I am sure everyone knows by now about the Porsche Type 64 chaos at RM Sotheby’s collector car auction in Monterey. But what really happened and how could this have happened?
If you look at some of the videos of the bidding shared on the web, it does sound like the Dutch-accented auctioneer is saying “30 million” followed by “40 million”, “50 million” and “70 million.” And that’s what it said on the multiple large video screens in front of the auction audience.
But when he gives the final number, he says it more clearly, and you hear “17 million.” At this point, the price on the screen is corrected.
I was in the auction room, and it was all quite confusing, such as when he confirmed a bid of what sounded like 50 million 500 thousand dollars. It sure sounded to me like he said 50 million 500 thousand dollars.
Those figures were surprising, to say the least. I had spoken during the auction preview with numerous Porsche market experts and with a number of bidders, all of whom thought the legendary Type 64 would sell for between $14 million and $20 million. There was some question as to whether the seller would let the car go for less than $20 million, and many thought it might end up as a no sale. Just not in the strange way that it did.
Might there actually have been a bidder in the room who, upon seeing the numbers on the screen, offered a bid of, say, $50 million? If so, he or she would have been out of his or her mind as the car simply was not that valuable. In reality, there were no bids near that amount; the screen just had the incorrect information.
How is the run back to $17 million explained if someone had earlier seen the screen that said $40 million, $50 million or $70 million?
I’d like to give RM Sotheby’s the benefit of the doubt, but as the bids were coming in to the phone desk that faces those screens, and if this was an unintentional error, why did the auction-company staff on the phone desk not flag it for their bidders?
Well, as it turns out, the phone desk view of the screen was not very good because of the angle of its location. From personal experience, whenever I have been in such a position, I’ve tended to wholly focus on the client and could have missed what was happening on the video screen.
During the Porsche 64 auction, the first time that error finally gets flagged is when one of the phone-bidder representatives asks whether the bid is $70 million or $17 million. At this point, the auctioneer apologizes for his accent and says the bid is at $17 million and not $70 million. The audience was shocked when the numbers dropped so precipitously.
Ken Ahn, RM Sotheby’s president, also realized what had happened and called for the screen price to be run back. His speedy reaction in having the error corrected leads me to believe that the whole incident was an honest mistake.
One thing to keep in mind is that the auctioneer does have a pronounced Dutch accent that can make him difficult to understand. I actually missed out on a car during the all-Aston Martin sale on Thursday because I could not understand the numbers that he was saying.
When you combine that with the fact that he only talks about the numbers, speaks too fast and never takes a pause on the block for any kind of banter, you have a perfect storm for this kind of mistake.
I know that what I heard sounded like $30 million followed by $40 million and then $50 million. I asked those around me, and they heard the same thing. My friends and I were confused and dumbfounded. It did not sound right to us, but he kept calling out the numbers in the same way with each new bid.
So, was the Porsche 64 snafu a mistake or a conspiracy, as some people have conjectured? Well, think about it; what would be the point in not selling the car? The auction company loses, the seller loses and the car loses.
The auctioneer’s rapid style may be acceptable in the fine-art auction world, in which Sotheby’s is heavily involved, but we have been conditioned to such classic car auctioneers as Charlie Ross at Gooding, or former RM auctioneers Max Girardo and Peter Bainbridge, who provided more of a presentation than merely calling out the current bid price and ask price.
At the end of the day, this epic car, the first one to wear Porsche lettering, did not sell. The whole episode is a shame as this is a historically important car that deserves better, that deserves to be in the Porsche Museum, in fact.
The failure of anyone catching this error is hard to fathom; I guess that everyone at RM Sothebys was asleep at the wheel at the same time, maybe because it was late on the third day of the Monterey auction.
I have worked for an auction company and have served as a color commentator on the stage during sales, and you cannot overestimate the stress as information flows into your earpiece while you are trying to speak in front of hundreds of people. Three solid days of this has to be exhausting.
But that’s no excuse. The data on the screens showed incorrect dollar amounts and should have been caught and corrected immediately, the minute it read $30 million, which already would have been an over-the-top price for the Porsche Type 64.