This is the last of four installments in the story of the first modern classic car auction.
May 1, 1971, “dawned crystal clear,” Kirk F. White remembers. “It was the most dazzling May first in the history of the world. The weather was absolutely perfect.”
As with any first-time event, there were glitches. White figures as many as 1,000 people got into the event without paying the admission fee, and one budding entrepreneur set up a card table on the church’s lower driveway and started selling bogus admission tickets. Nonetheless, White was able to turn more than $10,000 in admission fees over to the church as facilities’ rental.
“The world in early 1971 must have been ready for classic car auctions,” White writes in his memoir. “We received incredible press coverage. All the major network affiliates gave us extensive air time. The AP, UPI, truly all of the wire series, Business Week magazine, all three major networks, Playboy, and of all things, Women’s Wear Daily!
“But the big one was Robert Jones of Sports Illustrated, who gave us six pages of coverage!”
Warren Weith covered the auction for Car and Driver, with artwork by Ken Dahllison. Oh, and then Barbara Walters showed up.
Mid-auction, White recalls, one of the auction workers approached the auctioneer’s podium to get White’s attention. White was on the podium with Omar Landis; White was describing the cars and Landis was guiding the bidders.
“I indicated that it was not a good time for me to chat,” White said.
Who is Barbara Walters?”
— Kirk White
[/pullquote]But the man persisted: “Barbara Walters is here and she wants to interview you about the auction.”
“Who is Barbara Walters?” White asked.
“She’s with the Today Show,” the man responded.
“At that point,” White said, “I turned behind me to see this well-dressed, attractive lady with an ample crew and camera in tow.
“She was a lovely lady and as delightful as she could be, right up to the point when the cameras and lights lit up and she tried to sucker punch me a couple of times with cleverly worded questions. Nothing sinister, more along the lines of did we really know what the hell we were doing there today? And was I disappointed with the way the sale was going on any way, because we were announcing ‘no sales’ and she thought there had been more than a few.”
White’s auction may have been the first with a car’s owner allowed to set “reserve” prices, the minimum amount bidding had to reach before the car would be sold.
“The first few (no sales) stunned the crowd as all previous auctions always indicated the whole field had been sold, which was confusing and misleading,” White said. “The audience enjoyed getting the facts straight right off the bat.”
It was one of those no-sales that drew headline attention above Robert F. Jones’ byline in Sports Illustrated:
Real Choosy About The Doozy
A world-record bid of $67,000 failed to buy a succulent Duesenberg, but champagne-sipping old-car shoppers at a Pennsylvania auction thawed the recession freeze by ponying up more than $300,000
Jones waxed poetic about the Gatsbyesque parade of vehicles, noted that 32 of the available cars did not sell and that among those was “a 40-year-old Duesenberg Le Baron barrel side Phaeton, tricked out in tan and burgundy for its first public appearance since it was restored by Durland Edwards of Forty Fort, Pa.”
Jones noted that the standing record price for a car at auction was $45,000 for “the legendary ‘Harry Johnson’ Mercer back in 1968,” but that there had been talk of the Dusie going for as much as $80,000 despite the nation’s recessionary economy.
As the magazine reported, the Duesenberg was bid to $66,000 but did not sell for that amount.
The high sale of the day, Jones reported, was $20,000 spent on a 12-cylinder Auburn Speedster, which the new owner — who came to the auction with intensions of buying the Duesenberg, but then didn’t even place a bid on that car — planned to drive that evening to his home in Indiana.
One member of the Du Pont family bought a 1928 Du Pont on behalf of another family member who, at the time, was serving his country in Vietnam.
An eight-cylinder Auburn Speedster sold for $14,000.
Jones reported that a 1936 Aston Martin that raced at Le Mans sold for $6,600. A Ford Model A roadster brought $3,300, he wrote. A 1938 Plymouth woodie wagon that had just come from its role in The Godfather movie sold for $1,400.
Jones noted that the auction marked not a thaw in the recession, “but a few rivulets were running.”
“We made a small amount of money,” White said, adding however that, “the ensuing publicity all over the country was astonishing.”
And that wasn’t the only aftermath of the sale. The sale staged by Kirk White and “Tiny” Gould would take place annually for only a few years, but at one point during the second sale, in 1972, White noticed that four men, all wearing tan suits and matching tan Stetson hats, were sitting in the front row. He didn’t know who they were, but Landis recognized the quartet.
They said they thought we had run a real fine sale and they might try something like it out there in Indiana.”
— Kirk White
[/pullquote]“They’re the Kruse brothers from Indiana,” Landis told White. “They’re big farm and land auctioneers.”
“After the sale, they introduced themselves,” White said. “They said they thought we had run a real fine sale and they might try something like it out there in Indiana.”
Some eight months after White’s sale provided the prototype, two car collectors out in Arizona, fellows named Barrett and Jackson, did a sale of their own. And eight years later, a young Canadian named Rob Myers would follow start his own auction company. And there would be others as well.
And what of the Kruses? Well, they went back home to Indiana and did, indeed, try something like the auction they’d seen, and for the next few decades they would stage more and larger classic car auctions than anyone.
But it was Kirk F. White, “Tiny” Gould and Omar Landis who had done it first, and done it right.