Wednesday, January 20, 2010


The Thursday night 'dinner auction' began as every MidAmerica auction begins, with a selection of Automobilia, the sale of which benefits various charities - a nice touch. Oddments like a Steve McQueen spanner ($1500) or connecting rod clock ($800) or Hüsqvarna dealer poster ($325) warm up the audience and the circus of auction helpers for bigger things to come.

And yes, it did resemble a circus; while I described each motorcycle as it was pushed onto the rotating podium, eight other people were shouting, leaping, cajoling bidders, gesticulating, waving signs, negotiating (down) reserves with owners, and making a cattle call from the high lectern in the center of the stage. It is indeed a cattle auction, and my job is to extoll Bessie's finer qualities, while explaining her parentage and place in the herd. I had done my homework, so I expected no surprises, although of course I got a few (see below).

The lineup Thursday evening consisted of 80 good-quality machines, almost all of which were totally affordable to anyone with a job ($2-6,000 hammer prices made up the bulk of sales). The Jay Kaufman collection of lightweight motorcycles and scooters taxed my Cushman knowledge, although his Ner-a-Car ($16,000) was right up my alley. It seemed a single phone bidder (#911!) was responsible for most sales of the Kaufman bikes.

High price for the evening, $100,000 at the hammer for an ex-Steve McQueen 1918 ohv Pope 'L' (above), was so far in excess of the next nearest price ($19,000 for a Triumph X75 Hurricane), that a Great Divide was exposed, between rideable old motorcycles and Pedigree Collectibles. While many in our Movement fear a general trend of rising prices and eventual unaffordability for the average collector, the 2010 Las Vegas auction made clear that the vast bulk of older motorcycles remain completely accessible, at least in the current economic climate. The day of the $25,000 Triumph Bonneville/BSA Gold Star is over, prices for these have dropped into the mid-teens... I personally thought a perfect Bonnie for $25k was reasonable, as it was about equal with a new Harley Davidson. But, buyers without deep pockets, who still happen to be employed, should take heart in these lowered auction prices, and go buy the motorcycles they've always wanted, before the economy picks up and prices inevitably rise again! I'd say we have a few years to go, so don't panic, but do commit to buying that perfect Velocette Thruxton or 'square barrel' Triumph Trophy in the near future.

After finishing the auction at 10:30pm, there was little else to do but rest for Friday, where 225 motorcycles would parade before my uncomfortable chair. Thus; sleep, coffee, and back to work at 8am. The tone of the day was established quickly; 'drop the reserve price, or take it home', and almost all owners saw the writing on the wall - prices were down from last year - and hurriedly lowered their expectations. I tip my hat to their practical nature.

Sellers who refused to drop a high financial bar found no takers, and the 'Second Chance Corral' began to swell with unsold machinery... many of which did in fact sell, sometimes at 'Why on earth didn't I offer that?' prices. A case in point; two beautiful Norton Featherbed Internationals, a matched pair of 350cc/500cc ohc beauties, failed to sell on the podium after a rather vague attempt to sell them as a pair (see above), but singly. Confused? Yes. The 500cc Inter sold in the Corral for $10,000... this was a well-restored machine which appeared correct, and in times past (or another location?) ANY 'cammy' Norton would have sold for twice this amount. I kicked myself, but hadn't the wherewithal to buy it.... I really like Featherbed Norton singles.

Other fantastic machines which sold for bargain prices: a pair of 1960s Harley Davidson KRTTs with full racing history (the Dennis Schoenfeldt racers). His cobby 1963 KRTT with 8-gallon 'Daytona' tank, on which Schoenfeldt placed 2nd at that race in 1966, sold for a mere $23,500. His sexy 1968 KRTT, which he owned for 40 years, did a bit better at $29,250, but still, these are rare racing motorcycles with fully documented and laudatory racing lives.

A 1969 Clymer Münch Mammut from the David Manthey collection (which sold 2 months ago at auction) had 1,772 miles, and was the 22nd Munch built; it did well at $78,000. That was the high price of the day by almost double. Next on the list was a replica Harley FHAC 'Eight Valve', which made $49,000 - much better than any other replica American racing machine (Indian 8-Valve, Harley Peashooter & Hillclimbers, etc) that weekend, as these tended to fetch in the $25-35k range.

I did manage to peek into the all-action Indoor Flat-Track Racing show in the adjacent Hall; the hotel is mammoth, with a permanent race track/horse track facility. After 9 hours spent with my ear pressed to a PA system, the usually joyous notes of a motorcycle race were too much, even with a pair of earplugs kindly supplied by Gary Inman of Sideburn magazine, who was shooting a story for Italian GQ on a rising flat-track star.

Being tired and hungry and terribly bored of fried food, I sought the best restaurant in the Hotel, Michael's, hoping for something fresh, green, and delicious, plus half a bottle of wine and a cocktail! My companion was 'Black Lightning' Esper from Norway, who suggested the place, and bade me stop before entering, to regard the stained glass doors and gilt signage. 'What are they telling us with these things?', queried Esper, with his sandpaper-dry sense of humor. Within, it was all Mafia-fancy, with red flocked velvet wallpaper, red leather upholstery, and an enormous stained glass dome on the ceiling. Esper tried to explain to the Maitre'd that we were tired of hamburgers and wanted a good meal; somehow his Norse accent, and our host's Croatian accent, negated each other, and they couldn't understand a word the other said. I found myself translating between two people speaking English!

The entire dinner was a comedy - 'bizarre' was Esper's description - prices for a main course ranged from $78 - $180, but the first item to arrive (unordered) to our table was a mighty 10lb platter of canned, pickled vegetables, with a small ramekin of Ranch dressing in the center. 'It looks like dinner is free tonight; why order anything else?'. But we did order, as pickles are hardly dinner (unless you have cheese and bread and beer!). As a palate cleanser, we were given a cocktail glass with lemon sorbet, over which our waiter poured a nice bottle of Dom Perignon. 'Just give me that, you're wasting good champagne' I said to the waiter, as he flicked the bottle away from my hands.

I recommended a straight shot to a meat course, intuiting the most likely 'can't lose' dish, which proved correct. The filets were divine, followed by Bananas Foster created on a cart, with a flame robust enough to hearth-braze a lugged frame. Then another unordered grand platter of sweets, which we completely ignored. Truly, the 1968 Cadillac of restaurants; luxury for show, with tremendous waste. It made for a good story anyway. 'Bizarre'.

Saturday was the day the 'big guns' of the auction were rolled out, the machines expected to fetch high results, and which garnered much pre-sale publicity. Principal among these was the 1950 Vincent Black Lightning, which rolled onstage around 11:40am. I spoke about the machine's rarity (one of 32 made - but 50 surviving!), its provenance, its fabulousness (which was easy), and a klunky auction began, which was halted three times by conferences with Ron Christensen or difficulties with phone bidders, at which times I spoke a little more about the bike... and a little more still. Pay me to talk about a Lightning, no problem. Esper was firm on his reserve of $275,000, and bidding halted at $245,000, so no sale. The last Lightning to sell (in Europe last year) fetched $320,000; in this context the reserve made sense... the bike is now in Colorado having a few incorrect nuts and bolts attended, and I've been given carte blanche to take it for a road test. It will have to wait until the snow clears, but only a fool would refuse such an offer! Watch this space.

Two other 'star' machines, which had much press and TV coverage (see below), were the Jefferson and Lake (above) Board Track Racers, built by Jeff Haberman (see the story on the Jefferson here). They formed the backbone of our Classic Motorcycle Roadshow display, and we had shot footage of Jeff discussing his family history of the bikes, etc. It all seemed an attractive package, but I had taken a phone call from a very well-connected motorcycle impresario the previous day, who explained the 'word on the street' was the bikes were 'fakes'. Ouch. When they came up for auction, there were no bidders at all, just a lot of histrionics from the team on the floor, and phantom action (perfectly legal, up to the reserve price) from the auctioneer.

Which brings up some interesting questions about Replica machinery... all of which did poorly this year. Haberman's machines were indeed replicas, built around as many original parts as he could find, from blueprints he had diligently uncovered in his search for his own family connection to these machines. In the case of the Lake, only an engine was found, but the Jefferson had original frame and other parts. The catalog description didn't include these facts, which may have left MidAmerica and/or Haberman vulnerable to the accusation of 'fakery'. It is typical of an auction catalog to include the best description possible, and it is sensible to leave out untidy details; any rational buyer expects this, caveat emptor. Perhaps it is time, though, for replicas to be clearly advertised as such in all cases; people regularly buy replica machines at auction for good prices, there is a clear market for them, so why not simply advertise the fact? As my friend Josiah quotes, 'I'm just sayin'.

Other high points; a non-matching numbers Vincent Shadow with Rapide engine made $45,000, a couple of immaculate Jim Hiddleston-restored Triumphs went well above their reserve, and you could have taken home a '59 DBD34 Gold Star in very nice original paint condition for $13,000. Excellent Triumphs went for $12k ish, Ariel Square 4's (seven of them! All nice) ranged from $11,500 to $24,000. I missed the last 100 motorcycles, as the only plane out to SFO left at 4:30pm, but all the results are online, below.

The conclusion to all this; it's a buyer's market, unless you have a truly blue-chip, well-documented machine. Prices are back at 2001 levels, and if you want to buy a motorcycle, this is a great time to do it.

(For all results of the 2010 Las Vegas MidAmerica auction, click here)