Back in January, the collector car market was rocked by the sale of Ron Pratte’s collection of 140 cars and more than 1,500 items of automobilia — gas pump globes, pedal cars, neon and porcelain signs and more, enough to fill a more than 100-page catalog. The sale, at Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale auction, raced up a staggering $40 million total.
But it was just the beginning of a year in which automobilia came into its own with collectors.
Following the success of the Pratte collection, automobilia sales continued to prove popular. There were Mecum’s two-day, $4.65 million sale of Vernon Walker’s collection, another Mecum sale of some 1,000 items of “Road Art,” and the ongoing sale by Morphy Auctions of what is known as Kyle’s Collection of 900 gas globes, 150 vintage gas pumps, and over 2,000 petroleum related signs.
So what exactly is automobila and why has it become so popular, and seemingly over night?Big Boy sign from Barrett-Jackson 2015 | Jim Resnick photos
Automobilia comprises a range of items, including signs, pedal cars, toys, souvenirs, gas-pump globes, etc., that bring back memories of our automotive past.
Rory Brinkman, director of automonilia for Barrett-Jackson, attributes the rise in popularity to numerous factors, including the “man-cave phenomenon.”
In this male-dominated hobby, men are building large garages to accommodate their car collections, or simply want to decorate their own special place with authentic automobilia that helps capture the mood and essence of the time period.
“It’s kind of like what Ron Pratte did with all the neons, gas pumps, and such. It complements the cars in the collections,” said Brinkman.
The rise of reality television has also had an impact. Shows like American Pickers have fueled interest, showing people what is available and what is of value, which according to Brinkman, “tends to create more interest in the subject matter.”
Yet another factor is cost.
“A lot of people come to Barrett-Jackson and want to buy something but are not prepared yet to step up and buy a car,” Brinkman said. “With automobilia they can still buy something off our stage for maybe a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars. It helps stimulate those who want to participate in the auction.”Globes from Barrett-Jackson 2015 | Jim Resnick photos
And it’s not just old guys nostalgic about their youth.
Brinkman said he has seen youngsters 12-14 years old buying automobilia to begin a collection of their own, as well as young car collectors just starting out in the hobby.
But the heart of the market is seasoned bidders who are reminded of a time in their youth when they filled up their first car at a specific gas station and now want to collect that brand’s sign or gas pump.
“People become very passionate about it,” Brinkman said.
“It’s a real diverse hobby to get into because you see everything from entry-level buyers to multi-billionaires.”
According to Brinkman, most people selling their collections are either starting to have health issues, are retiring or moving, and don’t want to take everything with them or move an entire collection.
Looking toward 2016, Brinkman said that original neons and porcelain signs are going through the roof.
“A sign that would have sold for $5,000 a few years ago is now selling for $30 to $40 thousand.”
Another hot trend, he said, is the resurgence of demand for pedal cars.
When buying automobilia, Brinkman recommends looking at the condition and quality, just as you would for a car. You want the best you can afford. Also, he said, always buy something authentic; it will increase in value. On the other hand, he said, a reproduction will rapidly loose value.