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How to sell a car at auction


(Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on buying and selling a vehicle at a collector car auction. The first segment covered buying.)

So, you have been watching the various auctions on TV for a few years and might have even attended an auction or two and have decided to sell a collector car at an auction. Is this the right decision and, if so, how should you go about it?

To start, selling a collector car at auction can have a couple of advantages over selling person-to-person, either online or through your network of friends in the collector car hobby.

  1. Auctions can often do a better job of marketing your car than you could yourself. These companies have marketing and PR teams that promote the sale and even your specific car via their network of advertising and partnerships. This can lead to record sale prices.
  2. Through their marketing, auction companies bring hundreds or even thousands of qualified buyers to their events, giving your car an audience that it is not likely to get when sold privately.
  3. Auction companies employ car specialists at their events to assist prospective buyers in the purchase of your car.

These are all important points of difference from person-to-person selling or even selling a classic car through a consignment dealer. But remember there are costs associated with the selling of a car at auction:

  1. The cost to transport the car to an auction.
  2.  Listing fees that many auctions charge (see the auction house website for specifics).
  3. The possibility that if your car does not sell, you will have to pay to get the car shipped back home.
  4. There is a varying percentage that the auction company takes from the seller. This is a percentage of the hammer price and is not inclusive of the buyer’s percentage. This can add up and can make your car go from a strong sale to a weak one.

What should you do to help your car sell for a good price?

Decide if your car is the right car to sell not only at auction, but at a specific auction. As a general rule, and for the big major sales, if the car is worth less than $20,000, you should make sure that an auction is your best selling option. There are exceptions, for example, such as a local auction with little or no transportation costs.

You also need to decide which auction is the best for your vehicle. For example, I would not take a muscle car to an auction that specializes in European sports cars and full classics. By the same token, I would not sell a No. 1 condition Austin Healey 3000 at an auction that specializes in muscle cars. Do the research on each auction company and its locations and decide which company and venue best fit your car.

Also, carefully review the fees charged by each company to sell your car to help you pick the best company for your vehicle.

Now that you have made those decisions, you’re down to the nitty gritty of what you need to do to sell your car well:

  1. Be sure your car is truly ready to be sold at auction. A collector car auction is as much a show as it is a sale. Details matter. Be sure that the car looks great, with all cosmetic issues dealt with and done properly. In addition to the cosmetic issues, be sure that all mechanical and electrical systems work as they should. Do not forget to be sure that your car has decent and correct tires. In other words, do not put Brand X tires on your Ferrari; this tells sellers you are a cheapskate and they then start looking for what else was done on a low budget.
  2. Gather any and all service records, receipts, and other documentation for the car and create a pair of binders that cover the history of the car. Also have a pre-purchase inspection that includes an engine compression check to include in the folders. All of this communicates to buyers that you are the kind of fastidious owner that they want to buy from. Leave one with the auction company and keep the other one for your use at the sale.
  3. Have professional pictures taken of the car. When photographing the car, include everything such as the wheels, engine compartment, interior from both sides, and the rear of the car and headliner. Also put the car on a lift and fully photograph the underside. Finally, get pictures of the owner’s manual, service and history documentation and of the toolkit and any other accessories you have.
  4. When the description is written, provide the auction company with every detail about the car, citing the factory-specific names for the paint and interior colors (Polar Silver paint with Parchment leather), the options on your car including the factory option codes, and all the ownership history you can gather for the cars life.
  5. If the auction company does not have a dedicated detail person on site, employ one of your own to be sure that the car  looks great. You can  do this yourself at the auction should you wish. This is also a message to buyers that you care about your car.
  6. Be on hand during the auction preview days to answer any questions about the car. Do not sit in a chair behind the car all day, just be available and be sure that the auction company specialists have your cell phone number and let them know that you are happy to answer any questions in person from prospective buyers.
  7. Do not bring show-car style information boards to place next to the car. These look cheesy and make the car look like it is at a local car show. They also tend to block a complete view of the car. Instead, use your second binder (remember, you made two) that documents the car and show it to prospective buyers on site.
  8. Unless you are a celebrity, do not insist on driving the car across the block, but be sure that the auction company drivers know how to properly operate the car. Also provide them with a set of clear instructions on how the car likes to be started and driven.
  9. Be in the room when the car is selling. This helps if the auction company has a buyer who is bidding under your reserve so you can have a conversation on how to proceed.

A note about reserve prices: Cars can be sold at no reserve, meaning the high bidder gets the car regardless of what the bid may be. Or, you and the auction house can set a reserve figure which is kept secret from bidders and is the minimum the auctioneer needs to hear before hammering your car sold. You can lower the reserve during the bidding if you want.

All of this might seem obvious, but you would be surprised at how often sellers neglect such things. Follow these rules and your car is likely to sell at auction for a good price.

I have sold both well and poorly at auction, and when I sold well, it was by following all of these steps, and when I sold poorly, it was because I did not. Learn from my mistakes and you could sell your car for a strong price, maybe even a world record.

Andy Reid
Andy Reid
Andy Reid's first car, purchased at age 15, was a 1968 Fiat 124 coupe. His second, obtained by spending his college savings fund, was a 1966 Ferrari 330 GT 2+2. Since then, he has owned more than 150 cars—none of them normal or reasonable—as well as numerous classic motorcycles and scooters. A veteran of film, television, advertising and helping to launch a few Internet-based companies, Reid was a columnist for Classic Motorsports magazine for 12 years and has written for several other publications. He is considered an expert in European sports and luxury cars and is a respected concours judge. He lives in Canton, Connecticut.


  1. Having both sold and bought vehicles at a number of auctions over the years, I found your two articles a nice "overview" of the basics. One thing that was not mentioned has to do with negotiating the "seller" and "buyer" commissions, (premiums). Every auction house I have dealt with, be it Bonhams, RM, Sotheby’s, or even Mecum will negotiate their commissions. Prior to the auction, and even during the auction, (in order to get the sale). From a seller’s perspective, it is vehicle dependent in advance of the auction…During the auction, buyer or seller, don’t be afraid to negotiate the commission. The auction house is there to make money and can be quite flexible…This can save you considerable $$ selling or buying…just my 2 cents, thanks!


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