Primer for Classic Motorcycle Auctions

Tips and tricks to help you buy wisely

auction primer

Thinking of heading to an auction? The old adage of "know your limit, stay within it" is worth remembering, yet even experienced buyers sometimes let their hearts rule their heads.

Photo by Robert Smith

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You’d think the growth of online auction sites like eBay and the likes of Craigslist and Kijiji would have put paid to the traditional classic motorcycle auction, but based on the hundreds of bidders who showed up at the 2011 Bonhams and MidAmerica classic motorcycle auctions, the energy and pizzazz are still powerful lures.

But it’s easy to get swept along with the feverish action of the auctioneers and the wranglers. The old adage of “know your limit, stay within it” is worth remembering. Beyond that, the auction room contains a number of pitfalls that can trap the novice punter, and even experienced buyers when they let their hearts rule their heads. Here are a number of motorcycle auction tips that might help you spend wisely — and maybe keep your wallet in your pocket:

1. Almost all auction bikes are sold “as is” with no warranty given or implied. Some long-time sellers like Randy Baxter of Baxter Cycle offer what they call a “parking lot guarantee.” If you don’t like the bike when you’ve started it and seen it in daylight, you can decline the purchase — not many sellers offer this option. It’s unlikely you’ll find the owner to interview them, and bikes can’t be started in the auction room, so you really are taking a chance on how it runs.

2. Many lots are sold with a bill of sale and without a title. Getting a title may be relatively straightforward (Vermont is said to offer titles inexpensively on a bill of sale), but again it’s “caveat emptor.”

3. My experience of the lighting in auction rooms is that it’s often flattering to a motorcycle’s cosmetic condition. The arc lights frequently used in auditoria provide point source light that creates reflective catch-lights in chrome and bright work. But the overall level of light also tends to be low, so spotting imperfections can sometimes be difficult. And when the bike is put under the stage spotlights, the reflections can be dazzling — literally and metaphorically. Check the motorcycle’s condition carefully before it goes under the hammer.

4. Some auctioneers announce the current bid price (Bonhams), while others speak to the next bid they have in mind (MidAmerica) — though MidAmerica does also display the next bid on a large screen, so it’s not as confusing as you might think. Neither should it prevent you offering a bid in between the “bid” and “ask.” For example, if the current bid is $9,500 and the ask is $10,000, it’s quite OK to bid $9,750.

5. If you do bid, be prepared for the arrival at your side of a couple of wranglers (MidAmerica) who will enthusiastically entreat you to raise your bid. The first time this happened to me, I found it quite intimidating, and you have to stand your ground to avoid being “upsold.”

6. Be aware of whether you’re bidding on a lot that has a reserve or not, and if so, whether the reserve has been met. There are a number of potential reasons why a lot is being offered “without reserve.” It may be that the seller has genuine reasons to sell at any price, or it may be something more sinister. Reputable sellers know the value of what they have to offer, and will usually set a reserve that reflects the value.

7. Do your homework before you go, especially if there’s a particular lot you’re interested in. Online forums are a good source of extra information, though a good grounding from published material is indispensable. For example, if you’re planning to bid on a Triumph unit construction 650 (one of the most common bikes sold at auction), David Gaydon’s Restoration Guide is a must.

8. There are sometimes advantages for a buyer in being at the start and end of an auction. Typically, bidders arrive late and leave early, so you may pick up a bargain. But watch out for “shill” bidding (bids being made by sellers’ agents), or lots being withdrawn and re-introduced later. Not that any reputable auction house would allow that …

9. Don’t forget that you’ll have to pay a buyers’ premium (usually 10-17 percent), plus shipping to your home location, and a title transfer or activation feel.

10. If what you’re bidding on doesn’t meet reserve, you may still be able to buy it. MidAmerica has what they call the “corral,” where bikes that didn’t make reserve are placed with the asking price attached. Often the seller will be prepared to move on the price to avoid taking the bike home again.

Thanks to Jim Bush for providing statistical analysis of the auction data.

Read more about classic motorcycle auctions:
2011 Classic Motorcycle Auctions in Las Vegas