In 2011, international auction house Bonhams made waves when it decided to hold a classic bike auction in Las Vegas the same weekend as MidAmerica Auctions, which had been selling alone in Sin City for 19 years. 2012 brought a second wave as Auctions America by RM steamed in, expanding the party to three.
When Bonhams came to town in 2011, pundits worried their entry would weaken overall Las Vegas auction activity, diluting what some perceived as a fairly set crowd of auction regulars. They shouldn’t have worried, as the 2011 Las Vegas auction scene turned out to be the hottest ever; auction house Bonhams racked up sales of $2.5 million and MidAmerica a whopping $4.7 million-plus, a 9 percent increase over its 2010 performance of $4.3 million.
The same fears were voiced again this year, as Auctions America loaded its guns for what many thought had the makings of a showdown. Drawing on ample resources and aided by the considerable knowledge of classic bike expert Glenn Bator, Auctions America by RM purchased and consigned several large collections to ensure a healthy offering before taking up residence for three days at the Rio All-Suite, just off the strip.
A subsidiary of international auction powerhouse RM Auctions, Auctions America was founded just two years ago. Since then, the company has consistently challenged markets held by established U.S. auction houses, and its move into motorcycles has been both applauded and feared.
Auctions America’s Vegas entry was looked at with more than a few raised eyebrows. Many saw the move as a blatant attack on MidAmerica’s Vegas dominance, but Auctions America president Donnie Gould rejects those assertions. “We’re here to make the pie bigger. We’re here to make this the premier motorcycle event of the year,” Gould said as the weekend opened, adding, “We have the potential to see $12 million in sales this weekend; that’s enhancing the market.”
The results of the weekend support Gould’s position. While the specifics of the auctions themselves can be debated, there’s no arguing the simple fact that total weekend sales rose from an estimated $7.2 million in 2011 to $10.7 million in 2012. That’s not far off Gould’s $12 million prediction, and a big lift any way you look at it.
Total sales: $4.1 million: Auctions America was betting on car buyers making a strong appearance this year, and results suggest they did. “We are definitely bringing in car buyers,” Bator said, “and these bikes are going to look cheap to them.” With 529 lots in its auction schedule, the auction house was covering every base it could to attract buyers. Bikes ranged from the headlining 1894 steam-powered Roper to a pedestrian 1980 Honda CB750F. The former was a no-sale at $425,000, while the latter went for a paltry $896.
In fact, if you were looking for a rider, Auctions America was the place to be, as good deals seemed the order of the day. How about $3,920 for a nice 1934 Triumph 150 XO “Sloper” single? Or $5,040 for an ex-Barber Museum 1982 Honda CBX with just under 16,000 miles on the clock? Fully 60 percent of bikes on offer at Auctions America were no reserve, which most certainly aided buyers at the lower end of the market, if not the top end, as well.
And the top end was definitely soft. A 1928 Brough SS100 was a no-sale at $190,000, and the highest price paid during the three-day auction was $76,160 for a 1910 Flying Merkel. Presale estimates for the bike were more than double that amount, and that seemed to be the norm with most of the high-end bikes on offer; pre-sale estimates and actual sales price realized were two very different things.
Auctions America worked hard to woo prospective buyers, treating them to a steak dinner Thursday night and breakfast on Friday and Saturday morning. A new, and much welcomed, addition to the regular auction action was a Saturday morning panel discussion. Led by SPEED commentator Dave Despain, the panel (Cycle World editor-in-chief Mark Hoyer, auto and now bike collector Joe Bortz, Walneck’s Cycle Trader founder Buzz Walneck, and photographer, book author and sometimes Motorcycle Classics contributor Doug Mitchel) explored the classic bike market, sharing their thoughts on the who, what and why of collecting.
Bortz, who made a name for himself in car circles ferreting out ex-General Motors Motorama show cars, believes original mufflers will become a driving factor in future collecting, especially with 1970s-1980s bikes. Summing up the “why” of collecting, Bortz says it all comes down to just five words; “I have it, you don’t.”
Total sales: $4.6 million: This year, MidAmerica Auctions’ home base was the South Point Hotel, and to judge by the activity in the hall and the number of bikes on hand — some 500 lots — you wouldn’t have known there was another big auction in town.
While many attendees were simply going with their momentum, a little bit of friction might be a good thing for MidAmerica, as many of the buyers — and sellers — at MidAmerica assumed almost partisan lines, with a professed loyalty to the Minnesota-based auction house.
Similar to the scene at Auctions America by RM, there were some good deals to be had at MidAmerica’s Las Vegas auction event, but they were a little harder to find. A non-stock but very complete 1972 H-D SS250 Sprint went for $1,300, while a perfect 1974 Sprint 350 drew $2,750. If you’re into more modern fare you could have ridden away on a very nice 1990 Ducati Paso 906 for a reasonable $2,750, or a lovely blue 1975 Honda CB750 Super Sport for $3,300.
Like Auctions America, the high end was soft. MidAmerica’s Ron Christenson was flabbergasted he couldn’t get Steve McQueen’s 1971 Husqvarna 400 Cross — McQueen’s famous Sports Illustrated cover bike — past $137,000, especially considering a similar McQueen Husky sold for $144,500 last year. Top price at the auction was $299,600 for a 1915 Iver Johnson. MidAmerica also had a Brough SS100, a 1938 model, which stalled at $180,000.
The real action at MidAmerica Auctions seemed to be in the middle, with lots of good bikes getting fair prices. A very nice 1974 Honda CB350 Dunstall fetched a respectable $6,200, while a 1974 Suzuki GT750 drew a winning bid of $3,500. Another 1974 Suzuki, a GT550, went for $4,000, while a low-mileage 1978 Kawasaki Z1R TC Turbo went for $13,000.
The vendor action at the MidAmerica classic bike auction was strong, with stalls lining both sides of the hall, and there was a generally more festive atmosphere over Auctions America’s sale, where the mood tended to be a bit more reserved. The convivial atmosphere wasn’t particularly surprising, especially given MidAmerica’s long history at Las Vegas, where buyers and sellers have been meeting for years.
Given the competition down the road, MidAmerica did well to see only a roughly 2 percent drop in gross sales, furthering the argument that a larger pool doesn’t necessarily mean lower sales.
Total sales: $2.1 million: If there was a loser in the new three-way at Vegas, it might have been Bonhams, which saw gross sales drop from approximately $2.5 million last year to just more than $2 million in 2012.That’s not necessarily a fair assessment, however, as Bonhams’ 2012 auction featured more memorabilia and parts than the 2011 sale. In terms of sell-through, 2012 sales exceeded 2011, with 78 percent sold versus 71 percent in 2011.
The Bonhams sales was heavily influenced by its sale of the du Pont collection. Comprising 150 lots — almost half the total lots offered — the collection included some 50 motorcycles and 100 bits of Indian and other spare parts collected by ex-Indian company president E. Paul du Pont. The collection was completely dispersed, and items sold included a 1953 Vincent Series C Black Shadow showing just 3,000 miles that fetched a healthy $120,000, and a 1906 Indian Camelback that went for $72,540. The du Pont collection alone accounted for $1 million of Bonhams’ total Las Vegas auction sales.
Given Bonhams’ positioning as a high-end auction house, the paucity of rider/low-end bikes was hardly surprising. But there were some interesting opportunities at the lower end, including an original but scruffy 1975 Suzuki RE-5 rotary showing a claimed 346 miles that sold for $1,775. A clean 1975 Honda CB750 with flat bars and a 4-into-1 header went for $1,989, while a very clean and rideable 1966 BSA Lightning took $5,850.
Things got really interesting when it came to parts, with collectors scratching their heads trying to figure out why someone gave $35,000 for a claimed unused, new-old-stock 1924 Ace/Henderson 4-cylinder engine or $32,500 for a 1912 Henderson 4-cylinder engine. A carburetor for an early Indian drew a winning bid of $3,250.
Although auction house Bonhams seemed to have better success with some of its rarer offerings, including $122,500 for a 1955 Vincent Series D Black Prince, like Auctions America and MidAmerica, its featured Brough, a 1937 SS100 that had pre-sale estimates running well over $200,000, failed to sell.
Prices paid may have been something of a disappointment, but the real importance of the 2012 LasVegas auctions is what is showed; namely, if you bring them, they will come. If all the players come back in 2013, we expect to see a lot more foreign buyers and a very active weekend. MC
The latest classic motorcycle events and tours.LEARN MORE