The “why” behind Monterey’s top sales
With the monterey auction week in the rearview, the “Wow!” of its two headline sales has been played to death. It’s the “Why?” that still fascinates me. One car, a 1962 Ferrari 250GTO, the preeminent model of the most revered aspirational brand, sold for $48.4 million after a tedious nine minutes of bidding. The other car, a 1935 Duesenberg SSJ, a little-known relic from a long-dead brand, sold for $22 million. It was the greatest bidding war I’ve ever seen.
Let’s start with the Ferrari, serial number 3413GT, at RM Sotheby’s. This sale had buzz from the minute it was announced. It stood to be the most expensive car ever sold at auction and came hot on the heels of the reported $70 million private sale of another 250GTO, 4153GT. The stage was set for a big result with 3413. So why the discrepancy in price between 4153 and 3413? Both are exceptional examples with unimpeachable race and ownership histories, but 4153 has a better race history and, crucially, is still clad in its original and more desirable Series I bodywork; 3413 was one of four GTOs to receive an in-period conversion by the factory to Series II bodywork.
RM Sotheby’s presale estimate was $45 million to $60 million. Two phone bidders picked away at 3413 until it hammered sold for a million short of the low estimate. For those of us who have been to enough auctions, this much was clear: Most 250GTO buyers are like the buyer of 4153—they know the one they want and won’t settle for another, even if it is tens of millions cheaper.
Conversely, the Gooding & Company sale of the Duesenberg SSJ for $22 million put an arrow in the heart of anyone who has said prewar American classics are dead. The car’s presale estimate: “in excess of $10,000,000.” Rumor had it the SSJ had a reserve of $8 million. Clearly, nobody knew what this SSJ—one of two 400-hp short-chassis models built, and still in original condition—was worth. So an auction sale made perfect sense.
Duesenbergs are to prewar cars what Ferraris are to postwar cars. The Gooding SSJ was originally owned by actor Gary Cooper and then went to legendary sportsman Briggs S. Cunningham in the late 1940s, where it remained until the consignor’s acquisition of Cunningham’s entire collection in the 1980s. So this SSJ not only had an illustrious history but hadn’t been “for sale” in nearly 70 years. It also happens to be one of the coolest freaking cars ever built. During its sale, the room was packed, with bidders in the crowd and on the phones, and bids often moving $1 million at a crack. It was the kind of sale that auction houses, and certainly auctioneers, dream of. Everybody in the room knew they were witnessing something special, and it was electric. Quite the contrast to the endodontics RM Sotheby’s was forced to perform the night before.
But how can any car be worth these numbers? Just as paintings by the great masters transcend their construction of mere canvas and pigment, so, too, are the 250GTOs and SSJs of the world more than the sum of their nuts and bolts. They can and do connect with us on another level and as such represent extreme examples of supply and demand. All 36 GTOs and both SSJs are known, and not one of their owners needs to sell. Few have even wanted to.
In the movie Trading Places, Dan Akroyd’s character, Winthorpe, looks longingly through a fancy restaurant window at Eddie Murphy’s Valentine. The scene perfectly encapsulates the GTO and SSJ realm. There are those at the table and those looking through the glass at the charmed life they want to have. And when the guy looking from the outside in has enough money to tempt the GTO or SSJ owner at the table to give up his seat, a new benchmark transaction will occur, as happened with the SSJ.
No matter the price point, the basics of collecting remain. Supply, demand, condition, history, and freshness to market determine value. They can’t be discounted; nor can the elusive notion of passion that the right cars can evoke. When a car checks all the boxes for the right buyer, market trends and tea leaves only go so far. Bidding paddles always have the last word.