Can online auctions and in-person auctions coexist?

Hagerty Insider Insight Toyota FJ40 front three-quarter lead
RM Sotheby's/Drew Shipley

One of our big questions entering the year was whether online auctions, which had grown exponentially during the pandemic shutdowns of 2020, could coexist with returning in-person sales. After all, the impact of internet retailers on brick-and-mortar businesses in the general economy has been well-documented and practically apocalyptic—drive past what used to be your local Sears if you need convincing.

Now as we head toward winter, with 2021’s major in-person events behind us, we can say definitively that online auctions did not hamper the return of live sales. Thanks in large part to strong showings in Monterey and Arizona, in-person auctions have hauled in more than $1.2 billion so far in 2021. That is, no surprise, a big improvement over 2020, when COVID wiped out practically the entire car calendar after Amelia Island in March. Yet it’s also markedly better than in 2019. It seems classic car shoppers, cooped up for the better part of a year, were more than happy to kick tires again.

That said, they also continued to shop online. So far in 2021, the online platforms have already beaten their astonishing 2020 totals. We anticipate that by year’s end, their sales will exceed $900M.

Rather than fighting over cars and buyers, it seems online platforms have simply grown the pie. That makes sense, since the vast majority of classic cars have always sold privately outside of traditional auctions. It also helps that the major auction companies have embraced change by adding some element of internet bidding, from online-only events at RM Sotheby’s and Gooding & Co. to enhanced remote bidding at Mecum. (RM Sotheby’s just announced two days ago that it is now accepting cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin.) Bonhams, meanwhile, has gotten into the continuous online auction business by purchasing the U.K. site The Market, which will expand to the United States in 2022.

1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing front three-quarter windmill farm
RM Sotheby's/Darin Schnabel

Of course, it also helps that collector cars, no matter where you find them, are a hot quantity right now. This year is the strongest we’ve seen since the last peak of 2014–2015 and may well be the best year, ever, when it’s all said and done. It remains to be seen how well the various auction players will get along when, inevitably, we go through a downturn. Yet as the very definition of “collectible car” continues to expand and new generations of enthusiasts discover them, it’s safe to say the venues through which they’re bought and sold will continue to expand.

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