Before Caroline Cassini made her way in the car business, family friend and mentor Rob Myers, founder of the automobile restorer and auction house RM Auctions, had some advice.
“He told me, ‘You need to go to school for this. You need to understand the ins and outs of an automobile. You need to understand the why, because that’s what’s really going to set you apart.’”
No doubt, Cassini’s experience in the collector car world stands apart: Her first car event was at age 3; Pebble Beach Concours at 4; co-founder of the Edison Concours d’Elegance at 22; then, following Myers’ advice, she was the first woman to graduate from the Academy of Art University’s Automotive Restoration program in 2018. Next up, learning the sales trade at Fantasy Junction with Bruce and Spencer Trenery, purveyors of collector car sales for close to 40 years in California. Now at 29, the West Orange, N.J. native has reached a new milestone as the first US General Manager at The Market by Bonhams, a new player in the increasingly crowded online auctions space.
Cassini’s trajectory reveals a lot about what’s changing in the business of selling collector cars—and what hasn’t changed at all. On the one hand, she is of an age where thinking digitally is intuitive and, at Fantasy Junction, got a masterclass in online selling. Yet she also brings a deep knowledge of prewar vehicles, a well-stocked Rolodex of connected car enthusiasts (such as Myers), and lots of hands-on time with vehicles—from disassembly to sheet metal and woodworking techniques.
Now comes Cassini’s biggest challenge—carving out a niche in a business where the leading player has enjoyed a decade-long head start.
“I think Bring a Trailer has been such a tycoon and has taken on this whole online market, but there’s a place for another online auction brand that’s a little bit different. Just like Bonhams, Gooding, and RM can all exist in the same physical world, right? They have the events like Amelia Island and Pebble Beach. And they all have auctions and are all very successful. So there is no reason why there shouldn’t be another online auction platform.”
The Market has been around since 2017 in the United Kingdom, and, like other online platforms, has enjoyed phenomenal growth of late. In 2020, The Market sold $18M USD in vehicles, a whopping 300 percent increase compared to the previous year. But the company, which was purchased by Bonhams earlier this year, is a newcomer in the States, where competitors old and new—Hemmings, Autohunter, Cars & Bids, PCARMARKET—are vying for a piece of the online pie. Bonhams’ traditional competitors, RM Sotheby’s and Gooding & Co., have also established online selling arms, although they differ from the online platforms in that they have discrete events rather than 24/7 auctions (for now, at least).
What will set The Market apart from the rest? Cassini says it will be the human-centric digital experience. “Customer service is going to be one of our main goals, and that’s one kind of factor that didn’t work at Bring a Trailer. You need high-quality customer service, especially when you’re buying or selling online.”
The second delineator will be cadence. “It can take anywhere up to six months to get your car listed on BaT, if you can even get it approved. That won’t be the case with The Market.” Indeed, demand for collector cars online still outstrips existing platforms’ ability to supply them: Total online offerings have increased to nearly 1900 per month, up from just over 900 per month in 2019, but sell-through rate remains high at 84 percent.
In another contrast to BaT, The Market will be a seller service. “Bring a Trailer fee structure is 5 percent capped at $5000 on the buyer's side,” explains Cassini. “We see it as, we are a sellers service, so we're 5 percent capped at $5000 on the seller's side. The buyers on our platform will be paying the exact hammer price with no additional fees on their end.”
Like all online auctions, The Market's foremost challenge will be earning enthusiasts' trust. For this new GM, the key is photography. With a cadre of photographers at their disposal, The Market will send a professional to take 250-300 photos of the vehicle, offering their customers a deep, descriptive photo portfolio. From there, a comprehensive guide will be formulated and posted online, with a level of transparency that Cassini says will be yet another differential. Unlike some competitors, The Market plans to keep all listings posted—complete with comments—even if the car doesn't sell.
Perhaps the biggest builder of trust, though, will be Cassini herself. That's probably why she was The Market's first U.S. employee when hired back in August.
“Not to brag, but [Bonhams] knew I had a lot of contacts, and they knew I had knowledge they could utilize," she said, adding, "That said, they were definitely taking a chance on me. I was coming out of a small role from a family-based company, so they’ve put a lot of faith in me.”
The Market's first-ever U.S. sale hits on January 24, with timing to coincide with the Scottsdale auctions. A joint event between The Market and the Petersen Automotive Museum in LA on January 15-16 will lead up to the launch. “We're going to hold a VIP reception on that Saturday which will include a panel discussion with industry leaders followed by a Cars & Coffee event on Sunday,” says Cassini, “So that'll be a really exciting.”
With more in-person car events coming back to life these days, Cassini insists there will be room for cars both on the physical auction block and online. “The car market is on fire,” she says. “With people at home during the pandemic, I feel that many truly considered what was important to them, and what means something to their lives. I think cars definitely bring happiness, as well as a true investment.”
Cassini adds that this blistering market isn’t anything new, and points out that upticks often rise up every eight years or so. “2004 was a really hot period of time. And then 2012–13 was super hot and then it kind of dwindled down.” She says the reflective nature of the pandemic may be behind the hype, as well as a simple reordering of what makes life fun again.
Of course, Cassini, who has been in this world her entire life, already had her priorities straight. The big difference, she says, is that now she can literally sell cars 24/7.