“Collective” DNA: Contextualizing those big car-auction sales

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Most every year, Monterey’s auctions do a good job of making people say, “Someone paid how much for a [insert car, usually a Ferrari, here]?” 2023 was no different, with several cars transacting for north of $5M, including a 1967 Ferrari 412P that brought home $30.2M. That’s a lot of money, and as it turns out, that 412P is now the fifth most expensive car ever to sell at auction. But people spend a lot on collectibles that aren’t cars, and we wanted to see where these automotive sales fit in context of the bigger picture. Let’s dig into the numbers behind five top collector markets.

Cars sit second in the world of high-dollar collector markets, just above the most valuable watches but looking well down at sports memorabilia and trading cards. Our favorite bits of sculpted automotive machinery still pale in comparison to art, however.

Christies Patek Phillipe watch collection auciton

At dollars per ounce, watches are a big spend compared to collector cars. The two mechanical passions have been closely linked since the first car race made car nuts realize they would benefit from a precise timing device. That tie-in continues today, from Rolex-sponsored race series to the simple activity of watching people’s wrists at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

The most valuable watch ever sold is a Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime Ref. 6300A-010, sold for $31.2M in 2019 at Christie’s. If that watch had four wheels and an engine it would be the fourth most expensive car to sell at auction—edging out the 1967 Ferrari 412P that Bonhams sold for $30.2M only weeks ago. Patek Philippe makes up all but one of the top ten watch sales—the sole outlier is Paul Newman’s own “Paul Newman” Rolex (there’s that racing association again) Daytona Ref. 6239, which sold for $17.75M at a 2017 Phillips auction. That’s more than the 25th-most expensive car, a 1964 Ferrari 250 LM sold by RM in 2015 for $17.6M. The tenth most valuable watch ever sold still slots in at a hefty $6.2M.

Watches are small. What’s smaller? Trading cards. Yeah, the kind you had as a kid and then threw out when you moved out of your parent’s house. It’s a shame you did—among them could have been the inked piece of cardboard that would cover the down payment on a massive house. At $12.6M, a 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie card is the most valuable trading card ever sold. That’s expensive enough to put it in the top 100 most valuable cars ever sold at auction, just above the $12.4M price paid for a 1957 Ferrari 250 TR at an RM auction in 2009—the world record price for a car at the time. Together, the top ten most valuable trading cards equate to a value of $54.8M, or $6M more than the 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO sitting in the second slot.

Dwarfed by collector cars and sitting well below watches, sports memorabilia sits in fifth place. The most valuable piece of sports memorabilia sold at auction, Michael Jordan’s last dance jersey, sold for $10.2M in 2022. It’s funny how even at $10M, this jersey is the cheapest top sale of the bunch. In car terms, that number is outside the top 100. Of note in the memorabilia market is the smooth progression of sales and lack of outliers at the sharp end of the list—the top ten sport memorabilia sales progress relatively evenly from a $2M Mickey Mantle jersey to Jordan’s record singlet.

Salvator Mundi, Leonardo Da Vinci. Public Domain/Getty Images

Heading to the opposite end of the collector spectrum, the most valuable piece of art ever sold—at $450M—is Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci. (As an aside, this painting was bought for $1175 at a public auction in 2005. Talk about a return on investment.) That staggering $450M price puts the painting at $22M more than the top ten sales of collector cars combined. For the same price as Salvator Mundi you could have the second through 18th most valuable vehicles ever sold at auction plus enough left over for a $10M house, $5M vacation home, one Ferrari Enzo, and a Mercedes 300SL.

Even the tenth-most expensive art sale sits at $180M, the price paid for two pendant portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit, painted by Rembrandt—$38M above the record-holding $142M 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SLR Uhlenhaut Coupé.

Accumulating trinkets that appeal to us seems to be in our, ahem, collective DNA, regardless of bank account size or the flavor of our passions. That’s perhaps the logic that’s best to remember when watching these sales. The funds for a painting that’s perfect for a gallery owner could be better allocated according to a vintage racer, while a baseball fan would spend them altogether differently. But the next time a prized Ferrari crosses into otherworldly territory at Monterey, remember there’s always bigger fish.




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    This was interesting as the context given was a different angle than is presented… well just about anywhere.

    I’m surprised musical instruments didn’t make the top 5.

    You mean my sister’s giant collection of Precious Moments figurines are not going to fund her retirement after all? Oh no!

    How about collectible planes? I’m sure there is a market like that. Even non-collectible planes cost a fortune, but the best and rarest example with some history – obviously way more.
    The same goes for boats/ships/yahts.
    And how about some spaceships or, well, parts?

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