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The best of funerals become celebrations of someone’s life, bittersweet moments in which we reminisce, sharing laughter and tears. That was the sort of atmosphere around the deaccession auction of the Hostetler Hudson Museum back in early August in Shipshewana, Indiana.
It was one of those events I’m glad I attended, but that I also wish had never happened.
Eldon Hostetler grew up as part of an Amish farm family in northwestern Indiana, became fascinated when a neighbor, coming to help with the wheat harvest, arrived in a 1936 Hudson Terraplane. Hostetler went on to invent equipment for poultry farmers (he held 65 patents) and to assemble the world’s largest — and finest — collection of Hudson automobiles.
He shared his collection in a museum housed in part of the Shipshewana Town Center, where the museum was supported in part by taxes on local motel rooms. Hostetler died, at age 93, in 2016 and his widow, Esta, died in 2017, after which the local government changed the innkeepers tax structure, sold the community-center building and announced that the museum would close and its contents sold at auction.
It all seems strange for a community that thrives on tourism. The horse-and-buggy days still reign — and rein — in Shipshewana, and the Hudson museum provided an attraction for those with more-modern tourist tastes.
The sale was handled by Worldwide Auctioneers, an Indiana company co-headed by John Kruse, who was just 18 years old the first time he met Eldon Hostetler, who at the time was keeping his car collection in an old chicken house.
“I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Eldon and what he did with those Hudsons,” Kruse said. “When the museum happened, it never crossed my mind that any of those cars would ever get sold.”
“It is sad to see any collection broken up. Can you imagine if the Auburn Cord Duesenberg museum or the Petersen museum got shut down?
“All those emotions certainly swirled not just for me but for everybody who had any relationship with the museum or Eldon. But the reality is that these cars are going to get sold.”
The collection of more than 60 vehicles had been appraised at more than $4 million. At the end of the Worldwide sale, with everything selling with no reserve prices, 32 of the vehicles went for auction-record prices and sales totaled $7.2 million. It was almost as if the bidders knew they were participating in something very special and were honoring Hostetler and his Hudsons by preserving his cars.
Worldwide had gambled on offering the star of the collection as the first lot on the auction block, the 1952 Hudson Hornet 6 that Herb Thomas raced in NASCAR. The car sold for $1.265 million and the auction was off and running.
On a personal note, as the auction gallery filled (and filled to standing-room only), the seat next to me near the back of the room became occupied by none other than Dean Kruse, truly the dean of collector car auctions. He hadn’t been to an auction since the demise of his own company but had been invited by his nephew, John Kruse, in part because the sale wasn’t far from home and also because of Dean’s history with Eldon Hostetler.
Sitting next to Dean Kruse at a car auction was like sitting in on a grad-school lecture; his insights into the cars and the auction process was illuminating, and it was heartwarming to see so many of people stop by at the end of the sale and share some kind words.
Bittersweet? Yes. But then so was the entire affair.