October 10, 2008, a Friday, was the end of a tumultuous week in the global financial markets. Here is part of what Wikipedia says on their page titled “Global financial crisis in October 2008”:
“On Friday, October 10, stock markets crashed across Europe and Asia. London, Paris and Frankfurt dropped 10% within an hour of trading and again when Wall Street opened for trading. Global markets … experienced their worst weeks since 1987 and some indices, S&P 500, since the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
On October 10, within the first five minutes of the trading session on Wall Street, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 697 points, falling below 7900 to its lowest level since March 17, 2003…. Trading on New York Stock Exchange closed for the week with the Dow at 8,451, down 1,874 points, or 18% for the week, and after 8 days of losses, 40% down from its record high October 9, 2007…. The bonds of the bankrupt Lehman Brothers were auctioned on Friday, October 10. They sold for a little over 8 cents on the dollar.”
If you’re reading this and asking yourself, “when did this become RichardsFinancialBlog?”, no need to worry, as the story has a car connection. On the same day that Lehman Brothers’ bonds were auctioned, I was watching some high-dollar automotive machinery go up for auction at the annual RM classic car auction in Hershey PA. I paid a whopping $60 (!) for entry to the auction within the Hershey Lodge, and that included my own copy of the catalog (but not a bidder’s pass). This was my initial foray into the world of so-called catalog auctions, undertaken so that I could decide if this would be a reasonable avenue for selling my Isetta.
Prior to this, auctions I had attended were what I call the ‘carnival’ style: a vehicle rolls up onto the block, an auctioneer starts to chant so loudly and so quickly that he can barely be understood, and 45 to 90 seconds later, a gavel falls and the next car in the parade arrives. This is what you see on TV at the typical Barrett-Jackson or Mecum auction. They are boisterous, ear-splitting, lightning-paced, and ultimately mind-numbing experiences. I understood from reading auction reports that the catalog auctions were more, shall we say, mild-mannered and discreet, and I wanted to witness this first-hand.
On that Friday inside the Hershey Lodge, I immediately noticed the differences, starting with the voice and tone of the auctioneer. I could actually understand him; if anything, the New Yorker in me wanted him to speak more quickly! He was in no rush to get to the next car, meaning, he was putting 100% of his attention on the car in front of him. He would make little quips to the bidders, such as “sir, but what else are you going to do with your money?”, and “would the gentleman in the back like to bid again?” There was none, I repeat, none of the hyperbole one hears at other venues, such as “look at that fabulous paint job”; “restored using only the finest high-quality parts”; and “guaranteed to only go up in value”. B-J this was not.
Each car spent from 3 to 5 minutes on the block. When the reserve was met, the auctioneer, using the same level tone, would state “we are selling this car today”. (At Carlisle Auctions, the auctioneer SCREAMS “THE RESERVE IS OFF!!!” while a neon sign over his head blares the same message.)
Another difference: the bidders. Everyone sat calmly in their seats, with the very occasional bidder wandering up to the block for a close-up inspection. There was no yelling, jumping, fist-pumping, or showing off for the cameras (of which there were none anyway). The men bidding (and they were all male) would catch the eye of the auctioneer or one of the assistants (“callers”) and with the subtlest of head nods, place their bets.
Midway through the afternoon, a 1913 Locomobile reached the block. Resplendent in white with black top and interior and lots of brass, it was so long that it looked like it would miss fitting in my garage by about 10 feet. The bidding opened at $50,000, and moving in $25,000 increments, quickly reached $300,000. In the row in front of me sat a white-haired elderly man, perhaps 80 or 85. When the auctioneer asked for $325,000, the old gent raised his bidder’s pass like he was ordering a cheeseburger at Wendy’s, the gavel fell, and the brass beauty was his. It was at this moment that I had the epiphany: the Lehman Brothers collapse meant nothing to those who had discretionary funds to spare, and a catalog-type auction would be a classy place to sell my car.
The catalog cover car, and star of the show, was a 1933 Duesenberg phaeton. It sold for $1,535,000, again proving that those who have it can spend it. (The next day, while waiting to cross Hersheypark Drive to enter the AACA show, this same Duesenberg sailed past at about 60 mph. It sounded like a locomotive, and you could hear it from a quarter mile away.)
For the sale of my own car, I was in no great rush, and I had weighed the pro’s and con’s of such a move for much of the first decade of the 21st century. A few half-hearted attempts were made by placing some ads, most of which generated no response. A few years after attending this RM auction, I ran an ad in the national AACA magazine, and a man from Philadelphia showed up at my house, went for a ride with me, and told me he would buy the car (my ask was $30k, and I believe he said he was ok with the price). But the next day he called and said he changed his mind. That’s how it goes when trying to sell cars.
In the meantime, I also checked out the Bonhams auction, which had become an annual mainstay as part of the Greenwich Concours event in early June. The auction style was similar, however, the setup was in a tent, on grass, and Bonhams jammed as many cars into that tent as possible, with the remainder scattered outside along its perimeter. The ambiance was not as pleasing as RM which had the advantage of a large hotel conference room, with better sound and lighting. But still, both were within consideration, as both were within a day’s drive on the East Coast. Friends who suggested that I truck my car out to Barrett-Jackson in AZ were not calculating the overhead (fuel, food, hotels, time) that such a trip would entail.
In 2013, after much back-and-forth in my own mind about continuing to try to sell the car on my own (more control over asking price vs dealing with stubborn buyers) compared to an auction consignment (devoted in-person audience vs less control over bidding price), I decided to move ahead with RM. A few years back, I had reached out to RM and had communicated with Ian Kelleher. Since I had his email address, I picked up where I had left off with him. (It’s surprising to me to see that my first email of the year to him was sent on June 26, less than four months before the auction.)
Ian replied, and I was taken aback when he told me that while there was plenty of time to get my car on the docket for Hershey, it would need to be a no-reserve entry. He said that they would be willing to publish a pre-sale estimate of $30,000-40,000, but any cars valued below $50,000 are strictly sold as no-reserve. My heart sank. What if bidding only reached $20,000? I wasn’t willing to give it away. There were numerous email exchanges between Ian and me, during which I successfully negotiated for the following:
- Vehicle listed as No Reserve, with auction estimate of $30,000-40,000;
- Minimum of one full page in the auction catalog, desirably two pages;
- Professional photography taken by RM for catalog photos;
- Input and review by me of catalog write-up;
- Vehicle will cross block on Friday (the 2nd day of a two-day auction)
- RM will allow me to display various items alongside car during auction preview including photographs, posters, magazines, literature, scale models, and tablet.
As a balm for the no-reserve listing, and as a courtesy to me as a first-time consigner, Ian agreed to reduce my consignment fee from $1,000 to $500, and my seller’s commission from 10% to 7%. This made me feel a whole lot better about the no-reserve deal. RM sent me a consignment form, which included the requirement that I sign and send them the title to my car. Now it was getting serious!
You will note above that I told Ian that I wanted “input and review by me of catalog write-up”. Previous catalog write-ups I had read included flowery vehicle descriptions with 80% general history of the marque, and 20% specific detail of the actual lot. I wanted to reverse those percentages for my car, and be sure that the catalog text spoke to my car’s specifics. Still, I was sent a first draft and needed to make the following corrections:
- Rear springs were described as semi-elliptic, when they are quarter-elliptic;
- “Four-wheel drum brakes” was corrected to “front and rear drum brakes”;
- “… ideal for the streets of postwar Germany” was changed to “… Europe”.
My suggestions were accepted without further discussion; RM was continuing to please me with their treatment of me as a consigner.
Quite a few acquaintances were taken aback with the fees, even at reduced rates. They would ask with incredulity: “what exactly are you getting for all that money you’re paying?” My first-hand experience allows me to report that my fees helped to cover:
- The dispatching of a professional photographer to my home, where he spent about three hours taking photos of my car.
- Display of those photos on the RM website, in the published catalog, and in several email blasts sent by RM.
- A full maintenance crew on hand at the Hershey Lodge to assist with needs such as adding fuel, charging batteries, and maintaining cleanliness of the cars.
As an owner, I felt that the website, email, and catalog exposure was fairly extensive, and reached a level of marketing that I could not match. That still didn’t stop me from creating my own marketing efforts. Since test drives would not be possible on-site, I opted for the 2nd best thing and made two videos which would show prospective bidders that this car was no trailer queen, and did get occasional exercise:
Some final tidying up of the vehicle was done, especially in the interior. I resprayed the fiberboard interior panels, and added the underseat panel which had been missing all these years. Some minor adjustments were made to the horn and to the parking brake, and of course the car was detailed.
Hershey week arrived. The actual auction was scheduled for Thursday October 10 and Friday October 11, 2013. On the Tuesday morning of that week, I left my house, Isetta in tow, bittersweet at the thought that I would be returning at the end of the week with an empty trailer. Upon arrival, I got my car situated under the big tent in the Hershey Lodge parking lot. The Hershey area had significant downpours for much of the week (what we’re used to in that part of the world in October), but things stayed calm and relatively dry in the tent. Each and every weekday, I never left the car’s side, as I wanted to answer any questions from anyone who might be bidding. My heart sank again when I found a 2nd Isetta at the same auction, red like mine, but in a condition that was one or two steps below mine. Crossing the block on Thursday at no reserve, it hammered sold at $25,000. I felt that number established a value floor and made me more optimistic about my own car.
Finally, it was Friday, auction day for my rolling egg. When RM had told me that my consignment included two free entrance tickets to the auction, I had the nerve to request several more. Again, RM exceeded my expectations by granting that request without delay. Several friends from Volvo Corporate attended the big moment with me, and provided lots of emotional support (thanks Andy and Larry!).
The head of the RM maintenance crew had gotten to know me. RM’s procedure is to queue up the cars outside the entrance ramp so that the cars can be driven as close as possible to the block, at which point they’re pushed, to minimize exhaust fumes in the conference room. The crew chief pulled me aside, and likely knowing what he was about to offer wasn’t ‘by the book’, said to me “why don’t you drive your car up to the ramp? It’ll be the last time you’ll get to drive it”. I gladly took him up on that. I climbed in, started it, and as soon as I reached the entrance, shut it down. The crew on hand stopped it from rolling back; they would push it from here. I went in and sat with my wife and my buddies.
Max Girardo, the charming, eloquent and multi-linguistic auctioneer, was at the podium. As Andy pointed out to me later, Max spent more time extolling the virtues of my car than he did with any of the cars preceding or following my car. The bidding opened at $10,000, quickly climbed to $25,000, and then slowed somewhat, although it did reach $30,000. Max held on for me as long as he could, with the bid intervals dropping from $5,000 to $2,500. At a final bid of $32,500, the gavel fell. The car was officially sold. Although RM told me that I would receive payment in 6 weeks, they completed an electronic transfer of funds to me in 3 weeks, yet again exceeding my expectations.