Sunday, January 11, 2009

BEHIND THE PODIUM AT LAS VEGAS

As this was the first auction I'd really worked from stem to stern, I'll shed some light on how it looks from behind the podium, next to the auctioneer. Last July, after I provided 'color commentary' at the MidAmerica Monterey auction, Ron Christensen (seen above, working the crowd) asked if I'd be interested in commentating at the Las Vegas antique motorcycle auction, which MidAmerica has held every January for 18 years. As this is the largest Old Motorcycle auction in the world, I was flattered; fast forward to late November - I got a call asking how many nights I'd like to stay in Las Vegas. That's when I knew I had a job, and a room.

4 weeks before the auction date, I got another phone call asking 'where is my catalog copy'... To backtrack; I wrote a bit about the Cyclone auctioned last July, which intrigued Ron C, and sharp operator that he is, asked if I would write descriptions of some of the motorcycles for the catalog. These writeups are called 'catalog copy' or just 'copy'. MidAmerica doesn't hold to a journalistic deadline standard, so I'm usually not told my cutoff date, and when the phone call comes on Thursday asking for copy, it's needed 'by this weekend'....(pic above; on the ramp leading to the podium/turntable).

Furious typing follows. I can usually crank out about six 500-word descriptions in an hour, unless Ron Christensen wants some enlightenment on Honda V-4s, as he did for the Las Vegas auction. I was riding motorcycles during the VFR's brand-new days, but the V65 Sabre and all other variants were completely off my radar; I was a Vintagent then as now. The Honda books soon cluttered my desk, and in an hour I was up to speed on 1980s Honda sport bike development; a useful exercise as I would be selling these same machines from the podium in a few weeks. (pic above, replica NSU Sportmax being wheeled offstage by AMCA volunteers - great job guys!)

I flew into L.V. with enough time to stroll through the 500 motorcycles lined up in the giant arena, to familiarize myself with them, take photos of the most interesting or outrageous, and say hello to friends before the 6pm dinner (see pic of D. and I with Allesandro Altinier, here from Italy - Allesandro's restorations of Italian racing machines are out of this world). I had 'heard' dinner was black tie, so of course I was the... only... person in the room wearing a tuxedo; I'm not easily embarrassed, and Darcy is so used to being embarrassed by me that her skin has thickened. Dinner was, shall we say, not up to San Francisco standards. The company was charming, though. (pic below; Gary Nixon being cajoled by admirers)

7pm; show time! As this was only my second time behind the podium, I surprised myself by being un-nervous - perhaps due to recovering from the recent death of a friend, and a root canal two days prior. I looked like a half-chipmunk; luckily there were motorcycles between me and the bidders, and I had stopped drooling from the side of my swollen cheek (although that might have helped sell a few Harley Shovelheads - zing!). Twenty people are required to keep things rolling up front, inlcuding four auctioneers who rotate 1 hour shifts, two 'color' talkers (myself and 'Bob', who read year/make/model/auction #), and 8 crowd tenderizers, who cajole, shout, massage, tease, and otherwise harass the bidders. The stage and auditorium was a near-constant buzz of cattle-auction style rythym, interspersed with a little commentary from me (kept short; the sale must average 3min/bike), and the hollers of crowd workers. 2008 World Champion Auctioneer Matt Lowery was unique among the workers, with a keen interest in motorcycles and a clue to what he was selling - his style can be heard on the Brough and Vincent youtube videos.

We ran through 75 motorcycles that evening (until 10:30pm), comprising a real mixed bag of from the 'teens through the 80s, from the US, Europe, and Japan. Some were excellent, some were ordinary, but like children, I could find something to like in all of them. They're all motorcycles, and I could in fact picture myself riding each of them. Certainly not owning them, but one can find the two-wheeling spirit of joy in every bike - they all have their reasons for being. Of course, there were my favorites, and again like children it's important not to let favoritism distort the greater picture - that each motorcycle will have someone who DOES want to own it. It's not my place to denigrate any motorcyclist for their pleasure or preference. (pic above; the owner said 'It's like selling my girlfriend'. I wouldn't know...)

As if to drive the point home; on the way back to our room, Darcy and I encountered a woman in a rubber 'military' S&M suit, leading a near-naked fellow behind a 6' length of chain - his head was covered in a rubber hood, and he was wearing a latex miniskirt. This is how some people think of San Francisco residents, but really, that was an 'only in Vegas' moment. I was laughing too hard to ask for a photo with me! An opportunity lost... I could have sold them a Shovelhead. I knew just the one.

(pic above; the fellow w/ WD 16H sold the uniform off his back with the bike!) Saturday was an awfully early call, but it takes all day to sell 200 bikes, and the auction started promptly at 9am. We burned through a lot of motobilia, like an original-paint Pope oil tank, but the bidders weren't with us yet, and they went away unsold. The motorcycles sold well though - and given the current economy, prices were robust. No records were set on Friday, but if the bike had a reasonable reserve, it was met, if not exceeded. Even 'no reserve' machines, a brave move given the circumstances, sold for strong money. The top-tier machines were another story, deserving analysis, but my statement on Old Motorcycles for this part of 2009 is - sales are strong, interest is strong, the movement is healthy, and people are still willing to spend good money on what they love.

Unless we're talking about Shovelheads, which nobody seems to love right now. Original ones, mild customs, outrageous customs - the market for 70s and later Harleys is weak, weak, weak. Especially 'Television Customs', ie bikes which has been built for the Speed Channel shows, were virtually dead in the water, and the sellers really took a hit on their sales estimates. My advice; steer clear of the silly unrideable show bikes, and buy/hold a cheap bone-stock low-mile Shovelhead for 20 years. It's a terrible investment strategy, but you will quintuple your money. (pic below; Ducati Sebring being wheeled up).
What else was weak; replica early American racing bikes. Indian/Harley 8 valves, Peashooters, J racers, 'Board Track' repros, even spectacular recreations, are fetching 20-30% less than a year ago, and the reserves of most of these had to be lowered to sell. If you want one, and boy they can be better than the original, this is a good time to buy. Fred Lange, Chris Cutler, and Antique Motorcycle Works all make amazing machines which would grace anyone's living room, for the price of a Damien Hirst 'pills' print (pic below; Ron talking with the new Speed Channel host).

Now let's get down to the meat, and what was the exciting part of the auction for me; the REAL racing machinery, and the high end stuff. Short discursion; after the global real-estate meltdown of '89, the average Vincent dropped in value 50%. We haven't seen that happen yet, but bidding for documented Shadows, even with racing history, was 15% down from last year, and a few didn't sell...was it owner pride or an unwillingness to lose money? To be fair, as there hasn't been a panic on value, some Vincent/Brough owners might feel that prices may buoy back soon, and they would prefer to wait until... ?

Speaking of Broughs; two in the sale, two unsold. Bidding may have stopped at $235,000 for the SS100, or there may have been no bidders at that price... difficult to tell, and I'll let you in on an open secret. It is legal in the US for an auction house to 'bid up' a motorcycle to its reserve price - that is to say, in the midst of this melee of bidding and auction helpers jumping to and fro, shouting, blowing whistles, making a scene, it is very difficult to tell if anyone is actually raising their hand. I was busy enjoying the spectacle, and really don't know - see the video. The auctioneer stopped at $235k, and the BS was wheeled off the stage to the 'corral', where one could negotiate with the owner to buy an unsold machine. Same story with the Brough Superior '680'; bidding stopped around $15k shy of reserve... the poor fellow even wanted to re-try after the very last motorcycle (a lurid pink Suzuki Titan) was sold on Saturday, but by then his bidders had long departed, and wisely the threat was mitigated and rolled away.

As an aside which is Brough Superior related indeed; Mark and Christine Upham, current custodians of the Brough Superior name, made a foray to Las Vegas to test the waters in the US for future Brough sales... there is a rumor that one of their new Brough Superior KTOR-JAP SS100s will appear on the salt next year... can't wait to see that, if indeed it comes to fruition. Watch this space.

Harley 'KR' and 'WR', and Indian 'Scout' dirt-track racers sold at solid but affordable prices, which is kind of encouraging to me, as I think these bikes are amazing. They can easily be converted to road use (blasphemy I know), and provide thrilling Vintage rides, with excellent handling, very light weight (for a Yank twin), and bags of useful power. Plus, they have real charisma; so butch. I have canyon-carved on a road-converted 1940 WR Harley, and I surprised myself in liking it so much. Recommended! (below; a visitor from France - Daniel Delfour's Norton AlaVerde)


The stars of the show were - ta da! - two Harley Davidsons, both truly spectacular examples from very different eras. The #2 machine, in my opinion, was Dale Walksler's totally original condition 1915 Harley twin (see above - sorry no better shot), which sold for $169,600, and is a new addition to our 'Top 20 Auction Prices', at #13 (and bumping a MacEvoy off the list). This motorcycle is beautifully preserved, with enough oxidation, staining, and paint chips to prove that it has indeed lived 94 years on this planet, and led a ginger existence. Check out the photos; what a beautiful machine, and the pin-striping was a marvel. No arguments, no talented fake-ups, just a clearly 'real' early H-D of the right vintage. 'Right', because another Harley in similarly great original condition, but from 1917, brought one third the money. Harley made significant changes to the model line by 1917, and produced far more motorcycles, making the '15 model a collector's choice. Clearly others agreed.

And the #1 bike of the show, coming home from Australia after three years, was Cal Rayborn's documented ex-works '73 Harley XR750TT (above)- the evil-sexy racing beast which Harley really got right, and winning plenty of races in the 1970's. $185,500 total sale price bring this beastie further up the rankings of our 'Top 20 Auction Prices' to #11. It had sold three years ago at the J.Wood Daytona auction for $176,000; clearly no price drop for a genuine, documented, sexy racing machine from an American hero. Speaking of J.Wood; Glenn Bator of Bator International is joining forces with Jerry Wood to host the Daytona auction this year. (below, '13 Excelsior 'barn find')

And what of the paper oddments mentioned here earlier? The ACE drawings failed to sell at $42k, which averages out to $105/drawing - a crazy bargain when other Indian factory blueprints sold at $1,200 - $2,400 EACH. The seller was looking for something more like $50k, which is still only a$125/drawing - a steal. I'm sure they'll find a new home shortly.

And the Windhoff? It belonged to that master of the obscure and interesting, Bob Chantland (pictured), who brought the unrestored '07 Yale-California (below), plus a host of other oddments and motobilia. And it did sell, to British Only Austria - for $26,500, which seemed a very small price indeed for the critical piece of a $270k bike. Good job!

All in all, a lot of work for me, but an entertaining weekend.

For more photos 'in front of the podium', check out the ever-present Craig Howell's Flickr site. Thanks Craig!

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

I thought you added a wonderful touch of urbane wit, arcane knowledge, and understatement to the auction. Your stamina wasn't bad, either.

Alain should fear for his station in the MC'ing firmament.

Best wishes,
Bruce

Anonymous said...

Paul

It was good to see you again in Vegas. I hope you and your wife enjoyed the event. I'll be giving my usual feedback to Mid-America about speeding up the glacial pace, finishing earlier on the final afternoon, etc., not with any expectation of an improvement. And of course I'll be back next year regardless.

Your color commentary was very professional, and I can guess that having to read the sellers claims might have pained you in some cases!

Overall I think the sale was very successful given the current economic climate. The nice Triumphs sold well, the Australian bikes all moved, etc. From Ron's perspective he would have liked a few more high-priced lots be sold, but in almost all cases the blame lays with unrealistic reserves-sellers holding out for last years prices rather than being prepared to come off a little to reflect prevailing economic conditions.

I had a successful sale personally. Bought the Model 90 Sunbeam, which I had previously seen running in England, and one of the Ducati TT2's, a model I've been chasing for two years.

Regards
Paul

Anonymous said...

Paul-
I just want to add my kudoes for bringing some knowledgeable background to the proceedings. As a subscriber to the axiom: "Brevity is the soul of wit", from my perspective you were eminently successful! It sure beat getting a re-hash of what was already written in the program. I certainly hope that Ron re-ups you for next year.
John from Tucson

Anonymous said...

Well done Paul. Consistent, articulate, knowledgeable, genuine (without all the usual hyperbole that is the M.O. of this auction) and brief, with some wit thrown in to boot. Next time, get Mid America auction house to pay a commission, not a fee. You're worth it, man!

-JZ

Anonymous said...

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your Las Vegas report, very interesting indeed.

Your comments are precious for a better understanding of what is really happening in this disturbed period. A special thanks to have mentioned the Norton Ala'verda among the list of genuine vintage stars.

Amitiés sincères

Daniel

PS: I am so disappointed you could not make it with the 'special character' in the hotel...I mean the photo!

Anonymous said...

well wasn't that a turd in a punch bowl of a sale, which dare i say we all thought it was going to be, it should have been called the trailer trash scooter sale of the century, only matched by your pain killer, cell phone snaps...the medium is in the message?
i,m glad the works Harley went for a decent price, and surprised that the drawings didn't sell, i look forward to the full price list on the sellers web site
pirated dave

Mark said...

Now having visited Sodom and Gommorah for the first time, it was interresting to be entertained by the Auctioneers.
For a man, who wears Gold Lamé shoes, a good article.

Anonymous said...

Paul-
My deepest condolences on your friend. Your blog was exceptional considering your recent loss.

I was the artist who donated the artwork of Burt Munro, and was pleased with the result for Childrens.

I enjoyed the auction greatly, but I am not offended by anything with 2 wheels, unlike some other posters.

Thanks again for a nice job.
Dan

Anonymous said...

Hello Paul,

We enjoyed the auction . We had no idea you were the colorful commentator, and the host of this site.

My name is Ken Rottmann kensbritishclassics.com . Maybe you saw us at the auction. I look normal. Rhonda was the tall blonde, maybe you remember her.

I was very impressed with your moto savy. My shop is just north of Chicago. Maybe you know, Joe Bortz, or Doug Mitchell. Sorry I didn't get a chance to meet you in Vegas.



Hope to meet you someday soon...........Ken

vintagent said...

Hi Ken,
there wasn't much time to plug my site at the auction; I guess I ought to hang a 'shingle' on the podium. I enjoyed the work though, as I can talk about motorcycles ad nauseum. Only occasionally am I stuck for words... usually it's a Shovelhead! But, as a practice in discipline, I try to keep positive, even when confronted with something 'orrible.
I also had little time to schmooze and meet people, the downside to working the show. Was it a success for you?
all the best, Paul

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,
Good to see you. Excellent job on providing color.I heard a lot of positive comments.

Anonymous said...

Paul - I have noticed that Harley bashing is great sport for you. As I ...sometimes. Disregard the stereotypes and factually tell me you seriously can not appreciate the lines of a 39 Knuckle bobber? I like the early - not the late Knucks. I'm a bike snob. A common expression in the earily 80's was "Shovel Trouble".

Paul in Vancouver

vintagent said...

Paul - guilty as charged, but only about Shovelheads. I'm sure they're good motorcycles actually, I just like taking the piss out of the 'macho' image.
In truth, I think most of the early Harleys are beautiful bikes. I'm mostly a fan of racers, and Harley racers are very cool - from J's and 8-valves to KRTTs and XRTTs. I'll own one some time...

pd'o

Anonymous said...

Hello Paul,
Enjoyed your commentary at the Vegas auction. I didn't get to buy you a beer, but I am sure that I will get an opportunity for that somewhere down the road.

Regards, Alan in Vancouver