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.
This company also put a pre-built car in the auction for a prime Saturday time slot, (Lot 1246.1). The average price of one of these restyling conversions runs about $135,000, but this silver-over-red coupe was bid up to a sale price of $148,500. A Karl Kustom representative stated that he would have sold 15 cars over that weekend if they were on hand.
While most of the offerings that crossed the block Tuesday through Thursday fell well short of Top Flight status, the primetime auction slots were replete with cars touting legitimate NCRS credentials. However, there was no guarantee that the cars remained in Top Flight form when they were presented in Scottsdale. One of the most important things an auction buyer can do is bring along an expert who can verify that a potential buy is still in award-winning condition. An unscrupulous seller may seek to insulate himself from losses in a no-reserve situation by stripping the car of the hardest-to-find new old stock (N.O.S.) or original equipment (OE) parts.
Whenever buying Concours pedigree, a judging audit is a must-have. At the very least, take detailed photos of the engine bay and undercarriage, and send them to someone who has experience with the given generation of Corvette.
Lot 1320, for example, demonstrated the importance of verifying correctness. The description on this ’67 Corvette 427/435hp roadster read, “NCRS Regional Driven Top Flight awards, one in 2002, 2003, and 2004.” It then went on to describe a restoration in 2009 with zero miles on it, and no judging history since the restoration. The car still drew $154,000, quite a number considering that it didn’t have original documentation and wasn’t in the same condition that earned it Top Flight.
Lot 1289 was another 427 Tri-Power car that boasted a show-car pedigree, with Top Flight and Duntov Awards having been conferred in 1998. Note that judging standards and the quality of restoration have progressed markedly in the past two decades. The red/red color combination and documentation (which included the factory tank sticker) boosted this car’s value, but should have been tempered by the re-stamped engine block and outdated pedigree. Still, the car earned a stout $209,000 after the 10-percent buyer’s premium was paid. Critics decry prices like these, which aren’t duplicated in the private market or based solely on the merits of the vehicle. For this seller, however, selling at auction proved a wise choice indeed.
Collectors unwilling to risk the ironclad no-reserve environment of Barrett-Jackson brought their cars to the other auctions going on concurrently in Scottsdale. RM Auctions typically has a more mature buyer, geared principally toward exotics and pre-war vintage cars. The Corvette is at home here, respected as the only true American sports car. First-gen and midyear cars do well in this environment.
Lot 267 at RM was a solid example of a ’67 427/435 Sting Ray roadster. Owned by Reggie “Mr. October” Jackson and finished in Tuxedo Black over Black with a red stinger, the car was striking at first glance. It was also listed vaguely as a “former NCRS Top Flight Award winner.” A closer look suggested that the certificate must have been awarded more than 10 years ago. The car was in very good condition and detailed for presentation, but oxidation was starting to show on exposed metal, and underside patina indicated that it had been converted to driving duty during its recent ownership. At a final settlement price of $164,000, the car earned no more than its merits allowed, despite the celebrity ownership.
Interestingly, solid-axle Corvettes also found their core audience at RM. Several of them were lined up for inspection early on, their Arctic Blue, Harvest Gold, and Cascade Green paint schemes giving the appearance of a color-book reunion. Normally, when so many cars of the similar vintage are crowded into the same place, the overall transaction prices suffer, and that appeared to be the case here.
The highlight was a ’57 Fuelie, Lot 276, boasting an October 2010 NCRS Top Flight win. It was rewarded with a winning bid of $115,500. While a similar ’58 Fuelie (Lot 1264.2) earned $121,000 at Barrett-Jackson, RM’s more forgiving commission structure means the owner of the ’57 likely brought home just as much money. Even so, the RM estimate placed the car’s value at between $120,000 and $140,000.
The third Scottsdale event, Russo and Steele, also appeared to draw buyers who were focused on the merits of the cars over the thrill of the auction environment. Russo events tend to be a good blend of car-show kitsch on the outside and razzle-dazzle showmanship in the bidding ring. The core audience consists of the younger segment of the Baby Boomer generation, many of whom have firsthand memories of the muscle-car era. As such, you’re likely to see more second- and third-generation Corvettes than at RM, and more stock-appearing vehicles than typically show up at Barrett-Jackson.
While Russo didn’t attract a ’67 427 Tri-Power Sting Ray this year, a 427/390 car did roll into the round during prime bidding time. The description of Lot 9486 offered a general recap of the model’s history and few details on this particular example. No show-judged pedigree was cited, leaving the prospective buyer to make up his own mind about how correct the car was. The $72,600 final settlement price reflected the relatively weak presentation. The owner was likely left scratching his head, wondering why his convertible only earned coupe money.
Other Corvettes at Russo earned more modestly still, in sharp contrast to the $100,000 paid for customized flights of fancy at Barrett-Jackson. A Corvette Rayzr Restorod (Lot 9430) was similar in concept and quality to the Karl Kustom car (though a good bit older), yet it earned a mere $35,200.
While not the icon that the C2 is, the third-generation “shark” retains a loyal following. A ’68 427/435 coupe (Lot 9204) strutted all the right stuff at Russo, with a recent restoration, a numbers-matching drivetrain, and original documentation. The California “black plate” car sold for a buyer-pleasing $48,400. In contrast, a ’68 custom that spent its life as an ISCA show car only earned a shade over $17,000. The car was no more outlandish than a 30-foot cactus, and it likely would have done better on the B-J stage.
As you can see, knowing the distinctions between the auction houses can help you use the environment—and the resulting Vette values—to your advantage, whether as a buyer or a seller.
1967 Chevrolet Corvette 427/435 (Lot 1320), SOLD - $154,000
1967 Chevrolet Corvette 427/435 Restamp (Lot 1289), SOLD - $209,000
1958 Chevrolet Corvette EFI Roadster (Lot 1264.2), SOLD - $121,000
2009 Karl Kustom Corvette (Lot 1246.1), SOLD - $148,500
1967 Corvette 427/435 Roadster (Lot 267), SOLD - $165K
1956 Corvette Roadster Dual-Quad Carbs (Lot 269), SOLD - $115,500
1957 Corvette Roadster FI (Lot 267), SOLD (NO RESERVE) - $115,500
1956 Corvette Roadster (Lot 275), SOLD - $71,500
1967 Corvette 427/400 Roadster (Lot 298), SOLD - $126,500
Russo and Steele
1958 Corvette 283/270 Roadster (Lot 9052), SOLD - $107, 250
1967 Corvette 427/390 Roadster (Lot 9486), SOLD - $72,600
1993 Corvette Rayzr Restorod (Lot 9430), SOLD - $35,200
1968 Corvette 427/435 (Lot 9204), SOLD - $48,400
1968 Corvette ’70s Show Car (Lot 9469), SOLD - $17,050