Boom times for classic car auctions conducted online

Caroline Cassini, general manager of the US auction website that Bonhams is starting, in Los Angeles on August 8, 2021. (File photo: NYTimes)
Joe Sackey figures that over the past three decades he has privately sold cars worth $200 million. But last year, as Bring a Trailer, the fast-growing auction site for collectible cars was booming, Sackey and his son Sterling sensed opportunity.اضافة اعلان

“Now, the world was changing,” said the elder Sackey, 60, a former financial planner. “People had gotten more and more comfortable with shopping, buying and selling online.”

Their niche is supercars, which they loosely define as high-performance vehicles built in limited numbers by marques like Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren, and Bugatti. Most of the automobiles are less than 15 years old. In November, the father and son, in Laguna Niguel, California, started their Sackey and Co. website to auction off these premium vehicles.

Their first transaction was a whopper: a one-off silver-and-red liveried 2003 Ferrari Enzo, which went for $3.7 million. The site soon followed in December with the $1.7 million sale of a 1967 Lamborghini Miura.

Inside the headquarters of Bring a Trailer, the fast-growing auction site for collectible cars, in San Francisco on February 10, 2020. (File photo: NYTimes)

Meanwhile, Bring a Trailer was setting records of its own. With gross sales of $828 million, the firm more than doubled its previous high revenue of $398 million, in 2020.

Begun as an online auction business just seven years ago, Bring a Trailer has grown to become the world’s largest public platform for the sale of enthusiast vehicles, said Brian Rabold, vice president for automotive intelligence at Hagerty, an insurer of collectible cars and specialty vehicles that also tracks market data.

“The very biggest sales are still mostly conducted privately,” Rabold said, “and eBay isn’t really comparable — they sell used cars of all types as well as parts and accessories.” Even though live public auctions recovered somewhat from the 2020 impact of the pandemic, he noted, Bring a Trailer notched a remarkable 2021.

“Five years ago, BaT cars were still mostly going in the twenty thousands,” he added. You wouldn’t think of selling a $1 million car there. That’s clearly not the case anymore.”

Indeed, all 10 of Bring a Trailer’s highest individual sales topped $1 million in 2021, with a 1961 Mercedes 300 SL roadster nabbing the No. 1 spot at $1.4 million. All told, the site sold 17,846 vehicles last year — more than 300 a week, on average, and nearly 64% higher than the year before.

“There’s a lot of money in the marketplace right now, and people are investing in diversified ways,” said Randy Nonnenberg, the site’s co-founder and president. (Bring a Trailer was acquired by Hearst in 2020.)

Two strong trends are driving results, he added: COVID-19 restrictions, which resulted in an overall increase in online activity, and what Nonnenberg termed “a freedom narrative.”

“One category that really emerged last year was the increased demand for classic trucks and four-wheel drives — Scouts, Broncos, Blazers, Land Cruisers and old farm pickup trucks,” he said. “Folks seemed to have a dream of getting out into the country, away from the confined spaces that COVID imposed on us. Even if they were in an urban area, they wanted to have a foothold in that dream.”

Another distinct trend, Nonnenberg said, is the changing definition of a collector vehicle. “There is a continuing evolution in what is highly prized and highly collectible and nostalgic,” he said. “25-year-old cars from the 1990s are becoming ‘old’ classics, and cars from the early 2000s are highly sought after.”

In fact, eight of the top 10 million-dollar sellers for Bring a Trailer last year were high-end, post-2000 cars. The cars were six 2018 and 2019 Ford GTs, whose original list prices were around $400,000-plus; a 2004 Porsche Carrera GT; and a 2019 McLaren Senna Merlin.

Randy Nonnenberg, the co-founder and president of Bring a Trailer, the fast-growing auction site for collectible cars, in San Francisco on February 10, 2020.(File photo: NYTimes)

Last year, Bring a Trailer auctions drew nearly 2 million comments, and the site registered more than 200,000 new users. An active legion of commenters pepper each auction entry with informed dialogue. “Watchers” track the bidding via email and may jump in at any time with bids of their own. In 2020, for example, a tiny — and rare — Austin Mini beach car attracted more than 500 comments and 1,000 “watchers” before selling for $230,000 to a collector in Germany.

Besides smallish competitors like the Sackeys’ site and Marqued, a recent venture by Porsche Digital, Bring a Trailer can expect bigger challengers in the year ahead. One looming rival: Bonhams, the British auctioneer founded in 1793.

After acquiring The Market in Britain, an established auction platform, Bonhams unveiled its own auction site last year. (Established auction houses like RM Sotheby’s and Gooding & Co. already offered online events and public sales.) A European website was added last fall, and on January 24 the firm plans to introduce a US site.

“We’ll be the first traditional auction house to offer a continuous global online platform,” said Caroline Cassini, general manager of the US website. “We’ll be ‘live’ 24 hours a day, seven days a week, worldwide.”

Users enter at the main Bonhams site and then select their location for auctions.

“We’ve got so much heritage and the massive Bonhams database, so we’re not starting from zero,” Cassini said. “But we’re also not going to begin by trying to sell 500 cars a day. We want to grow organically and provide a premier service.”

Like Bring a Trailer, the Bonhams site promises to curate each car up for auction, verifying accident reports, originality claims, and engine and mileage numbers. The site will also help in writing vehicle descriptions, providing photographic services and arranging transport after cars are sold.

Initially at least, Bonhams plans to include informed commentary from regular contributors. “We’ll see how it goes,” Cassini said. “We want to make sure the section features serious discussion.”

Bonhams’ site will focus on cars in the $100,000 range and below, according to Cassini. “Premium cars still do better at live auctions,” she said. “We don’t see tent-pole sales, like those at Scottsdale, Amelia Island and during Monterey Car Week, going away anytime soon.”

The Sackeys don’t plan on featuring outside commentary with their offerings. Like Mark Hyman, who runs a high-end brick-and-mortar dealership, they believe their clients prefer to operate out of the limelight.

A man photographs a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL gullwing at an event in Radwood, California celebrating cars of the 1980s and ‘90s, which are newly coveted as collectibles, on November 20, 2021. Radwood. (File photo: NYTimes)

“I think Bring a Trailer is fantastic,” said Hyman, proprietor of Hyman Limited in St. Louis. “It’s done an amazing job of bringing the collector car hobby into everybody’s home. It keeps sellers honest, and the comments educate buyers about what they’re getting.

“But ours is basically a concierge business,” he went on. “We deal in the top of the top. And our buyers and sellers like to keep things discreet.”

Hyman credits COVID-19 (“it convinced people with disposable income that the future is now”) and the specter of inflation (“physical assets like collector cars and real estate became a good idea”) with making 2021 “our best year ever times three.”

With collectible car values continuing to climb, Nonnenberg expects that Bring a Trailer “for sure has the coming year to run, barring a major macroeconomic correction.” In the past two years the staff has expanded to 100 employees, from 20. All are based in the US and all, including himself, are working virtually.

“Our ability to grow our team means everybody still gets a human to deal with when they sell on Bring a Trailer,” Nonnenberg said. “And as of the beginning of January, there’s still a long line of folks who want to use our service.”

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