Three Vincents attracted top selling prices at the January 2015 motorcycle auctions in Las Vegas. A 1939 Brough Superior SS100 failed to make reserve at $290,000 bid, leaving the Vincents as top dollar earners.
Bonhams attracted the top price for a 1950 series C “White Shadow,” built at Vincent’s Stevenage factory to Shadow specification, but with polished engine cases instead of the usual black enamel. One of only 15 built, the White Shadow sold for $224,250 with buyer’s premium. Even rarer was the 1952 series C “Red-Black” Rapide offered by Mecum. Though Vincent made around 100 Rapides finished completely in Chinese Red, only 12 “Red-Black” Rapides, with red gas tank and fenders, but black suspension components and headlight, were built. This machine from the Sinless Cycles collection, complete with full provenance, crossed the block at $132,500, or $145,750 with Mecum’s 10 percent buyer’s premium. Back at Bonhams, a beautifully restored 1949 Chinese Red Rapide with matching Blacknell Bullet sidecar from the Herb Harris Vincent Gallery sold for $110,000 with buyer’s premium. Bonhams charges a 15 percent premium on the first $100,000 and 10 percent on any amount over that. All prices reported below include buyer’s premium.
Only three other lots broke $100,000, all at Bonhams. A restored 1936 Brough Superior SS80 with a Watsonian Sport sidecar brought $115,000; a 1962 Matchless G50 used by Dick Mann to win the 1963 AMA Grand National championship brought $115,000; and a 1912 Harley-Davidson X8E Big Twin once owned by Steve McQueen sold for $117,300. Another headlining offering at Bonhams, a Ducati Supermono from the Jack Silverman collection, and one of just 65 made between 1993-1995, was expected to fetch over $150,000, but failed to make reserve.
A few sales cheered owners of Japanese exotica. A 1990 Honda RC30 with just 740 miles from new achieved a whopping $46,000 at Bonhams. At Mecum, two similar machines, but with higher mileage, made $22,000 and $30,800. The lower dollar RC30 was further proof of the value of originality, its price reflecting a non-stock exhaust and other items. Mecum also sold a 1971 CB750 for $11,000. A couple of Kawasakis did well at Bonhams, with a 1973 Z1 selling for $15,000. A 1978 Z1R-TC turbo went for $18,000 while a 1979 Z1R took $12,650.
As always, it pays to know what you’re buying. At Mecum, a Ducati described as a 1974 750 Sport carried what looked like solid provenance: A certificate of authenticity from ASI, the Auto-motoclub Storico Italiano, the Italian vintage car and motorcycle club. Yet as soon as an image of the bike hit the Internet, the Ducati forums caught fire, the consensus being that the offered bike was more likely a 750GT dressed up with a mix of genuine Sport and aftermarket parts.
Presumably not party to this insight, one bidder went as high as $27,000, and is possibly relieved that his bid failed to meet the seller’s reserve. The online conjecturing adds an interesting wrinkle: Was the bike legit? Or was it being picked on by auction watchers who simply didn’t believe its claimed authenticity?
That sort of scenario plays out at almost every auction, much to the frustration of the auction houses and potential buyers, alike. Neither Bonhams nor Mecum benefit from misrepresented bikes, but it can often be difficult to weed out the pretenders without exhaustive examination. For example, a 1973 Norton Commando billed as “restored to new” was certainly lovely. Unfortunately, it was sporting a 1975 frame, making it essentially a “bitsa” — a bit of this and a bit of that.
Lots up, prices up and down
Together, Mecum and Bonhams sold more than $11.8 million dollars worth of motorcycles and related lots, with total sales for both up in 2015. Bonhams reported the highest increase, with sales of $4.5 million in 2015 against $3.3 million in 2014. Mecum reported a slightly lower increase, with sales of $7.3 million in 2015 against approximately $7.1 million in 2014.
Looked at as an average, prices were about even with those achieved earlier in the decade. Mecum tried to sell as many motorcycles as possible over its two-plus day sale, resulting in a new bike crossing the block about every two minutes. Mecum listed 714 motorcycles for sale this year compared with 545 in 2013, selling 590 or 83 percent, versus 466 and 86 percent in 2013. Average sale price in 2015 was $13,568, versus $13,733 in 2013. Bonhams achieved a higher 2015 average, $19,899 on 174 bikes sold, but a slightly lower sell-through, 79 percent.
That’s only part of the story, however, as more lots meant there were bargains to be had. At Bonhams, a nicely preserved and obviously well-maintained 1996 Ducati 900SS/SP showing 31,000 miles sold for only $2,530. Also at Bonhams, a 2005 Bourget Fat Daddy custom chopper with only 2,000 miles showing went for just $6,325 and a nice little 1971 BSA B25SS Gold Star 250 made just $1,725. Meanwhile, Mecum sold 18 Harley-Davidson twins for less than $10,000 each, including a nice looking, if incorrect, 1958 XLH with only 4,396 miles showing on the odometer. It went for $4,400.
While ever higher prices for famous marques like Vincent and Brough Superior are expected, it’s a little harder to understand what drives some of the bargains. Two Buells highlight this: At Mecum, a 1997 Buell S1 Lightning, highly customized and more than a bit over the top, set its new owner back $7,700. Across the way at Bonhams, a lovely all-original 1992 Buell RS1200 with a bare 1,421 miles showing sold for only $4,025.
Realized prices — or lack thereof — didn’t always reflect anticipation. The BSA Gold Star Clubmans “cutaway” display from the Herb Harris Gallery, specially prepared for the 1953 Earls Court Show and upgraded for the 1956 event, failed to sell, with bidding stalling around $65,000; the pre-sale estimate had been $250,000-$350,000. Yet a 1953 Ariel MKII Square Four cutaway engine from the same collection sold for $28,750 with premium, right in line with its pre-sale estimate. Best deal on the cutaway engines was probably the $1,725 paid for a pre-war BSA sidevalve single. It carried a pre-sale estimate of $3,000-$6,000.
The market is constantly evolving, and going back a few years and comparing hammer prices for British bikes at the Mecum auction yields some interesting results.
Leaving out high-end specialty makes such as Vincent and Brough Superior, the aggregate numbers suggest that prices for British bikes are actually down. For example, at the 2012 MidAmerica Vegas auction (Mecum bought MidAmerica in 2012), 14 Nortons went under the hammer at an average price of $12,140. At the 2015 Mecum auction, 33 Nortons sold for an average price of $10,613, a more than 16 percent decline. As a group, Triumph motorcycles also declined in value, with 72 Triumphs of all types selling for an average of $15,396 in 2012 and 68 selling for an average of $11,200 in 2015, a 27 percent decline.
Yet while those numbers would appear to suggest declining value, parsing them further tells a somewhat different story. For example, while the average price for all Triumphs sold by Mecum fell, the average for certain models increased. 1971-1982 Triumph oil-in-frame models, long considered the least collectible of the marque, appear to be coming up, with 12 selling in 2012 for an average of $5,775 each versus nine in 2015 for an average of $7,212 each, an almost 25 percent increase. Meanwhile, values for their predecessor 1963-1970 unit twins climbed even farther, with 35 selling in 2012 for an average of $10,150 versus 41 in 2015 at an average of $13,452, a 32.5 percent increase.
Those are encouraging numbers for Triumph owners thinking of selling, but they have to be viewed for what they are — numbers. In the absence of specific comparative information about each bike sold, it’s dangerous to make conclusive statements. Oil-in-frame Triumphs may have experienced an increase in hammer prices, but without comparing sales specifics it’s impossible to know if that’s because prices are truly trending up or because the bikes on auction in 2015 were significantly nicer than those sold in 2012. The same applies for pre-1971 unit twins.
Bonhams sold seven pre-1971 Triumph unit twins for an average of $12,643, roughly even with Mecum results. Pre-unit twins at Bonhams, however, fetched substantially more, with four hammering down for an average of $16,375 each. Mecum sold five, but at an average of $6,900 each, substantially down from the 17 sold in 2012 at an average of $11,171. Again, the numbers only tell part of the story; two of the five at Mecum were TRW flathead 500s, historically inexpensive machines.
Auctions are always something of a guessing game, but one thing is certain, and that is the continuing and rising interest in vintage motorcycles. MC
Want to learn more about this year's event? Read Collecting Classic Motorcycles for Editor-in-Chief Richard Backus' thoughts on the show.