Las Vegas 2014: Vintage Motorcycle Auctions

Harley-Davidsons, Ducatis and original patina set the stage at the Bonhams and MidAmerica vintage motorcycle auctions.

Harley Davidson EL Knucklehead at Las Vegas 2014 Motorcycle Auction

Mostly original 1940 Harley-Davidson EL Knucklehead from the Wayne Pierce collection sold at Bonhams’ Vegas auction for $159,000.

Photo by Somer Hooker

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It’s been 23 years since the first MidAmerica motorcycle auction was staged in Las Vegas. Originally held during Super Bowl weekend, it evolved into the Super Bowl of motorcycle auctions. Now held in early January, it has become the “must do” auction for vintage motorcycle collectors.

Once very much a U.S. event, the Vegas auction has become a crossroads for vintage motorcycle enthusiasts worldwide; this year, no less than 30 countries were represented. This also added up to a phenomenal number of bidders, purportedly more than 1,100 at MidAmerica. For some, it is primarily a social event, for others it is a time for acquiring, selling — or both! As I explained to one person, “It’s like going to a giant motorcycle show, and they’re all for sale!”

Originally run by MidAmerica Auctions, English auction house Bonhams set up shop four years ago, competing for their piece of the pie. And this year another significant transition transpired, as last fall MidAmerica was acquired by Mecum Auctions, a large, established auction house primarily into cars, tractors, boats — and now motorcycles.

Duc and Hog hunting in Las Vegas

Creating auctions like Las Vegas isn’t easy. “You have to have a large collection as your core to build around,” says Ron Christensen of MidAmerica. By having an exciting collection to initially advertise, the vendors then want to get their product “on board.” This year, both houses had several large collections as the nucleus of their sales.

Both Bonhams and MidAmerica had large collections of Harley-Davidsons, and Bonhams also featured a major Ducati collection. Between both houses there were more than 100 Harley-Davidsons and more than 40 Ducatis. In the early years it was difficult to sell a Harley here, as tastes were more focused on vintage British motorcycles. This year, vintage H-Ds represented some of the highest performers.

The Wayne Pierce collection offered by Bonhams primarily sold with no reserve. Over and over, I’ve seen “no reserve” auction offerings escalate higher and higher since bidders know they aren’t providing an impromptu appraisal, but an actual buying opportunity, and I’ve seen “no reserve” vehicles sell for more than vehicles with a reserve.

MidAmerica had the George Pardos collection. Pardos spent 20 years building a “first of” collection, including a first year (1936) Knucklehead that sold for $179,850 with 9 percent buyer’s premium and a first year (1911) Harley 7D V-twin that sold for $260,000, or $283,400 with buyer’s premium.

In the Duc pond, the Jack Silverman collection at Bonhams was pretty much a checklist of desirable twins from Bologna. Early GTs broke the $30,000 threshold while round case 750SSs (the fabled “Green Frame” bikes) continued north of $100,000, with two selling for $134,250 and $137,000 including buyer’s premium, which at Bonhams was 15 percent up to $100,000 and 10 percent thereafter. A new, unraced NCR 900 was hammered down for $150,000, $175,000 after buyer’s premium was added.

Most auction houses use memorabilia sales to “warm up” the crowd. However, these two hours could have been well-used later. At a certain point, the stomach becomes high bidder. Unfortunately, one featured collection hadn’t even come to the block by 5 p.m.

Original paint ain’t for the faint (hearted)!

More and more, original paint is trading at a premium, increasingly for more than its restored counterpart. One reason is the excitement associated with the “barn find” mentality; another is that this is the way they really were, not an artist’s interpretation. At Bonhams, a 1940 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead sold for three times the estimate at $159,000 including buyer’s premium! A fairly original survivor, the Bonhams catalog mentioned “this largely unrestored 1940 example may have been repainted bright green early in its life.”

A fair number of the Pierce collection was original paint since they had been pulled aside over the years as they floated through Wayne Pierce’s Harley dealership. Repeatedly at both auctions, nice originals held strength. Quite often you would see people studying bike details trying to ascertain how their restoration should go.

At MidAmerica, an original paint 1969 CB750 Honda Four was hammered down for $15,000 ($16,350 after buyer’s premium), its Ruby Red paint turning orange. A 1967 Ducati Monza with only 104 miles on it gave silent testimony to how BAD Ducati paint was in the 1960s: There was heavy orange peel on top, but it was original orange peel. It helped that the original decals were there, too. It sold for $14,170 with premium. A belt-drive 1909 Harley 5C single that had always been in one family slowly worked its way up until the hammer dropped at $95,000 ($103,550 with premium). All of its original mechanisms and belts were still extant.

A euphemism for bikes like this has been “honest bikes.” People know that they have not been monkeyed with, puttied in or re-stamped. Some enthusiasts go crazy trying to acquire OEM bits to fluff up their bike. This has been an across-the-board trend in the two- and four-wheeled world. Ironically, original bikes like this were once sought after because they were considered a good basis for a restoration. Like the axiom says, “They’re only original once.”

Famous paint can be a different issue, however. At Bonhams, a 1923 Indian Big Chief with Princess sidecar once owned by Steve McQueen and painted by counter-culture hero Von Dutch sold for $126,000 with premium, and several other bikes with Von Dutch paint pedigree soared in price.

Welcome to the House of the Rising Sun

It used to be a rarity to see Japanese motorcycles in a vintage auction. People thought they would never be collectible. Now they are appreciated for numerous reasons: “My first bike,” “Those were fast!” and “That was some interesting technology.” Some would say they reignited an interest in motorcycling in the United States. They can ignite an auction, too.

On offer were a broad spectrum, from tiny Honda 50s to massive land yachts. At MidAmerica, an early Honda “Monkey” bike was hammered down for the gorilla-sized price of $17,000 ($18,530 with premium). A restored 1969 Kawasaki 500cc H-1 roared through MidAmerica bidders, up to $21,000 ($22,890 with premium). This was a restored but extremely low serial number bike (0008).

“First ofs” always seem to be more interesting, and low mileage examples can also show up. A rare Seeley Suzuki at Bonhams that was only ridden once or twice was sold for $12,650 with premium. Across the room, a Honda GB500 still in its crate cost the buyer $13,800. However, deals still abound in this arena. A Honda VF1000R, ostensibly a racer for the street, sold at Bonhams for just shy of $6,000 with premium. It had 20,000-plus miles, but looked like only 2,000. Well bought, as they say.

The sun never sets on the British Empire

Vincents, long considered the epitome of collectible motorcycles, actually afforded a few bargains. At MidAmerca, a 500cc 1952 Vincent Comet single failed on the block but found a new home afterward for $29,430, while another sold for $18,530. However, a 1955 Vincent Black Prince sold for $136,250 with premium and a prewar HRD Comet for $70,850.

Several Vincents had serial number issues. A rather handsome Black Shadow at MidAmerica had replacement cases. The vendor was transparent about it, stating that it had happened long ago when a dealer could do this. This seemed to handicap the sale to below the $100,000 range. However, when numbers got “funny,” bidders got bored. Several renumbered or fictional number Vincents died on the vine at less than $50,000. Buyers are getting more sophisticated.

BMWs ruled the European entries. At MidAmerica, one of five known to exist BMW R37s went up and up, finally stopping at $200,000 on the hammer. At Bonhams, a 1954 BMW RS54 racer sold for $126,000 with buyer’s premium. These were rarities when new and were rarely available to the public. A “pedestrian” 1928 BMW R42 sold at Bonhams for $92,000 including premium. BMW /2s were knocking on the $10,000 barrier and closer to $20,000 for the sporting R69S version. Other marques from Eastern Europe, Sweden and Italy filled the bill for an action-packed weekend.

Will $200,000 be the new $100,000?

Several bikes blew through the $200,000 mark this year, including the 1911 Harley-Davidson V-twin and 1925 BMW R37. Both were “firsts” and both had a low survival level, making both valuable commodities. Commodities trading is business, and it was good business for both houses. At the end of the weekend, Bonhams realized $3.3 million from its sale — up from $2.6 million in 2013 — and MidAmerica/Mecum broke $7 million — up from just more than $6 million in 2013. As one collector said, “I’m glad I have rust in my portfolio.” MC