A Mercedes-Benz 680S Saoutchik Torpedo is driven through smoke from fireworks… (David Royal, Associated…)
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — The return of European bidders and an impressive lineup of cars helped the major collector-car auctioneers set a record for sales at this year's splashy Concours d'Elegance auto show.
The five auction houses that participated in the annual auto festival sold a combined $260 million of vehicles last weekend, up 31% from the previous record of $198 million set last year, according to Hagerty Insurance, which tracks collector-car prices.
The rapid growth in these auction sales, even in a sluggish economy, demonstrates that wealthy individuals are considering "classic cars in the way that they see fine art. It is something they can see and use and add to their investment portfolio," said Shelby Myers, managing director RM Auctions' California business.
Collector cars have become more attractive as other investments such as bank CDs and real estate have flagged, said David Kinney, publisher of the Hagerty Price Guide.
"If you have a fixed rate of return that a CD pays right now there is no hope of even keeping up with inflation," Kinney said.
European collectors bid up prices as they looked to diversify their investments while that region's economy has slid back into recession and uncertainty about the longevity of the euro currency mounts, he said.
"A postwar Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing is pretty much a universal currency," Kinney said. "It is worth what it is worth on every continent and if you sell it in euros, pounds or dollars."
First held in 1950, the Concours d'Elegance has grown into what many now consider the most prestigious car show in the world, where luxury brands show off their new models, enthusiasts race vintage cars and the rich and famous ogle one another's fancy rides. The festival includes the high-end collector car auctions and a judged car show. This year's best-of-show winner was a 1928 Mercedes-Benz 680S Saoutchik Torpedo owned by Paul Andrews of White Settlement, Texas.
The weekend saw brisk bidding and multiple records.
RM Auctions of Blenheim, Canada, sold a 1968 Ford GT40 Friday for $11 million, making it the most expensive American car ever sold at auction.
The GT40 was used as a camera car in the 1971 Steve McQueen film "Le Mans" so that scenes could be shot at actual race speeds.
Santa Monica auction house Gooding & Co. on Sunday sold a 1936 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster, one of a handful of such cars by the German automaker left from prewar Nazi Germany, for $11.8 million. While that was far below the $16.4 million a Ferrari sold for last year to set a record for a car auction, the price was an auction record for any Mercedes.
Gisela von Krieger, a Prussian baroness and socialite who defied Nazi orders to return to Germany from France and Switzerland, owned the car for more than 50 years. After emigrating to the U.S. with her family after the war, Von Krieger drove the car in New York and Connecticut.
Despite its eight-figure price, the car sold for less than many in the industry expected, said Myers of RM Auctions. That's evidence that the new money moving into the collector car market is younger and more interested in sports cars of the 1950s and 1960s than pre-World War II cars or vehicles associated with celebrities of that era, he said.
Myers noted that rival Gooding & Co. sold a 1960 Ferrari 250 GT California LWB Competizione Spyder for $11.3 million, just a little less than the Von Krieger Mercedes. RM Auctions sold two Ferraris from the 1950s and '60s for well over $8 million each. One set a record for any Ferrari that was not a convertible.
One celebrity car brought a price far better than expected.
Gooding & Co. sold "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno's Fiat 500 Prima Edizione for $385,000 despite a presale estimate of $25,000 to $35,000. The proceeds went to the Fisher House Foundation, a nonprofit that provides services and support to the families of wounded U.S. service members.
Overall, Gooding auctioned $114 million in cars, a record for a single auction house at Pebble Beach. That was 46% above the same auction weekend a year earlier and included 24 cars that sold for more than $1 million. RM Auctions, which with Gooding dominated sales for the weekend, tallied $96 million, a 20% increase from last year's event. That included 20 cars auctioned for more than $1 million.
Hirsch reported from Los Angeles, Undercoffler from Pebble Beach.