If you’re looking for indicators of the health of the overall economy, look no further than the recent run of auctions that took place this past January. During the deepest part of the Great Recession, auctioneers were defining success as a sell rate of a measly 50 percent. Lately, however, auctions overall have been up, with sell-through rates of 70 percent or better reported in all of the Scottsdale, Arizona, auctions. And overall sales revenue rivaled the peak of 2007.
Those encouraging figures give acquisitive Vette enthusiasts permission to scratch the itch they’ve been trying to ignore for the past few years. Auctions in general are perhaps not the best places to make sound purchase decisions, but they are undeniably popular ones. The annual Scottsdale pilgrimage offers a temporary auto mall with something for everyone.
The key to getting a deal is, in part, understanding the differences between the individual auction houses and their target audiences. We’ll touch on those two aspects, and along the way include some specific highlights of the recent auction action as they relate to current Vette values.
Seasoned auction participants already know that different auctions draw different crowds. Barrett-Jackson attracts a younger crowd, buying more for entertainment and prestige, with some eagle-eyed collectors looking for opportunity buys. Corvettes show up in a big way every year at B-J Scottsdale. The NCRS even had a large booth right off the main auction stage this year.
Even so, after surveying the Corvette auction lots, NCRS judges agreed that there was little present that would earn Top Flight status. Barrett-Jackson has made its name on world-beating prices and an absolute no-reserve policy. This scenario can occasionally create a collision between sellers wanting to cash in at the “B-J Lottery” and buyers looking to troll the auction lanes for a hapless victim who pulled a lousy timeslot and/or did a substandard job on car prep. That means B-J has a lot of professional sellers looking to take advantage of novice buyers, and vice-versa. No-reserve sets a feast-or-famine scenario, with consignors searching for a way to insulate themselves from risk should things go awry.
It’s no surprise, then, that sellers have been accused of planting confederates in the audience to boost the bid until it gets to an acceptable level, at times even “buying back” their own cars. The house doesn’t seem to mind, so long as the paperwork is in order and the sale earns both the buyer and seller premiums. These kinds of alleged shenanigans have caused some collectors to take their business to auction houses that offer reserve protection. (For its part, Barrett-Jackson has announced that it will be offering reserve pricing for auction lots valued over $50,000 for the Palm Beach, Florida, auction in April.)
Occasional controversy aside, Barrett- Jackson thrives on a creating a circus-casino spectacle—which it does with gusto and panache. Walk into the entrance and you’re confronted by what appears to be part auto show, part bazaar, offering everything from fullsized vintage neon signs to 30-foot-tall cactus sculptures. To call a B-J event a car auction is an oversimplification, as the marketplace takes up the largest section of indoor tent space. This sense of showmanship is why it also attracts a wide demographic of buyers. Corvette connoisseurs might resent having to compete with a rich rube on cars they feel really deserve their bids. The average enthusiast is likewise mystified when he or she sees a driver-quality car earn Concours-Gold money.
The one thing that can be said about typical B-J buyers is that they possess plenty of money to support their occasionally impulsive purchases. For the primetime auction-slot buyer, $100,000 seems to be a comfortable number to indulge in a luxury item. Customized Corvettes—especially classics repowered with modern engines—seem to sell well in this range.
A different approach to the restomod scene was evident in Scottsdale, in the form of companies such as Karl Kustom Corvettes. Instead of modernizing a classic, these firms start with a late-model C6 and imbue it with the iconic styling of the midyear generation. Karl Kustom had a booth containing two cars in the bazaar section, where reps handed out information on the product and the nine-week build process.