When classic cars hit the auction block these days, $3 million is the new $9 million.
Prices were down sharply at the Arizona Auction Week in January. Among 3,867 vehicles offered by seven auction companies, the top price was $3.2 million for a 1995 Ferrari F50. Only one other vehicle hit $3 million — the first 2020 Chevrolet Corvette. As recently as a few years ago, the star cars in Arizona topped $9 million.
In fact, the biggest recent sale was fueled by movie collectors. The souped-up Mustang that actor Steve McQueen drove in the 1968 detective film “Bullitt” went for $3.74 million last month at a small auction in Florida.
The lower bids in Arizona followed a similar slump in the industry’s other tent-pole auction extravaganza, the Monterey (Calif.) Car Week held last August. Total revenue there was down more than a third from the 2018 auction.
Many factors are weighing on the market, said Jonathan Klinger, a valuation specialist at the collectible car insurer Hagerty, which tracks market trends.
“Most important is vehicle condition,” Klinger said. “Finely presented and rare cars sold extremely well, but there were relatively few of those in the auction tents this year.”
He added, “Vehicles ranked in ‘excellent’ or ‘concours’ [show] condition represented less than half the offerings — the lowest ratio Hagerty has observed in more than five years.”
Where have the top consignments gone? Some are being held back as sellers sit out a market that’s trending down.
Other sellers are turning to the internet. Auctions typically charge a fee of 8% of the selling price, while online sites like bringatrailer.com will list a car for as little as $99. And many sellers do their own online legwork. The most desirable cars, like Bugattis or Ferraris, tend to change hands through private transactions.
The big picture
The overall financial picture also plays a role.
“The challenging environment for the most expensive cars partly has to do with what’s going on in the larger economy,” Klinger said. “The tide of investment dollars that flowed into this segment following the Great Recession has clearly slowed.”
Today’s high-end buyers still will pay top dollar, but only for the best and rarest cars. Overall, there were 25% fewer of those million-dollar cars offered in Arizona, compared with 2019. Of those that did sell from that rarefied group, most went for less than established values.
Sellers can set a reserve — a minimum price that they will accept — and the number of cars that didn’t meet the reserve also increased in Arizona. Only 77% of the cars on offer were sold, compared with 81% in 2019. And for those that did sell, the average price declined painfully, to $81,534 from $94,374.
The market also is becoming more data-driven. Investors are paying greater attention to valuations. Fewer people are willing to let emotions, which can run high at public auctions, bid prices beyond accepted norms.
And tastes change as the collector demographic changes.
“People identify with, and want to drive, the cars they grew up with,” said Dana Mecum, principal of Mecum Auctions, the nation’s top auction seller by volume.
In line with that, sport utility vehicles, trucks, early Dodge Vipers and Ford GTs have become hotter commodities. But the buyers of vehicles like those spend thousands rather than millions.