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Market Latest — Straight talk from Pebble Beach

Anyone who expected the market to maintain its dizzying climb of recent years at the 2009 Pebble Beach auctions "because the wealthy are still wealthy" has only themselves to blame, but bottom feeders hoping for panic selling and fire sale prices will have been equally disappointed. This year's numbers were down- both in terms of turnover and percentages sold- but over $110 million still changed hands in just a few days, once again making the Monterey week the most valuable round of classic car auctions anywhere in the world and showing that the right money is still forthcoming for the right cars- but only the right cars.

It's physically impossible to attend all the auctions which take place in Monterey- let alone all the social gatherings which include corporate parties, new car launches (more about that later), historic racing, VIP showings of everything from jewelry to jets and, of course, concours d'elegance (where it all started, in case we forget). It's a packed week in every sense of the word, and the 3,000 invited guests who turned out for Gordon McCall's now traditional Pebble Beach opener, the Jet Party on the tarmac at Monterey airport, reminded visitors from the Old Continent that, Stateside, they do things on a different scale.

Jet Party opens the weeks festivities: limited to just 3,000
$7.25 million bid for genuine Cobra Daytona coupe at newcomer Mecums auction

Hoping that it's never too late to jump on to the bandwagon, several less exalted auction houses have recently joined the fray and now hold sales earlier in the week. Foremost amongst these this year was Mecum, an Illinois-based outfit who style themselves as "offering [note the choice of verb] 5,000 collector cars per year- more than any rival". For their inaugural Monterey sale Mecum bravely decided to re-offer their Cobra Daytona Coupe- one of the six originals- which had failed to reach its $10 million-plus estimate as recently as their Indianapolis auction last May. At Monterey the auction house announced the car as sold for $7.25 million, "the highest price paid for an American car at public auction". It will be interesting to see where it shows up next.

Among the A-listers, RM was first up on Thursday with a special one-night auction featuring a one-owner Woodie collection. This set a positive tone with 100% of the lots sold- more of them above estimate than below- and a $7 million turnover, but this is a niche market so it's unwise to read too much into the results.

Woodie collection at RM was 100% sold
Glorious Auto Union Grand Prix car came out, was much admired and went home again

The following day it was Bonhams' turn to welcome bidders to their sale at Quail Lodge, the verdant five-star golf resort in a valley just outside Carmel. "Will the Auto Union sell?" was the question on most casual observers' lips, referring to the most valuable motor car of the weekend, the 1939 Auto Union D-Type Grand Prix, but given that it's been available privately for several years and was withdrawn at the last minute from Christie's Paris auction in 2007 following an identity crisis (they weren't sure of the chassis number), the answer was something of a foregone conclusion. A pity, as it's a magnificent piece of machinery and to hear its V12 roar in anger with a new owner would be a spectacle to behold. If historic significance alone made a car valuable, this would eclipse any 250GTO.

Bonhams' other feature car, a stunning Bugatti Type 57S Atalante, confirmed the trend we've seen emerging in recent years where a fresh example of a great model achieves a record price, luring others onto the market until the last car to turn up finds all the buyers have got one. Think 'teardrop' Talbot-Lagos in 2005/6, Ferrari California Spyders in 2007/8 and now it's the Bugatti 57S's turn. Great car, but it's the fourth to appear at auction in less than a year: how many buyers are out there at any one time?

Low mileage 300SL at Bonhams: $804,500
'Bumblebee' Ferrari cost same as 300SL- take your pick...

Despite a strong catalogue, somewhat bullish estimates hindered Bonhams' chances and the final success rate was just 58% after a marathon eight hour sale during which auctioneer Malcolm Barber needed every ounce of his stamina and skills of persuasion. There were some highlights, though, including a staggering $804,500 for a 7,600-mile '61 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster bought by a twentysomething bidder, and the same amount for a quirky yellow and black Ferrari 212 coupe nicknamed 'Bumblebee'. Top seller was a handsome 1933 Duesenberg Model J torpedo at $1.437 million whilst recent 'investment classics' like the Ferrari Daytona berlinetta and its spyder sibling stalled at $210,000 and $650,000 respectively: 30% down on their peaks.

Ex-Phil Hill Jaguar C-Type at RM with son Derek at the wheel : $2,530,000
Ferrari Daytona Spyder at RM: $880,000 sets a new benchmark

RM's main event took place the next evening at the Portola Plaza Hotel in downtown Monterey, nowadays unrecognizable as the peaceful seaside setting for John Steinbeck's famous 1945 novel Cannery Row. Top seller this year was an overly shiny but 'no stories' Jaguar C-Type raced by a Pebble Beach legend who was greatly missed this year: the recently departed Phil Hill, whose son Derek drove the car onto the auction ramp. At $2.53 million this was RM's top seller and by common consensus was good value. By contrast, an Aston Martin DB3S with a chequered history which sold to a UK trade buyer seemed fully priced at $1.98 million. The first ever left-hand drive DB5, catalogued as "sold new to someone called Peter Lindner" (presumably not the famous German racer), was also strong at $341,000.

Tellingly, Ferrari prices were also off at RM compared to last year: $880,000 secured a well presented, celebrity-owned Daytona Spyder (three were sold here in 2008, ranging from $1,023,000 to $1,485,000) whilst $605,000 bought a short nose 275GTB, although there were whispers about its engine number. Two Enzos were offered, one with previous accident damage, but neither sold, and nor did the 400-miles-from-new Bugatti Veyron at $900,000. Think depreciation with a capital 'D'.

Craziest price of the weekend: $374,000 for a customised Ford pick-up
Heavy metal awaits the heavy hitters at RM

Craziest price of the weekend has to go to RM for a customized 1956 Ford Pick-Up- at $374,000. Believe it or not, the seller had bought it at an RM auction last year for $418,000. And they don't even have an open bidders bar...

Closing the weekend's sales, and in pride of place at the Equestrian Centre overlooking the 59th Pebble Beach concours d'elegance, towered David Gooding's white auction marquee. The inevitable brace of Ferrari California Spyders- LWB and SWB, both with covered headlights, sold for a market correct $2.75 million and $5.115 million respectively, in line with other recent transactions. Heading the pre-war 'blue chips' was a perfectly restored, Castagna bodied '33 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 which made a bullish $4.18 million, whilst a gloriously swoopy '35 Duesenberg SJ Roadster- very Sunset Boulevard- changed hands just below estimate for $3.3 million. In comparison the '38 Bugatti Type 57C with connections to Ettore himself (hopefully he wasn't responsible for the styling) showed the power of good PR at $1.375 million. Once again Astons performed well, with a hard-to-believe $1.65 million paid for a '53 DB2/4 with rather ponderous Bertone coachwork, $341,000 for a DB6 Vantage and $1.045 million for another DB2/4 styled by Bertone on a better day.

It still costs over $5 million to drive home in one of these
Art Deco styled Duesie at Gooding: $3.3 million

When the dust had settled, these were the 2009 Pebble Beach sales results:

Bonhams & Butterfields
58% of cars offered sold (56% in 2008)
$13,157,529 total, with one million-dollar car (2008: $20,796,800 total, with five million-dollar cars)
High sale: 1933 Duesenberg Model J ($1,437,000)

81% of cars offered sold (85% in 2008)
$28,175,500 total, with three million-dollar cars/ $35,522,600 including this year's one-off Woodie auction (2008: $44,093,450 total, with twelve million-dollar cars)
High sale: 1952 Jaguar C-type ($2,530,000)

81% of cars offered sold (80% in 2008)
$50,753,850 total, with nine million-dollar cars (2008: $64,228,300 total, with 20 million-dollar cars)
High sale: 1962 Ferrari 250 GT SWB California Spyder ($5,115,000)

A common refrain amongst collectors at Pebble Beach was that the market has returned to its 2006/early 2007 levels, and that's probably a pretty accurate assessment. If it stabilizes there after everything the world economy has been through, both buyers and sellers should be more than satisfied. For now at least, these results have set the tone. See veteran US market analyst Rick Carey's summary below:

Rick Carey is the Auctions Editor of Car Collector and Victory Lane magazines. He has been musing on collector car market auction transactions since 1991 and has yet to figure them out.

Photos courtesy: Gooding & Co., Simon Clay, David De Jong, James Mann, Bonhams & Butterfileds, RM Auctions, Darin Schnabel, Aaron Summerfield.