Arizona Sale of Rare Cars Draws Rich and Envious
By FERNANDA SANTOS
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The way Steve Davis sees it, arranging collectible cars for display at auction is like writing the script for a good action movie: “You’ve got to have a beginning that gets you excited, a middle that grips you and an end that delivers.”
Barrett-Jackson, which bills itself as “the world’s greatest collector car auction,” had several tents mounted on the same expanse of green grass where horses and players convened for a polo match some months ago, as well as a main pavilion where the rarest and most valuable of all the vehicles could be found. Mr. Davis, the company’s president, arranged each of them, looking to offer “an experience” for the more than 310,000 visitors who came by over the course of six days, but ultimately to entice buyers.
He positioned a 2005 Chevy Silverado by the main pavilion’s entrance, which was right by the building where 5,000 people whose combined lines of credit hit nearly $1 billion signed up to bid on roughly 1,400 vehicles — not including the potential buyers who needed no credit check to place their bids.
Some of the cars were extraordinarily expensive, others were there to suit the middle market, but all of them were objects of someone’s desire, from the custom-built quarter-scale replica of a John Deere tractor, sold for $7,500, to television’s original 1966 Batmobile, sold for $4.62 million. (Except for the vehicles that were sold for charity, all prices include the buyer’s commission.)
Cars were not the only attraction, though. There was a mall at which vendors were selling diamond earrings, private jets and handmade cowboy boots; racing simulators to entertain children and adults; and a lounge where women could get their hair and makeup done while sipping wine, away from the dizzying chant of the auctioneer.
“Spending money is the sport here,” Mr. Davis said.
And there were many enticements. The elaborately customized Silverado pickup was literally a work of art, its body adorned with scenes of combat, patriotic monuments and firefighters emerging from the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center towers. It had a polished stainless-steel frame, a hand-molded fiberglass interior, airbrushed leather seats and a formidable stereo system. Its owners, Dale and Connie Ison of Hillsboro, Ohio, said it took five years, 50,000 hours and $658,000 to get it the way it is. It sold for $209,000.
The Isons said the truck was, more than anything, a repository of memories. Mr. Ison, 61, recalled meeting the son of the sailor famously pictured kissing a woman in Times Square on the day in August 1945 when the war against Japan ended, an image reproduced on the Silverado, which has been to county fairs, Veterans Day parades and even the Pentagon’s courtyard, but got to be “too much for a man my age.”
Six slots in — next to the 1946 four-door Cadillac sedan that featured a rear-mounted shotgun, cowhide seats and bull horns on the hood (sale price: $77,000) — Norma and Vernon Wamsley said goodbye to the 1954 Kaiser Darrin convertible that had been theirs since 1989, when they bought it “in pieces, nuts and bolts in pails,” as Mrs. Wamsley put it.
She snapped a picture of her husband, who seemed more anxious about how much the car would fetch at the auction than about giving it up for good.
Barrett-Jackson featured the largest number of no-reserve cars ever auctioned, or cars that are sold to the highest bidder, regardless of what the bid might be. It is a risky proposition for the seller, as well as an enticement for potential buyers, given the possibility of bringing home a car for a lot less than what it is worth.
“We’re hoping to get good funds,” said Mr. Wamsley, whose Kaiser Darrin sold for $106,700.
Barrett-Jackson began as a charity fund-raising car show in the 1960s and evolved into the big event that it is today — exclusivity cloaked in a carnival atmosphere. While high rollers in skyboxes dined on scallops and sea bass, others had plenty of food choices on the pavement outside, including hot dogs and funnel cake.
“I’ve been coming here for 10 years and it always blows me away,” said Jeff Otto, 52, who had never placed a bid and had no plans to bid on any car. He had flown in from Denver, bringing his son, Christopher, who is 14, and his father-in-law, Jim Stewart, who is 72.
This year, gross car sales reached nearly $109 million, a 17 percent increase over last year and a tie for the record set in 2007, before the economy collapsed and car collectors kept their most prized possessions in the garage, knowing it was not a good time to sell.
On Saturday, a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL, which Clark Gable had bought for $7,295, sold for $2.03 million. The Batmobile — customized in 15 days, on a $15,000 budget, out of a 1955 Lincoln Futura — also sold that night, as did 21 vehicles whose proceeds went for charity. One of them was a 2009 Ford F150 Super Crew pickup truck owned by President George W. Bush (sale price: $300,000). Another was the first 2014 Corvette Stingray to hit the retail market (sale price: $1.1 million).
Craig Jackson, chairman and chief executive of the Barrett-Jackson Auction Company, said the event, which ended on Sunday, is “a scene, it’s an attraction.” But the cars, he went on, are “first and foremost a huge investment.”