Plotting a Course in a Volatile Market
By Simon Kidston
Up, down or sideways? Which way are we headed? At Bonhams' end-of-year London sale last night, a handsome original Mercedes-Benz 300 SL 'Gullwing' owned by the same British connoisseur since 1968 failed to find a buyer at the reserve price. And yet just a few lots later, the audience was left in disbelief as a mystery bidder fought off determined rivals to secure an unremarkable 1960 Jaguar XK150 Drophead Coupé - a US import and not even an 'S' model - for £427,000. That's $650,000.
Adding to the mixed message, a svelte and ultra rare 1955 Fraser Nash Le Mans Coupé was hammered sold for a modest £300,000 (estimate £380,000-420,000) before a 2005 Ferrari 575 Superamerica, arguably more successful as a Maranello marketing exercise than a design classic, romped to a resounding £612,000, or $925,000. Until recently this was considered a secondhand car.
So what's going on? Is it a demographic change? There may be elements of that, as great pre-War cars are still selling (witness yesterday's one-family-owned 1937 Lagonda LG45 Rapide at £785,000 or the 1929 Bentley 4 1/2 Litre Tourer at £668,000) but seldom soaring wildly over their estimates. Or perhaps the European market's more cautious than its American counterpart? We only have three days to wait until RM's blockbuster New York City sale brings the curtain down on the 2015 auction season, but the Keno brothers' inaugural effort last month didn't suggest that US bidders are any easier to satisfy than Europeans.
I'd suggest that we're currently witnessing a rapid evolution of the market we follow closely and from which many of us earn a living. Currency fluctuations have meant prices rising in euros yet softening in dollars, and Europeans disadvantaged when buying across the Atlantic or in the UK. Buying tastes are also changing, with new money following big brands which can be easily understood, factory certified and recognised by their friends. Technology's playing a part, as the internet empowers private buyers, eroding the barriers between trading partners but also spreading misinformation and frequent confusion. Useability is increasingly trumping intrinsic value, with historically significant racing cars often relegated by buyers behind rare, but series-built road cars, ironic as most don't get used anyway, as low mileage is so prized.
Add to this global instability and economic uncertainty, and you have a recipe for a volatile market which, as in most investing fields, is likely to present opportunity and risk in equal measure. The old money buys a Monet, perhaps a manor house, or maybe a beautiful coachbuilt Grande Routiere, and enjoys them all in the way their creators intended. New money follows Hirst, the Candy & Candy penthouse and the limited-edition hypercar, and tracks their investment on a daily basis until judging it's time to sell. Seldom do these investors' paths cross, and they don't really speak the same language anyway. Who's right? Impossible to say, as they're not measuring success in the same currency either.
All we know is that a year from now the status quo is likely to have changed, with winners and losers in equal measure. We can't tell who's who - just that the one who sits on his hands isn't likely to be the winner.
To celebrate the first anniversary of K500.com, in a short presentation at the Bluebird Club in Chelsea last week Simon offered guests an overview of the collectors' car market in 2015. "It's been a year of consolidation, at best, with some models suffering from 'auction overload' coming off the highs of mid-2014."
"Currently at 474.6, the K500 Index has increased steadily, by 9% during 2015, broadly similar to the year before but not the 15% p.a. of the previous two."
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