HomeThe MarketRecord-setting art auctions put classic car prices in perspective

Record-setting art auctions put classic car prices in perspective


In the world of classic and collector car auctions, we have Scottsdale in the winter and Monterey in the summer.

It’s sort of the same in the world of collectible art, except that it’s New York City in the spring and then again in the fall.

Yes, there are many other auctions of classic cars and of various genres of fine art, but except for the occasional exception, the biggest sales totals and the record prices come out of Scottsdale, Monterey and New York City.

Although art prices still far overshadow those paid for even the finest of automobiles, these two worlds are coming together. Consider that it was less than two years ago that the fine-art auction house Sotheby’s offered its New York headquarters building to RM Auctions as the site of the record-setting Art of the Automobile collector-car sale. Or that it was just a few months ago that Sotheby’s bought a significant equity share in RM. Or that this week RM released information about a major car collection that being consigned to its Monterey sale in August, and making that announcement not from the RM offices in Ontario but at Sotheby’s in New York City.

But it’s not just RM and Sotheby’s that are linking classic car and fine art sales. Paris-based fine-art gallery/auction company Artcurial has a Motorcars division that has become known for fantastic barn-found offerings. The Keno Brothers, known through their Antiques Roadshow fame for expertise in antique furniture, are long-time car guys who have launched their own classic car sales effort and plan their first auction for this fall. Proxibid, which handles online auction sales of a variety of various high-end items, is increasingly involved with classic car auction companies as partner-supplier of Internet bidding services.

And we shouldn’t be at all surprised if we learn soon of another significant partnership between a traditional fine art auction house and yet another classic car sales company.

One reason for this recent interest is the surge in value in classic cars and investors’ eagerness to put their money into material possessions as an alternative to traditional stocks and bonds and similar on-paper investments. Another is the fact that there is a growing pool of young, “new money” multi-millionaires and billionaires around the world who see ownerships of art and automobiles as a means to gain their places of prestige alongside the “old money” wealthy.

By the way, classic car values only figure to continue to climb, perhaps at an accelerating rate, if reports are correct that this fall the Chinese government will consider easing restrictions on the importation of classic cars.

But lest we get too carried away with the classic car marketplace, we need to keep perspective. Yes, the nearly $300 million sales total in January at Scottsdale was impressive, and a more than 17 percent boost compared with the same sales the previous year. But consider that last month in New York, nearly three billion — yes, that’s -illion preceded a b — was sold (total take including buyers’ fees was $2,917,529,343, according to artnet.com) and records were set for the most expensive painting and the most expensive piece of sculpture: Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger going for $179.4 million (reportedly to the former prime minister of Qatar) and Alberto Giacometti’s Pointing Man bringing $141.3 million, both at Christie’s.

In comparison, the collector car auction-record $38.1 million paid last summer for a 1962 Ferrari GTO at Bonhams pales.

Last month, Christie’s “Looking Forward to the Past” sale did $705.9 million a few days after its sale of contemporary art generated $658.5 million. Meanwhile, Sotheby’s contemporary art auction did $380 million, more than the combined total at Scottsdale in January, though less than the $427 million total figure for Monterey 2015.

However, there is one statistic in which classic car auctions outdo fine art sales: Sell-through rate. In May in New York, the overall sell-through was 60.2 percent, well below the typical figure for Scottsdale or Monterey (according to artnet.com, the record overall sell-through for art occurred in 2013 when nearly 69 percent of lots were sold).

By comparison, the overall sell-through rate this year at Scottsdale was 86 percent.

And there is one aspect of art collecting that the classic car community should be eager to avoid: There have been reports that as part of the effort to secure the World Cup soccer tournament for 2018, Russia’s Vladimir Putin “gifted” the FIFA executive committee member who also is president of the Union of European Football Associations with an artwork: A Picasso painting.larry-sig

Larry Edsall
Larry Edsall
A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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