When artwork and classic cars become assets, we’re missing the point

Gooding & Company Car Auction

Auctions are necessary asset-conversion devices, I know that. Like gilded wood chippers, they swallow up possessions and spit out cash at whatever rate the market will bear (minus the auction company’s fees, of course). But I have never understood why the crowd cheers at a classic-car auction when a car gavels at a particularly high figure. Is the applause for the seller’s good fortune or the buyer’s profligacy? Or is it for the car itself, because its moment has come? Maybe it’s for the auction house and the fine circus of dancing dollar bills it’s putting on, or perhaps all of the above. Either way, we don’t otherwise tend to clap for inflation. When was the last time you cheered at a bill from your health-care provider? “Yay! Somebody is getting rich today!”

It’s on my mind because I just watched an HBO documentary about the art world called The Price of Everything. In the film, New York’s modern-art industry is depicted during the intense frothing before a big sale. As the vortex of anticipation swirls toward the auction, the collective heat produced by the marketing savvy of the dealers, the star power of the artists, and the ache of the collectors to get in on the ground floor of some new discovery makes its own weather system that produces ever more shocking and incomprehensible prices.

The filmmakers tiptoe around the subject of money’s corruptive influence on art without explicitly calling out any villains or taking any stands. Why? Because, I guess, resisting the floodwaters of speculative cash is like punching at waves. Where beautiful and interesting things are happening, people and their dough will gravitate, which begets more people and more dough, some of it reckless. The intent of the film, as I see it, is simply to show what happens when people stop thinking of artworks as cultural lodestars to be savored and admired and only as assets to be flipped at the right time.

You can take yourself down logic rabbit holes trying to draw parallels between the art and classic-car worlds. With a few exceptions, cars have always been nothing more than commercial products to be sold and used up. Even Ettore Bugatti was in it to make money. But I think car people today are just as afflicted by the money fever portrayed in The Price of Everything. Seems like I can’t walk 10 feet at a Cars & Coffee without bumping into someone who needs to tell me how expensive his particular Alfa or Porsche has become recently.

A stranger invited me into his hangar last week to show me his collection of vintage bikes. As my eyes fell first on an old Crocker, he said, “That one is worth more than your house.” Really? Who even says that? A dude with the fever, that’s who.

And where the fever goes, so does the hoarding, the paranoia, the snobbery, and the salacious salivating at all the money on the hoof at auctions. How the braying crowd presses in to see our dirty, oily, rusty old classics reduced to so many pots of gold. I live in Los Angeles, where one of the reliable dinner-party conversations is house prices. What it costs has become all that matters here, and it bleeds over into other things. Pull up to the gas pumps in your old car, and invariably one of the first questions is “Whadja pay for that?” The pervasive obsession with, well, the price of everything, is one of the worst things about living in L.A.

This isn’t a rant about how expensive things have become. Cars that have value get saved instead of rotting in fields or going to the scrapper. Car values rise because people are spending money on them, fostering a supplier base of parts vendors and a new generation of knowledgeable mechanics. There’s no point bleating about the prices of old Shelbys or vintage Ferraris. They have always been expensive and they always will be, simply because the demand vastly exceeds the supply. But when the guy with an MGB tells you he bought at the right time, rather than about the sunsets he’s savored or the club meets where he’s made new friends, then there’s something wrong with the way we look at cars. Our modern infatuation with the price of everything comes with its own high price.