Prices have returned to pre-recession levels with strong demand and a high percentage of motorcycles sold. That’s the best news to come out of this January’s Bonhams and MidAmerica Las Vegas motorcycle Auctions.
However, one of last year’s auctioneers stayed away: significantly absent in 2013 was RM Auctions. A new contender in 2012, RM attempted to take on the established auctions toe-to-toe, scheduling their sales on the same days as Vegas veteran MidAmerica, which returned this year for its 22nd Vegas motorcycle auction. So with only two auctions this year, dedicated attendees were able to enjoy a more relaxed weekend, being able to get from the Bonhams auction at Bally’s to the MidAmerica at South Point without missing more than a few “memorabilia” items.
Headlining the Bonhams auction, their third at Vegas, was a collection of four overhead cam BMW Rennsport racers, the prize of which was a Walter Zeller-built RS255 using a post-World War II chassis, but with a prewar supercharged engine of the type that won the 1939 Isle of Man TT for Georg Meier. Though it failed to meet the reserve estimate of more than half a million dollars, a sale was agreed to after the Bonhams auction — for $480,000 including buyer’s premium! The RS255 is expected to be on future display in Virgil Elings’ Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum in Solvang, California.
At the other end of the scale, bidders were paying big bucks for cutaway display engines: there were 11 on offer, one of which, an NSU single, sold for $2,375. No doubt most were heading for museums. But complete motorcycles were, of course, what most people came to bid on. Bonhams listed around 180 machines for sale, and if the RS255 seemed a little spendy, there were at least 20 complete bikes that sold for less than $1,000, mostly small Hondas and esoteric European mopeds.
Bonhams seems to have an inside track on unrestored barn finds, and a number of exotic early motorcycles went under the hammer, including a 1903 Alldays & Onions single, a 1911 Pope model H, a 1929 30ci Harley-Davidson “Peashooter” and a gloriously crusty 1923 Douglas 750cc OHV flat twin racer. It’s not widely appreciated that the “fore-and-aft” “Duggies” were very successful in the inter-war years in offroad competition, especially grass track and speedway. This important and rare machine sold for a bargain $32,000. Two other Douglases were on offer: a 1953 MkV and a 1955 Dragonfly. Though the Dragonfly model is better known, the MkV is a more ingenious and sophisticated package with torsion bar suspension and a lighter frame. Yet the more conventional Dragonfly, at $17,250, made twice the MkV’s price.
A couple of other machines that caught my attention included a 1971 BSA A70L Lightning 750 and a 1972 Laverda “SFC.” The A70L was a homologation special version of the oil-in-frame A65L Lightning. Just 204 A70s were made, and they’re worth considerably more than a production A65L of the same year. External differences are few, so an unscrupulous seller could “dress up” an A65 to make a few more dollars. But this A70L came from the Laurence Lattin collection, meaning it arrived with decent provenance, and appeared to be correct and original. In need of a lot of TLC, it sold for just $12,650 to an enthusiastic buyer and will no doubt become the base for a profitable restoration.
The Laverda, meanwhile, though made up to look like the limited-production SFC “Super Freni Competizione” was just a basic SF model fitted with SFC-style bodywork. No problem as long as this was clearly stated, but it wasn’t. Bonhams’ catalog described the history of Laverda’s SFC and its many successes in production racing while omitting to explain that the machine on offer was, at best, a “tribute” bike.
That’s not to suggest that Bonhams (or any other auction house) would intentionally try to deceive potential bidders, but it did remind me how much of a premium is attributed to rarity and the connection to a famous name. Steve McQueen owned so many motorcycles during his life that numerous examples show up every year in Las Vegas. Depending on the closeness of the McQueen connection, that name can add $40,000 or more to the sale price.
Anchoring this year’s MidAmerica auction was the 70-plus MV Agusta collection formerly owned by Gary Koh. Offered by Mecum as a single package in 2012 at Pebble Beach, the collection was unsold at a reported $800,000. Sold as individual bikes, the collection reaped around $840,000, though a couple remained unsold. What seems remarkable is the consistency between the bidding for the collection as a whole and as individual lots — within 5 percent!
The good news from the bellwether MidAmerica sale is that prices for the 540-odd motorcycles on offer have returned firmly to at least pre-recession levels. With 86 percent of complete motorcycle lots sold, the average price was close to $12,500 — back above the 2008 average of around $12,100. From an analysis of these numbers, a few trends emerge: Prices for BSA, Indian and BMW seem to be steadily on the rise, while Norton, Triumph and Harley-Davidson remain flat. The once passed-over Indian OHV models seem to be gaining respect, with an average 2013 price of more than $14,000, with Chiefs and Fours also remaining strong.
Trends are more difficult to follow where smaller numbers of units are on offer, but Vincents remain popular, with Shadows especially commanding higher offers. And overall, there’s no sign of the so-called “Model T” effect showing yet in the auction prices. In the vintage automobile market, falling values for older restored cars like the Model T are often attributed to a declining number of enthusiasts familiar with them. That said, there was a good proportion of gray hair in the MidAmerica audience …
A couple of lots caught my attention at MidAmerica. A 1988 BMW R100GS listed as a “Paris-Dakar” model was missing the integral kickstarter that all P-D’s were built with, suggesting it started out as a “plain Jane” GS. And a beautifully restored 1957 Moto Guzzi Falcone Sport, which remained unsold with a high bid of $23,000, looked like the genuine article. Unscrupulous restorers have been known to convert Falcone Normale or Militaire models to the more desirable Sport specification. It’s usually the headlight ears that give the game away: they should be horizontal, not pointing upward as on the Normale.
I also spotted a 1970 Triumph T120RT. In 1970, Triumph sent its U.S. distributors 200 Bonneville 750cc big-bore kits. The idea was to homologate a 750cc Bonnie to meet new AMA Class C rules. However, there are no distinguishing marks to indicate whether a T120RT is genuine, other than a casting mark on the cylinders and a “T” added to the engine number by the distributor. Triumph 750 kits were also available from performance houses like Sonny Routt. Caveat emptor! As a side note, the Motorcycle Hall of Fame maintains the official list of RT Bonnevilles.
Other interesting lots: A very original 1990 BMW K1 with its original graphics and in very nice shape remained unsold with bidding going to just $5,000; two historically significant, street-legal dual-sport bikes, a 1975 Can-Am TNT 125 and a Yankee 500cc “big bang” twin, looked like bargains at just $4,250 and $5,000, respectively. And perhaps the strangest results came from three of the Velocettes on offer: A 1949 MAC 350 thumper made just $5,500, and a beautifully restored flat-twin 200cc OHV Valiant looked very cheap at $5,000, while a utilitarian 200cc LE model made $7,250! In the U.K., LE’s typically change hands for less than $2,000.
Theatrical award for the weekend had to go to Dale Walksler of Wheels Through Time museum. Walksler was offering a barn-find 1913 Model 9B Harley-Davidson single. The toolbox key had recently been uncovered, meaning the toolbox could be opened for the first time in 100 years, which Walksler did — onstage! Sadly, the contents were fairly prosaic: some rags, a length of chain and a spark plug.
It seems fair to say that the motorcycle auction business has returned to full health, with prices for staples like Triumphs, Indians and Vincents back to pre-recession levels or better. MidAmerica’s theatrical style and showbiz swagger just seem to fit perfectly in Las Vegas, and provide a welcome break from the winter blahs, too. And for classic motorcycle enthusiasts, it’s the best value in town. MC
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