored cars, nor is it really true of cars that have been simply neglected and ravaged by time.”
She added, “Some barn finds do tell a story, of course, in their rough state, and they also may have a beauty of their own (I’m thinking here of the Mullin Automotive Museum’s Bugatti of the Lake, which is of course now being very carefully preserved and cared for as art). But many long-neglected cars need to be restored for their beauty to be once again realized.”
It would be a hard argument to make that either the sooty Ferrari or the ratty 300SL or even the tatty 911 sold in Arizona have histories worth preserving behind them. They appear to have been just shoved into garages by their respective owners and ignored for decades.
McKeel Hagerty, whose Traverse City, Michigan-based insurance firm writes policies for classic cars, said in an interview that it can be a “judgment call” whether a collectible car might be worth more in an original, un-restored state than it would be fully restored. He added, “But I would have no trouble writing policies on either the Ferrari or the Mercedes for values tied to the prices the new owners paid for them.”
[Editor’s Note: A different version of this story appeared January 25, 2014 in The New York Times]
January 24, 2014