There are plenty of ways to buy a car at auction. On the one hand, you can pay a few grand for an ex-police Crown Vic or a drug dealer’s impounded Camaro at a tow lot on the outskirts of town. On the other, you can sip champagne or a cappuccino and bid in half-million-dollar increments on a hand-built rolling sculpture from Europe’s finest engineers and designers. Those are the extreme ends of the world of car auctions, and there's plenty going on in the middle, too, but it’s the latter that puts the world’s rarest, most desirable, most expensive cars into new garages.
The collector car market has grown considerably over the past five years, particularly at the top, and all of the following giant auction results have taken place since 2010. You'll also note that nine of the top 10 are Ferrari, evidence of the marque's pull among top-shelf cars and among top-shelf collectors, who tend to avoid the tow lots.
- 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO
Bonhams Quail Lodge 2014
Sold for $38,115,000
These cars were all-conquering, winning the World Sportscar Championship for Ferrari three years on the trot from 1962 to 1964. Legendary drivers piloted GTOs to numerous wins, the cars were powered by one of Ferrari’s all-time great engines, and their Scaglietti bodies are considered one of automotive history’s prettiest designs. And with only three dozen GTOs built, you have the recipe for the bluest of blue chip collector cars. GTO ownership is also a close-knit affair. On the rare occasion one does sell, it usually does so privately. The last one to show up at auction was way back in 2000, so when this example showed up in Monterey last year it had the world’s attention. Some speculated that it would go as high as $70 million, but in the end this GTO (which had crashed in period and unfortunately killed its driver) brought just under $40 million. That was still enough to smash the previous all-time auction record by almost $10 million.
- 1954 Mercedes-Benz W196
Bonhams Goodwood Festival of Speed 2013
Sold for $29,700,000
Speaking of previous auction records... Say hello to this car, Mercedes-Benz’s dominant Formula 1 contender from the 1954-55 seasons. It was driven by five-time champion Juan Manuel Fangio to two wins (the German Grand Prix and the Swiss Grand Prix) in 1954 and helped him grab enough points to clinch his second World Championship. Even better, the car is almost completely original, which is rare for a race car. Even in glossy press photos the car had obvious patina, and it sold right as “patina” and “originality” were becoming the magic words for high-end car collectors. Offered at Bonhams’ appropriately racing-themed Goodwood Festival of Speed sale, it didn’t surprise anyone by breaking the world record for an auction car (previously held by No. 9 on this list). Everyone was just waiting to see by how much it would break it.
- 1967 Ferrari 275 GTB/4 NART Spider
RM Monterey 2013
Sold for $27,500,000
With just 10 built, the NART Spider takes the word “rare” to another level. The car came about after U.S. Ferrari importer Luigi Chinetti convinced Ferrari to cut the roof off of the 275 GTB coupe, because Americans just love their open cars, don’t they? The result was a drool-inducing spider that would be a star in even the biggest car collection. This one also had the distinction of single-family ownership, and proceeds from the sale all went to charity, both of which contributed to this monumental price. What’s bidding like on a car this expensive? It opened at $10 million, immediately jumped to $16 million, and after $20 million it went on in $1 million increments to the final price. That's one way to do it.
- 1964 Ferrari 275 GTB/C Speciale
RM Monterey 2014
Sold for $26,400,000
A year after that NART Spider in Monterey, RM came back with this 275 GTB/C Speciale, which actually surprised a lot of people when it crossed the block. It’s the first of three built by Ferrari, and while one finished third at Le Mans in 1965, this car had no significant history. Its first owner actually used it as a road car. Enough people just had to have it, though, that bidding reached stratospheric levels - about $1 million less than the arguably more significant NART Spider from the year before.
- 1961 Ferrari 250 GT SWB California Spider (closed headlight)
Artcurial Paris 2015
Sold for $18,405,440
The Ferrari 250 GT SWB California Spider was part of the barn find to end all barn finds. Housed with dozens of highly collectible automobiles in a group of dilapidated buildings in Western France as part of the forgotten Roger Baillon collection, the Ferrari is one of 37 made and has the desirable covered headlights that can, believe it or not, add millions in value over open-headlight cars. Artcurial, the auction house that sold the car, made a brilliant PR move by circulating pictures of the car being “uncovered’ in a shed from underneath a giant pile of old magazines. That enhanced the car’s “buried treasure” mystique and helped to bring a record price that’s significantly higher than the shiny restored example at No. 10 on this list.
- 1954 Ferrari 375 Plus
Bonhams Goodwood Festival of Speed 2014
Sold for $18,315,846
Ferrari’s mighty 4.9-liter 375 Plus is one of the greats from racing’s “golden era” in the 1950s and a car that won races on both sides of the Atlantic, including Le Mans in 1954. Six were built, and Ralph Lauren has one of them. This one had been part of an international legal battle, as parts of the car had been stolen in the 1980s, and there was dispute as to who actually owned it. None of that mattered to bidders, it seems, because how often does the opportunity to buy one of these come up?
- 1964 Ferrari 250 LM Coupe
RM Monterey 2015
Sold for $17,600,000
This year, RM Sotheby’s added an extra day to the annual Monterey sale, just for the stupefying Florida-based collection called the Pinnacle Portfolio. There were 25 dream cars to satisfy every collector's taste, but the top dog of the collection was a Ferrari 250 LM, a right-hand-drive example that was extensively raced by its first owner in England. It was the most expensive car in Monterey this year, which is saying something.
- 1962 Ferrari 250 GT SWB Speciale Coupe
Gooding & Company Pebble Beach 2015
Sold for $16,500,000
The word “unique” is a bit overused in the classic car world, but in this case it actually applies. There are very few Bertone-bodied Ferraris, and this car is a true one-off penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro with sharknose styling inspired by Ferrari’s Formula 1 cars of the day. It doesn't look like the most elegant thing on four wheels, but pictures really don’t do it justice, because it's a showstopper in person. Bidders thought so, too, and to date it’s the most expensive car that Gooding & Company has ever sold.
- 1957 Ferrari 250 Testarossa Prototype
Gooding & Company Pebble Beach 2011
Sold for $16,390,000
Not only is this the oldest transaction on this list, it was also the car that held the world auction record when it sold just four years ago. That should tell you just how far the market has moved in recent memory. As for the car itself, it was the first of the legendary 250 Testarossas built and a car that raced all over the world, although it never won any significant races. Those fenders, though...
- 1961 Ferrari 250 GT SWB California Spider (closed headlight)
Gooding & Company Pebble Beach 2014
Sold for $15,180,000
Like the Baillon barn find car, this closed-headlight Cal Spider is at the top of many people’s “must have” list. It’s generally not a good idea to look at a car as an investment, but this very car was sold by RM in Amelia Island back in 2000 for just $1.2 million. Quite a return.