2011 Classic Motorcycle Auctions in Las Vegas

A look at the Bonhams and MidAmerica Vegas auctions.

1964 velocette vogue

Sold: Restored 1964 Velocette Vogue, one of only 382 built, sold for $7,250 at the 2011 MidAmerica auction in Las Vegas.

Photo by Robert Smith

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Every January for the past 20 years, Las Vegas has played host to the world’s largest classic motorcycle auction as MidAmerica Auctions puts some 500 (mostly) classic and vintage motorcycles under the hammer. And for the first time, in 2011, auctioneers Bonhams & Butterfields decided to join the party, adding another 200-plus classic bikes for sale.

To minimize conflict and overlap, Bonhams held their auction on Thursday afternoon, January 6, at the Imperial Palace, while MidAmerica commenced selling over dinner the same evening at the South Point, continuing into Friday and Saturday. In a pinch, and with a fast motorcycle, you could just about get to both. And you’d be glad you did.

Bonhams Vegas debut

Anchoring the Bonhams sale were the 53 Hondas from the Kenneth Klem collection, all offered with no reserve. The collection netted more than $94,000, for an average of around $1,700 a bike. Included in the collection were nine CB750s from 1970-1976, mostly in fair condition (though some missing stock mufflers) and selling for an average of $2,900, the older machines typically attracting more money. Bargains included a nice 1966 S90 sport that sold for $1,800, and a rare 1964 C55 step-through at just $650.

The top grossing lot was an original circa-1894 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller, the world’s first production motorcycle, at $140,000, while a 1901 Indian F-head “camelback” single made $115,000 and the ex-Rody Rodenberg BMW R51RS racer from 1939 pulled $112,000. Other sales at $100,000-plus were an unrestored 1913 Flying Merkel and a 1929 ex-factory H-D Peashooter race bike.

There were some excellent deals for bargain hunters. Included in the Klem collection was a 1974 Yamaha TX750, unloved at the time (the oiling problems had been overcome by 1974) and now slowly becoming collectible. In overall nice original condition and with period saddle bags, the winning bid was just $1,100. Similarly, a beautifully restored British classic, a four-valve Rudge 250 Sports from 1935, made just $4,800.

Perhaps the rarest lot on offer was the 1919 Australian-built GCS, named for its builder, George Cyril Stilwell, and fitted with a MAG V-twin engine. Immaculately refinished, just $45,000 took it. A barn-fresh China Red Vincent series C Rapide sold for $85,000. 2011 could be the year to buy a Vincent, as three series B Rapides sold between $35,000-$36,000 each, less than estimated and $5,000-$10,000 less than just a few years ago.

Total value of the bikes sold at Bonhams — excluding buyer’s premium — was around $2.5 million. Of 198 lots offered for sale, 141 were sold (71.2 percent). Average price per lot was $17,730.

MidAmerica continues

MidAmerica’s Las Vegas event is the biggest in the world, they claim, offering 500-plus motorcycles for sale every year. And like Barrett-Jackson’s famous auto auction, it’s as much show business as sale room. That said, the sheer number and variety of bikes that pass under MidAmerica’s hammer provides a unique insight into price trends, and perhaps the best opportunity to sell your classic — or snag a bargain.

Headlining the show this year were two late-model SS100 Brough Superiors; a 1939 show model wearing plenty of chrome that had failed to sell at the same auction in 2009 ($235,000 bid with a $250,000 reserve), and a 1938 in more traditional finish but previously owned by Brough guru Bill Gibbard. $240,000 took the 1939 show bike, while the 1938 failed to meet its reserve at $225,000.

British bike enthusiasts had plenty to choose from, with 34 Nortons, 78 Triumphs, 31 BSAs, five Ariel Square Fours and six Vincents for sale. BSA prices were definitely on the up, attracting an average of close to $9,900 compared with $9,300 in 2008. BSA Victors now seem to be drawing decent money, with a restored 1970 model fetching $9,000. Triumph and Norton prices overall were consistent with past years’ results, though post-1970 oil-in-frame Triumphs are starting to get more respect, while pre-unit bikes from the 1950s were down overall. Norton Commando prices recovered to 2008 levels with an average sale price of $9,350 after softening considerably over the last couple of years. The five Ariel Square Fours sold for an average $19,000, again recovering to 2008 prices.

Italian bike fans were buying in force with only 10 of around 45 bikes on offer failing to sell. Notable bargains included an immaculate, unrestored 1975 Benelli Quattro 500 for $4,500. Headlining the Italian bikes was a 1977 MV Agusta 850SS that attracted $64,000, not even close to its $85,000 reserve. No sale!

The market for early American motorcycles was noticeably polarized: Unrestored machines from the first three decades of the 1900s fetched record prices, while restored and/or replica machines were remaindered or sold at much lower prices. For example, an unrestored 1913 Flying Merkel fetched $100,000 at Bonhams, while at MidAmerica a fully restored 1913 Flying Merkel board tracker failed to sell, bidding to $46,500. Similarly, a 1929 H-D Peashooter racing single (recovered, still in its crate, from the men’s room of a mine in Western Australia during the 1940s and subsequently raced) sold for $108,000 at Bonhams, while a restored 1926 version failed to meet its estimate of $35,000-$40,000.

The enduring power of the Harley-Davidson brand was demonstrated by the sale of two speedway bikes from the James Carpenter collection at MidAmerica: the 1934 H-D CAC speedway racer sold for $165,000, while an example of the bike it was designed to beat (and which it closely copied), a 1934 British Excelsior-JAP, made less than one-tenth of that amount.

My favorite bargains at MidAmerica included: a very low mileage 1985 Ducati-powered Cagiva Allazzurra in beautiful shape for just $3,500; an equally nice 1980 Moto Morini 3-1/2 Sport for $4,750; and a rare future collectible 1982 Triumph Bonneville 8-valve TSS, one of just 275 made, for $4,500.

Value of sales at MidAmerica totaled $4,736,325 — excluding buyer’s premium — for 374 lots sold out of 477 offered (78.4 percent). Average price per lot was $12,664.

Comparing Bonhams with MidAmerica

Las Vegas is the perfect venue for a motorcycle auction. After all, whether you’re buying or selling, auctions are always something of a gamble. If you’re buying, you bet on being able to snag your purchase for less than market price. And if you’re selling, you gamble two or more bidders will chase your lot, pushing up the price. In Bonhams’ case, I guess the gamble was that they could piggy-back on MidAmerica’s success.

Although both companies are in the auction business, they have different backgrounds and distinctive styles. U.K.-based Bonhams brings British reserve with it: There’s no Barrett-Jackson-style hype. They publish a glossy, coffee-table auction catalog, and the bikes for sale are more eclectic, often with interesting histories and provenance, and the auctions are conducted in an air of unhurried professionalism and efficiency. But there’s a price to pay for this more “gentlemanly” experience: Bonhams’ commission on a successful sale can be as high as 17 percent (up to $100,000, with 10 percent over $100,000).

MidAmerica, meanwhile, wears its Midwestern roots on its plaid sleeve. Their auctioneers bring show-biz to their high-energy patter — continuous barrages of polysyllabic banter delivered in a flat monotone, the only distinguishable words being the numbers bid and asked. MidAmerica also employs a team of “wranglers” whose job is to work with bidders to help them up their bids. There’s never any doubt that MidAmerica is working for the seller. That said, their buyers’ premiums are lower than Bonhams’ at a flat 7 percent.

The speed and efficiency at Bonhams was impressive: While MidAmerica took around 24 hours over three days for their 500 lots, Bonhams handled 198 motorcycles in around six hours. That’s around three minutes a lot for MidAmerica versus less than two minutes each for Bonhams.

Especially for lots expected to make big money, MidAmerica founder and president Ron Christenson often interrupts slow or stalled bidding to boost the bike on offer, frequently soliciting bids from new buyers. The MidAmerica auction is high on entertainment value, even if the bidding sometimes becomes a bit confused.

Several collector-restorers bring large collections to MidAmerica each year, notably Randy Baxter, Don Harrel and Jim Hiddleson. This year they brought a number of beautifully restored British bikes from the Fifties and Sixties, which typically attracted premium prices because of their immaculate restorations. Shiny sells at MidAmerica — as long as the restoration is “correct” — and I got the impression that a good story and provenance were more important at Bonhams. It’s just possible the Bonham’s buyers were more discerning and better informed, too.

Telephone bidding has been around for some time, and both auctions sold lots to phone bidders. An interesting aspect of the MidAmerica auction was online bidding via www.proxibid.com. Although there was a noticeable delay (around six seconds, claims Proxibid), a number of lots sold online.

My associate James Bush watched the auction online via proxibid.com and reported he would have felt perfectly happy bidding on any of the lots. And while image quality provided by the video cameras was perfectly fine, I personally would prefer to be able to kick the tires. Even so, perhaps this is the future of the auction room.

A couple of other observations: At the Bonhams auction, it was unclear whether lots had actually sold or not. There was no mention of whether a reserve price had been placed, and each lot went “under the hammer” for the highest bid. Whether it had met reserve or not (that is, whether it had actually sold) was not revealed until the results were published some days later.

At MidAmerica it was always clear whether a reserve applied or not. And when the reserve price was met (or when Christenson had persuaded the seller to lower the reserve), the “wranglers” waved yellow signs indicating the reserve was off and the item was “selling.”

A couple of other interesting comparisons were available. Both auctions had China Red Vincent Rapides for sale, Bonhams’ barn fresh model and MidAmerica’s restored example. Bonhams got $85,000 for theirs, while MidAmerica’s bid to $66,000 but didn’t sell. Both auctions also listed Munch 1200 TTS models, Bonhams a 1973 model and MidAmerica a 1977. $80,000 was offered at Bonhams and $55,000 at MidAmerica; neither met reserve. A nicely restored Mondial Comfort from the John Goldman collection was offered at both Bonhams and MidAmerica, and failed to reach its reserve of $9,000, attracting bids of $8,000 at Bonhams and $7,000 at MidAmerica. Meanwhile, both auctions offered 1975 Mk3 Norton Commando “Hi-Rider” models in good condition. Bonhams’ fetched $6,500 while MidAmerica’s sold for $10,000.

The results of these two auctions send a bit of a mixed signal. On the one hand, certain bikes that had been climbing rapidly in value just a few years ago (think Vincent) appear to be coming down in price. That’s good news for buyers now, not so good for sellers who bought when prices were peaking back in 2007 or so. On the other hand, there appears to be a ready and rising market for exclusive collectibles like Flying Merkels, Broughs and Excelsiors, with the big leaning toward original machines with known history. And thankfully for the rest of us, there still appear to be plenty of interesting, ridable classics for reasonable money.

Prices aside, the Vegas motorcycle auctions are a great way to spend a weekend immersed in the hobby, especially in the middle of the winter. After all, the only thing better than a bike show is a bike show where everything’s for sale.

Want to prep yourself for your next auction? Check out Robert Smith’s tips and strategies for a successful auction experience. MC