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.
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.
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”
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.
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
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
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