10 Tips For Auction Attendees

There may be things that money just can’t buy, but not at an auction. 

As old as sin itself, auctions are the purest of markets, the symbiosis of those who wish to dispense and they who seek to acquire. The call of the barker, the slap of the gavel, and the odour of money are as addictive as an unfiltered cigarette so, mister, you better know what you’re doing before you go. Robert Smith was there to cheer the winners, lament the losers, and witness high stakes all-round when he found seats at two of the biggest motorcycle auctions in the world.

He has returned to end with pointers.

By now, most of us are familiar with those online auctions conducted behind a veil of usernames and PayPal transfers. But buying a bike on eBay is nothing like the in-your-face cut and thrust of the Real Thing …

It’s my first visit to the Las Vegas January motorcycle auctions in 2009, and I have my eye on a 1995 Ducati Elefant ”Lucky Explorer” replica. I decide I’m going to bid on it. Bidding is stalled at $5,000, asking $5,250. I hoist my bidding card in the air. And if you’ve ever watched the Barrett-Jackson auctions, you’ll know what happens next.

I hear a shout, and a couple of “wranglers” close in on me and get in my face like a pair of NHL blueliners. Another bidder has upped the ante to $5,500, and my next bid would be $5,750, over my budget. I shake my head firmly. “The reserve’s off. We’re selling the bike,” yells MidAmerica’s chief barker, Ron Christenson. 

But the action has moved elsewhere as the bids shoot quickly over six grand, heading for seven, while the auctioneer’s incessant patter reverberates around my ears like an unmuffled road drill. My tag team drifts away looking for new fare: it was an intense and one-sided love affair, but mercifully brief.

EACH JANUARY, LAS VEGAS PLAYS host to the largest motorcycle auction held anywhere, when MidAmerica Auctions puts at least 500 (mostly) classic and vintage motorcycles under the hammer. And for the first time in 2011, auctioneers Bonhams and Butterfields decided to join the party, adding another 200-odd bikes for sale. And with some deft footwork, I managed to get to both of them.

Anchoring the Bonhams sale were the 53 Hondas of the Kenneth Klem collection all offered without reserve. The collection netted over $94,000 for an average of around $1,700 a bike. Included in the collection were nine CB750s of various vintages from 1970-76 and mostly in fair condition (though usually missing stock mufflers) selling for an average of $2,900. Some interesting lots too, like a 1966 S90 Sport sold for $1,800, and a rare 1964 C55 step-through fetched just $650. 

If I’d wanted to buy a Vincent, I could have chosen from three series B Rapides all sold between $35-36,000—below estimate and maybe $5-10,000 below prices a couple of years ago.

Top grossing lot was an original 1894-95 Hildebrand & Wolfmuller at $140,000, while a 1901 Indian F-head Camelback single made $115,000, and the ex-Rody Rodenberg BMW R51RS from 1939 pulled $112,000. Other sales at $100,000-plus were an unrestored 1913 Flying Merkel and a 1929 ex-factory H-D Peashooter. There were some excellent deals for bargain hunters too. Included in the Klem collection was a 1974 Yamaha TX750, unloved at the time but becoming collectible and in good all-original condition with period panniers. The winning bid? Just $1,100. Similarly, a beautifully restored British classic, a four-valve Rudge 250 Sports from 1935 made just $4,800.

Perhaps the rarest lot on offer was the 1919 Australian-built GCS, named for its builder, George Cyril Stilwell, and fitted with a MAG V-Twin engine. Immaculately refinished, just $45,000 took it. (The same motorcycle had been offered at the 2009 MidAmerica auction and failed to sell at $34,000 bid and a reserve of $40,000.) A similar sum secured the 1921 Junior TT-winning New Imperial race bike, while a barn-fresh China Red Vincent series C Rapide sold for $85,000.

Total value of the bikes sold at Bonhams (net of buyer’s premium) was around $2.5 million. Of 198 lots offered for sale, 141 were sold (71.2 per cent), leaving 57 unsold. Average price per lot: $17,730.

IN BUSINESS FOR 20 YEARS AND offering 500-plus motorcycles for sale each year, MidAmerica’s
Las Vegas auction is the biggest in the world, they claim. And like Barrett-Jackson’s famous auctions, it’s as much show business as salesroom. That said, the sheer number and variety of bikes that pass under MidAmerica’s hammer provides a unique insight into price trends and perhaps the best opportunity to sell your classic—or snag a bargain.

Headlining the show this year were two late-model SS100 Brough Superiors, one a 1939 show model wearing plenty of chrome (and failing to sell two years ago at $235,000 bid with a $250,000 reserve) and another from 1938 in more traditional finish but previously owned by Brough guru Bill Gibbard. The sum of $240,000 took the 1939 show bike, while $225,000 for the 1938 failed to meet its reserve.

British bike enthusiasts had plenty to choose from with 34 Nortons, 78 Triumphs, 31 BSAs, five Ariel Square Fours and six Vincents for sale. BSA prices were definitely on the up, attracting an average of close to $9,900 compared with $9,300 in 2008. BSA Victors now seem to be attracting decent money, with a restored 1970 model drawing $9,000. Triumph and Norton prices overall were consistent with past results, though oil-in-frame Triumphs are starting to get respect, while pre-unit bikes were down overall. 

Norton Commando prices recovered to 2008 levels with an average sale price of $9,350 after softening considerably over the last couple of years. The five Square Fours sold for an average $19,000, again recovering to 2008 prices.

Italian bike fans were buying in force with only 10 of around 45 bikes on offer failing to sell under the hammer. Notable bargains were an immaculate unrestored 1975 Benelli Quattro 500 selling for $4,500 and a 2000 Cagiva Gran Canyon in beautiful shape with low miles that failed to meet its $5,500 but sold later in the corral for $5,000. Headlining the Italian bikes was a 1975 MV Agusta 850SS that attracted $54,500 in bids, but had a reserve of $85,000. No sale!

The market for early American motorcycles is noticeably polarized: unrestored machines from the 1900s to the 1920s now fetch record prices while restored and/or replica machines get remaindered or sold at much lower prices. For example, a “barn fresh” 1913 Flying Merkel fetched $100,000 at Bonhams, while a fully restored 1919 model at MidAmerica failed to sell. 

Similarly, a 1929 H-D Peashooter racing single, recovered in the 1940s (still in its crate!) from the men’s room of a mine in Western Australia and raced in the 1950s sold for $108,000 at Bonhams, while a restored 1926 version of the 21 cu. in. racer failed to meet its estimate of $35-40,000.

The enduring power of the Harley-Davidson brand was demonstrated by the sale of two speedway bikes from the James Carpenter collection at MidAmerica: the 1934 H-D CAC racer sold for $165,000, while an example of the bike it was designed to beat (and closely copied), a 1934 (English) Excelsior-JAP made less than one-tenth of that amount.

My favourite bargains at MidAmerica: A very low mileage 1985 Ducati-powered Cagiva Allazzura in beautiful shape that went for just $3,500; an equally nice 1980 Moto Morini 3-1/2 the rare Sport model for $4,750; and a rare future collectible 1982 Triumph Bonneville eight-valve TSS, one of just 275 made, for $4,500.

Value of sales at MidAmerica totaled $4,736,325 for 374 lots sold out of 477 offered (78.4 per cent), meaning 103 did not sell. Average price per lot $12,664. 

ALTHOUGH BOTH COMPANIES ARE in the auction business, they have different backgrounds and each has a distinct style. UK-based Bonhams brings its British reserve: there’s no Barrett-Jackson-style hype; they publish a glossy, coffee-table auction catalogue; the bikes for sale are more eclectic, often with interesting histories and provenance; and the auctions are conducted in an air of unhurried professionalism and efficiency. For this more gentlemanly experience, you naturally pay more: Bonhams’ commission on a successful sale can be as high as 17 per cent (on sales up to $100,000, with 10 per cent over $100,000). 

MidAmerica, meanwhile, wears its midwestern roots on its plaid sleeve. Their auctioneers bring show-biz to their high-energy patter—continuous barrages of polysyllabic banter delivered in a flat monotone, the only distinguishable words being the numbers bid and asked. MA also employs a team of wranglers whose job it is to work with bidders to help them up their bids. There’s never any doubt that MA is working for the seller. That said, their buyers’ premiums are lower than Bonhams’ at a flat 10 per cent.

The speed and efficiency with which Bonhams disposed of 198 lots for sale was impressive: while MidAmerica took around 24 hours over three days for their 500 lots, Bonhams handled their 198 motorcycles in around six hours. That’s around three minutes a lot for MidAmerica and less than two minutes each lot for Bonhams.

Several collector-restorers bring large collections to Mid America each year, notably Randy Baxter, Don Harrel and Jim Hiddleson. This year they brought a number of beautifully restored British bikes from the 1950s and ‘60s. They typically attracted premium prices because of their immaculate restorations. Shiny sells at MidAmerica—as long as the restoration is “correct”—and I got the impression that a good story and provenance were more important at Bonhams. It’s just possible the Bonham’s buyers were more discerning and better informed, too.

Telephone bidding has been around for some time, and both auctions were selling to phone bidders. But an interesting aspect of the MidAmerica auction was the presence of online bidding via proxibid.com. Although there was a noticeable delay (around six seconds, claims Proxibid), a number of lots sold online. 

My associate James Bush (to whom I’m grateful for providing statistical analysis) watched the auction online via Proxibid and says he would have felt perfectly happy bidding on any of the lots. And while image quality provided by the video cameras was perfectly fine, I still think I personally would prefer to be able to kick the tires. Even so, perhaps this is the future of the auction room. 

A couple of other observations: at the Bonhams auction, it was unclear whether lots had actually sold or not. There was no mention of whether a reserve price had been placed, and each lot went “under the hammer” for the highest bid. Whether it had met reserve or not (that is, whether it had actually sold) was not revealed until the results were published some days later.

At MidAmerica it was always clear whether a reserve applied or not; and when the reserve price was met (or when chief barker Christenson had persuaded the seller to lower the reserve), the wranglers waved yellow signs indicating the reserve was off and the item was “selling.”

A couple of other interesting comparisons were available. Both auctions had China Red Vincent Rapides for sale, Bonhams’ barn fresh and MA’s restored. Bonhams got $85,000 for theirs, while MidAmerica’s attracted offers of $66,000 but didn’t sell. Both auctions also listed Munch 1200 TTS models, Bonhams a 1973 model and MA a 1977—$80,000 was offered at Bonhams and $55,000 at MA. Neither met reserve. A nicely restored Mondial Comfort from the John Goldman collection was offered at both Bonhams and MidAmerica and failed to reach its reserve of $9,000, attracting bids of $8,000 at Bonhams and $7,000 at MidAmerica. Meanwhile, both auctions offered 1975 Mk3 Norton Commando Hi-Rider models in good condition. Bonhams’ fetched $6,500 while MidAmerica’s sold for $10,000. 

You’d think the growth of online auction sites like eBay, and the likes of Craigslist and Kijiji would have put paid to the traditional auction, but based on the hundreds of bidders who showed up at both Bonhams and MidAmerica, the auction room’s energy and pizzazz is still a powerful draw. 

10 Tips For Auction Hounds

Auctions, like gambling, can be addictive. One Golden Rule applies: “Know your limit, play within it.” Here are 10 tips that might help you spend wisely—and maybe keep your wallet in your pocket.

1.Almost all auction bikes are sold “as is” with no warranty given or implied. 

2. Many lots are sold with a bill of sale and without a title. Caveat emptor.

3. Lighting in auction rooms is often flattering to a motorcycle’s cosmetic condition. 

4. Some auctioneers announce the current bid price, while others speak to the next bid they have in mind. This should not prevent you offering a bid in between the “bid” and “ask.” 

5. If you do bid, be prepared for the arrival at your side of a couple of wranglers who will politely (but enthusiastically) entreat you to raise your bid. Stand your ground.

6. Be aware of whether you’re bidding on a lot that has a reserve or not, and if so, whether the reserve has been met. 

7. Do your homework before you go. 

8. Watch out for “shill” bidding (bids being made by sellers’ agents).

9. Don’t forget that you’ll have to pay a buyers’ premium (usually 10-17 per cent), plus shipping to your home location, border fees, and a title transfer or activation fee.

10. If what you’re bidding on doesn’t meet reserve, you may still be able to buy it. Often the seller will be prepared to move on the price to avoid taking the bike home again.

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