How To Sell Your Classic Car at a Live Auction

grey vintage car for sale at auction

The time has come. You’re ready to hand the keys of your classic car to a new owner, and you would prefer to find that person through a live auction. Maybe you’ve watched the Mecum or Barrett-Jackson auctions take place on TV over the years and you want to become part of that process yourself - and you can, if you have the right kind of vehicle. 

Here are the things to be aware of before bringing your classic car to the auction block. Don’t let the auction hammer fall without knowing the following:

Know Your Value

For starters, no matter how much you love your classic car, it may not make sense to put it in a live auction if you want to sell it. As a general rule, the baseline value of a vehicle to be auctioned should be at least $20,000. If you think your car might not bring that price, you should consider other options including online auctions.

If you know your car is worth that or more, it’s time to start figuring out what kind of dollar figure to put on it. Researching what other cars like yours have sold for at other auctions is a great place to start, and resources like the Hagerty Valuation Tools and Market Trends can also tell you which way prices might be heading for your kind of car.

Once you have a current market value for your make, model and year, it’s time to figure out what your reserve price might be. A reserve price is the minimum amount of money you’ll accept for a winning bid - too low, and you might not get what your car is worth once the fees and percentages and shipping costs are taken care of. Too high, and you might have to trailer your car home, unsold.

Make it Perfect

Time to put in some work. Those repairs you’ve been putting off? Do them all - when you’re selling a car at a live auction, buyers will look for every small ding and dent to take value off your car. That expensive detailing package? Get it. A sparkling, perfectly clean car inside and out will draw more eyes - and dollars - than one that hasn’t been tended to.

Making your car perfect in your eyes is one thing, but for a live auction sale we recommend finding an appraiser who can give it a second look and show you things you might not have seen (but that a buyer definitely will). They’ll check every switch, every button and every lightbulb to make sure your car is in tip-top shape.

Perfection also includes paperwork. (You did keep all your paperwork, right?) Now’s the time to go through the glove compartment and the filing cabinets to make sure that all your repairs and maintenance records are up to date. You don’t want a prospective buyer to go through your calendar of repairs and devalue your vehicle for an overdue service. If you think you lost or tossed something, don’t be afraid to call the shop - with the way service records are computerized, you might be able to have them print out something you’re missing.

Choose your Auction

Once your car is ready, which auction to sell at might be the most important decision you make. Live auctions, especially the televised ones, offer the kind of marketing and promotion that money can buy. These are usually reserved for the best and most desirable cars, so that not only do they get the best show, but also the best commissions for the highest-priced vehicles. They also have the most qualified buyers, too; ones who know their stuff and have been vetted by the auction house to make sure the sale goes through.

Some auctions are better than others for certain kinds of cars, too. You probably know that a classic American muscle car won’t do well at an auction for vintage imports, for example. Knowing that a Corvette just sold for $10,000 more than any other ‘Vette in the previous five years, however, is extremely valuable knowledge if you’re selling a similar vehicle.

After you’ve picked the auction house and the specific event, you’ll need to make sure your vehicle is accepted, and preferably at your reserve price. The auction house is in the business of selling your car - they don’t make money if it doesn’t find a buyer - so if they choose to put your car on the block, know that it’s a sign that they think there’s a good market for it (assuming you accept their terms of the auction).

Write it Up

No detail is too small to be excluded, and no photograph too unimportant to be left out. In fact, for an auction buyer, an extreme level of detail is desired - the buyer wants to feel like this car has been agonized over down to the last stitch in the backseat. Pay for professional photography and have them get every single shot they can, including beneath the hood, in the trunk and even beneath the car if possible.

Make sure your writeup includes factory-specific names including interior parts and paint colors. Detail every single option and the vehicle’s ownership history as far back as you can find it. This is the time to tell the life story of your car, and while you never want to exaggerate, embellish or overstate anything, now’s your chance to share your experiences with the vehicle and share your joy of owning it.

Be On Hand

You’re the seller here - so you do need to sell this vehicle. Auction-goers are going to have questions about the vehicle, and your answers can make the difference between turning a potential buyer into a definite bidder. Make sure the auction company has your contact info in case anyone has questions posed to them, and pick up the call when it comes in.

Being on hand also means being available during the auction itself. It’s hard to imagine not wanting to be in the room when your car goes on the block, but make sure you’re there. If an auction isn’t meeting its reserve, your auction ambassador can communicate to the auctioneer that the reserve has been lowered or even removed entirely. On the converse, once the car sells (hopefully for well over your bottom-line number!) you’ll need to be there to sign the necessary paperwork so your winning bidder can head home with his new acquisition.

Cash the Check

This one should be self explanatory … but if you wanted to immediately switch to the buyer’s side and put in a few bids on a new-to-you collectible car, well, we wouldn’t blame you at all.