Auctions are like gambling: know your limit, play within it.
It seems to me quite appropriate that the most important motorcycle auctions in North America are held in Las Vegas. After all, buying at an auction is always a bit of a crap shoot, and the odds double when you’re buying a motorcycle that you can’t ride, hear running, or even start!
I’m also sure the city’s reputation for permissiveness and inscrutability pervades those auction halls each January when the hucksters and charlatans—and honest sellers, of course—bring their wares to flog through the Bonhams and Mecum auctions. And because most offerings are sold “as is” with no warranty, a detailed knowledge of the model and a healthy skepticism are needed to counter omission and misrepresentation.
Case in point. At the Mecum auction at the South Point Hotel, a motorcycle described as a 1974 Ducati 750 Sport was up for sale, and with what looked like solid provenance: a certificate of authenticity from ASI, the Auto-moto club Storico Italia (Italian vintage car and motorcycle club). But as soon as the image hit the interweb, the Ducati forums caught fire. The consensus: the offered bike was a less desirable 750GT dressed up with a mix of genuine Sport and aftermarket parts. Presumably not party to this insight, one bidder went as high as $28,000, and is probably now relieved that his bid failed to meet the seller’s reserve price.
And then there’s the question of star appeal. I know Steve McQueen was a motorcycle nut, but had he owned every motorcycle credited to his stewardship, he’d have needed a garage the size of Texas. Even so, just a hint of McCool’s involvement with a particular motorcycle can add thousands to the price.
It was with all this in mind that I considered whether I should bid on lot T143. Given that several hundred vintage bike collectors were in the auction room, it’s unlikely I was the only punter who knew what a Mi-Val was—but there can’t have been too many who did.
Depending on your source, the “Mi” in Mi-Val refers either to parent company Metalmeccanica Italiana or the company’s founder, Ettore Minganti. The Val part is for Gardone Val Trompia, the Lombardy town where the company was based. During the 1950s, Mi-Val mainly produced two-stroke commuter bikes: then, in 1956, they announced a new four-stroke 125cc machine with a five-speed gearbox—the first production motorcycle so equipped. A 175cc four-stroke followed, but the company eventually became best known for its later OHC motocrossers in 250, 350 and 500cc forms.
And there it was at the auction: a 1958 175cc four-stroke Mi-Val: no McQueen attribution; mostly complete as far as I could tell; and in fair condition, though missing a cable or two and with a rattle-can cap in the dash where the Veglia speedometer should have been. The engine turned over and had compression, though a missing battery and dry gas tank meant it hadn’t run for a while. A nice addition to my collection, I thought, and should be eligible for the Motogiro d’California. While the reborn Motogiro d’Italia has an absolute cut-off at 1957, organizer Harley Welch’s American version of the timed motorcycle tour allows later bikes if they are of “like design” to a 1957 model.
I’d paid Mecum Auctions my $100 registered bidder fee, and the Mi-Val was due on the block in half an hour or so. So I sat down to run some numbers. What could I afford to pay? The answer: as a Canadian, not much.
Bids were in greenbacks of course, so I had to factor in my 81-cent Canadian dollar. Then there was the 10 per cent buyer’s premium, plus another three per cent for paying with a credit card. Sold lots had to be out of the hotel within 36 hours, so I’d have to arrange transportation to the Canadian border, say $700-800. Like most of the lots in the auction the Mi-Val was being sold on a “bill of sale,” meaning it had no title. Current US Customs and Border Protection rules prohibit the export of any vehicle without a title. And while titling a vintage motorcycle can usually be done without too much cost or hassle, it takes time. So I’d have to arrange storage in Blaine, Washington, the town nearest my home in BC. And if the title didn’t come through, I’d have to dismantle the bike and bring it across the border as parts.
On top of the charges on the south side of the 49th, I would still have to pay the now compulsory customs brokerage in Canada (about $200), plus GST at five per cent, and BC provincial tax at seven per cent. All of a sudden, the Mi-Val was looking like a bridge too far—unless I could steal it. That meant I’d have to be the only bidder.
I wasn’t. The bidding went straight to $3,000, next bid $3,500, or around $4,300 Canadian at the time. Some quick mental arithmetic…I would be looking at well over $6,000 landed in BC—plus an unknown storage cost while waiting for the title. I had no idea what horrors might lie inside the engine only that, as it obviously hadn’t run in a while, varying degrees of dismantling and reassembly would be required. And no use popping into Canadian Tire to pick up some Mi-Val parts.
Discretion proved the better part of valour. I sat on one hand, and thrust the other deep into a pocket. No further bid. Cute as the Mi-Val was, it wasn’t going to Canada. Not with me, anyway.
Buying used motorcycles in the US used to be a no-brainer—as long as they were more than 15 years old (the cutoff for exemption from the Registrar of Imported Vehicles restrictions). Five of the bikes I own came from the US: but increased costs and a slumping loonie are making that route impractical. Maybe we’ll even see the flow reverse.