Book Review

Here's a book about 2020 that you'll actually enjoy reading

by Rick Carey
1 December 2020 3 min read
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The early 1990s were a time of nearly universal uncertainty for the collector car market. Following the frenzy of the late ’80s—when speculators paid any price for Ferraris, Maseratis, Jaguar E-Types, and Aston Martins—someone realized, “I haven’t sold a high-value car to a long-term collector in two years.” In another frenzy everything came back on the market … but no one knew what the “market” was. The bottom dropped out.

Auction sell-through rates plummeted, frequently below fifty percent and sometimes in the twenties. Cars that didn’t sell came back at lower reserves … and still didn’t sell. Ferrari 275 GTB/4 s/n 10847, a Spider Conversion, is an example. Offered at The Auction in Las Vegas in November 1991, it was reportedly bid to $550,000 against a reserve of $700,000. Nine months later it was at Rick Cole’s Monterey auction where it was reportedly bid to $320,000 against a reserve of $375,000 and still couldn’t find a home.

Into this chaos entered the Classic Car Auction Yearbook. Now, amidst another time of uncertainty in the classic car market (and practically everywhere else), comes the 25th successive edition under the guidance of Adolfo Orsi and Raffaele Gazzi.

Begun in 1992 as the “Catalogo Bolaffi delle Automobili da Collezione 1993,” Orsi and Gazzi became associated with Alberto Bolaffi in 1995. It was, at the time, unique in its analytical approach to the classic car market. (Not the first, however. As this edition of the Yearbook recalls, a precipitating event for its creation was the demise, in 1993, of the auction reporting system LOTS. Run by Parker Converse with contributions from this reviewer, for several years LOTS provided near real-time reports and descriptions of high-profile international collector car auctions, which were distributed by fax machine within 24 hours of the last hammer’s fall. In 1991 and 1992, LOTS also published an annual summary that was, in many ways, the precursor to the Classic Car Auction Yearbook.)

Doing anything for twenty-five straight years—particularly doing it with style, insight, and accuracy—means you’re very good at it or very persistent, but most likely a combination of both. Orsi and Gazzi have those attributes in abundance.

For the latest edition, they have spared no effort in once again analyzing shifts and trends in the collector car auction market through a variety of narrative and graphical elements, looking at the trends and highlights from the last 25 years and more specifically at the disruptions of 2020.

The seven-page “Authors’ comment” section, with its numbers, tables, and graphs deserves re-reading several times. It’s full of insights that highlight trends that are often overlooked. The authors note, for instance, that 80 percent of all Antique and Veteran cars offered were sold while “contemporary” cars (2000 model year or newer) accounted for 27 percent of the price turnover but only a 67.9 percent sell-through rate.

We don’t necessarily concur with all their conclusions: They observe that “remote bidding…has a negative effect on the inherent excitement and movement that fuels this industry.” True enough, but their later proposition that, “To understand and appreciate a classic car, you need more sensory information than just a photo or video may provide, regardless of how detailed,” undersells the efforts—largely successful, in our estimation—that auction companies like RM Sotheby’s have taken to improve photography and condition observations for online bidders.

No doubt my colleagues and I sorely miss the experience of evaluating cars up close and in person, but online auction presentations greatly advanced in 2020. It is a substantial change that has proved to be effective and isn’t going to go away even if COVID-19 is vanquished.

The bulk of the Yearbook consists of brief descriptions of individual transactions, including results from sales that for the most part escape notice for American readers: Aguittes, BH in Japan, Bolaffi in Italy, Dorotheum in Austria, and a litany of others. Their inclusion brings to readers’ attention another assortment of marques and models in the 282 pages that follow.

Flip open a page and find: Bruneau, Brush, BSA, and Bugatti; Franklin, Frazer-Nash, Frisky, Fuldamobil, Gasmobile, Ghia, and Ginetta. Of course there are pages of Ferraris, Fords, Maseratis, Mercedes-Benzes, and Porsches, but the last of the 25-page Porsche section ends with more wonderful obscurity: Porsche-Gemballa, Porsche-Kremer, Premier, Queen, Qvale, and Rambler.

Entries contain chassis numbers, estimate ranges, prices in British pounds, U.S. dollars, and Euros, along with the auction identification—nothing is left out. It’s an education.

Collector car auctions are this reviewer’s vocation, but the Classic Car Auction Yearbook always imparts insights into things that escape my notice in the rush to publish results. It’s a welcome chance to settle down in a comfortable chair with a good cigar and a glass (or two) to appreciate the scene from a different, informed, and articulate viewpoint.

Classic Car Auction Yearbook: 2019–2020, by Adolfo Orsi and Raffaele Gazzi. Published by Historica Selecta. 80 euro ($98) www.classiccarauctionyearbook.com

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