HomeCar CultureDismal year for auctions or just a return of sanity?

Dismal year for auctions or just a return of sanity?


If you do nothing but crunch the numbers, they’ll scrunch your car-collecting spirit: 

Sales at major collector car auctions down 23 percent. Average sales price per car down 17 percent. Number of cars sold for $1 million or more down 29 percent. Cars offered at auction down 3 percent. Cars sold at auction down 6 percent. Sell-through rate down 3 percent.

After five consecutive years of major global auction sales of more than $1 billion, the Classic Car Auction Yearbook reports that sales plummeted to $931 million for the 2018-2019 buying and selling season that concludes with the annual Monterey Car Week.

But as you know, there’s more to this hobby than collector cars as investments.

Book cover

“We have clearly witnessed an adjustment in the market and we are now firmly in a buyers’ market,” Philip Kantor, head of Bonhams Motor Cars Europe, writes in a series of analyses that open the book. 

“To sum up the situation, ‘sanity’ returned to the market last year,” he noted, adding that such “stabilization is truly good news not only for real enthusiasts but also the market in the long term.”

The market, he adds, “does seem to be trending away from purely financial interest, which over the long term can only be good.

“Meanwhile, we should all enjoy our classic cars to the fullest and put the purely financial investment aspect back in the bi-product category behind emotion, of smell, sound, three-dimensional form, and to sum it up, the pure driving pleasure our motor cars leave us with.”

Besides, notes Kenneth Ahn, president of RM Sotheby’s, “new buyers and enthusiasts from all over the world are now bidding and buying…” and are engaging with auction houses through the internet as well as at auction venues. 

Many of those new buyers and enthusiasts are younger than the Baby Boomer generation and are being attracted to what the auction houses tend to term “youngtimers.” The book’s authors point out that 10 percent of the cars offered at collector car auctions in 2018-19 were produced this century and more than 20 percent were from the 1975-1999 period. Combined, they accounted for more than 31 percent of all dockets. Now, consider that Pre-WWII vehicles comprised less than 18 percent of the auction market.

Another big change during the past year involved cars offered at no reserve. In other words, the cars sold to the highest bidder regardless of what the consignors thought they were worth. No-reserve cars — a record 1,623 of them — represented 30 percent of auction dockets. The number of cars offered at no reserve in the last 3 years has increased by 55 percent, the authors add.  

Among the no-reserve cars in 2018-19 were 5 of the top-10-priced vehicles sold at auction in 2018-19.

Among other statistical highlights tracked by the authors in their 26th annual yearbook were the emergence of Aston Martin and McLaren, and the resurgence of Shelby American in the auction market. In fact, McLarens posted the highest average sales price of all marques, with Shelby second, Bugatti third and former leader Duesenberg fourth, and all of them ahead of fifth-place Ferrari.

The yearbook is full of statistical charts, lists of the top-sellers and pages and pages detailing every car sold at the major auctions in the 2018-19 time frame, as well as top-sellers through the years.

One conclusion reached after reading the market analysis section by the leaders of four major houses is that auction companies need to work harder at finding desirable cars and then do a better job of sharing the stories about those cars.

Matthieu Lamoure, managing director of Artcurial Motorcars, sees a significant shift in what bidders want — modern supercars.

“We are entering into a new era of more recent collectors’ cars, offering greater performance, but which you cannot maintain yourself,” he writes.

“How fortunate we are, the market is inexhaustible and is constantly renewing itself, with the arrival of new collectors, who are younger and even wealthier… It is up to us as auctioneers to find the treasures that whet enthusiasts’ insatiable appetites!”

And what advice do the authors share? 

“Buy the car you like, which is the achievement of a dream or reminds you of happy moments, drive it and do not let the investment mirage misguide you. By doing so, you may or may not earn a financial return, but we guarantee you that you will enjoy it and it will improve the quality of your life.”


Classic Car Auction Yearbook 2018-2019

By Adolfo Orsi and Raffaele Gazzi

Historica Selecta, 2019

ISBN 978 88 96232 11 8

Hardcover, 400 pages


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.


  1. “We have clearly witnessed an adjustment in the market and we are now firmly in a buyers’ market,”

    Let’s hope that’s not true and the market continues to "adjust".

    The average car-loving guy is out of luck when it comes to buying a classic, unless he’s pulling down six figures.

  2. What goes up must come down lets hope prices come down to a point where the average man can het a car at a reasonable price and not have to pay e xprbent figuures

  3. Yes, the numbers are lower, but still quite strong, just more realistic. If you take away the unusually high-dollar one-off sales, the numbers might not be off by that much. For instance, Bonhams sold a $38,000,000.00 Ferrari at their Quail sale years back. That particular model isn’t offered every year or that often period, being they are close to unobtanium and owners want to hold on to them.


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