The surreal experience of watching a $3.5-million sale at Bonhams Quail Lodge Auction

If you are blessed with both a British accent and a commanding voice, you will always find work on the Monterey peninsula this time of year. Whereas non-catalog auctions use the traditional “heymana heymana heymana” barkers familiar to livestock auctions, the top auctions with seven- and eight-figure cars often place Brits at the front of the room. They provide a perceived air of class, and that well-polished accent often lends a big sale.

At times cajoling, at times amusing, and occasionally bullying the bidders to extract another increase, Bonham’s silk-tongue stumper Rupert Banner punctuated his delivery at this year’s Monterey sale with lines like “big-boy steps now” when the bidders were offering only stingy increases, or “You are here, you are live, take a moment to think, sir,” to a bidder who hesitated but 10 seconds before laying down another $10,000 for a ’73 Porsche 911E that was already at more 70 grand. “Are you bidding, sir, or are you just saying hello?”

When you’re bidding on the big-dollar lots, such as Bonhams’ highest earner this year, a 1948 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 Competizione coupe that gaveled at $3.525 million with buyer’s premium, you get your own in-house cheerleader. A smiling, spit-shined fellow in a well-tailored suit will come over to personally assist you in your decision making, leaning in to privately discuss the matter, reporting your bids to the auctioneer and, if necessary, gently urging you not to let the car get away for the trifling difference of $50,000. The bidding for the Competizione, a lumpy maroon breadvan that, while not the most handsome race car ever to flag off a starting line, is nonetheless the last survivor of three cars with a history that includes the original Mille Miglia and the Targa Florio (thus making the car eligible for a host of hot-ticket international revivals).

1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Sports Roadster
1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Sports Roadster Bonhams
1962 Ferrari 250 GT SWB Berlinetta driving on road
1962 Ferrari 250 GT SWB Berlinetta Bonhams

The bidding started at $2 million and every five seconds or so went up by $200,000 increments, or basically by the price of one decent Midwest house or an annual salary in the top 5 percent of American household incomes. Highly esoteric cars like this Alfa have a small but devoted following and soon the bidding was down to two people in the room. “You’ll find those seats very comfortable, sir,” Banner beckoned from the stage to the silver-haired elder up front who finally waved his auction program to secure the final bid.

So it goes at the big auctions, sometimes with people in the room, sometimes with mystery buyers on phones or the internet, millions of dollars changing hands in a matter of minutes. On paper, Bonhams auction this year was recessionary; the total for its one-day sale was $37.7 million, significantly down from last year’s $55.2 million, and the average sale price was nearly half what it was last year, down from $641,685 to $345,935. Sell-through, or the percentage of cars that actually sold, was a smidge higher, with 81 percent of the lots selling compared to 79 percent last year. When money was offered, sellers largely took it.

The other big seller at Bonhams this year was a fire-engine-red 1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Sports Roadster known as the “Mayfair 540” that went for $3,277,500, a bit under its pre-auction estimate of $3.5–$4.5 million. A gorgeous blue ’55 Gullwing on Rudge wheels blew past its $1.25–$1.5 million estimate by gaveling at $1,875,000. A slightly used 2014 Porsche 918 Spyder with the Weissach package, also dark blue, was the newest car in Bonhams’ top 10 at $1,407,500, about the middle of its estimate range. A ’69 Shelby GT500 convertible went for $128,800, while a ’64 Shelby 289 Cobra was unsold at $950,000. The (semi) affordable cars included a ’62 Pontiac Starfire convertible that went for $35,800 and a 1949 MG TC roadster that took in $31,400. A 1996 Porsche 911 Turbo blew its average Hagerty Price Guide value ($160,000) into the weeds, going for $302,000.

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