Christie’s out of the car biz
At the end of September, Christie’s – the auction house – will close its International Motor Car Department. Christie’s is best known as one of the leading auctioneers of fine art, in both Europe and the United States. Founded in London in 1766, Christie’s now has offices all over the world. It branched out into the auctioning of classic and collector cars, in both the United States and Europe about two decades ago. Only last month, Christie’s made national headlines when it sold the Ferrari Lusso originally owned by Steve McQueen at its Monterey auction for $2.3 million, a record breaking price. Total sales at the Monterey auction were $8,067,400. 43 of 61 lots were sold.
Despite the success of its auctions, Christie’s is leaving the field. A statement issued by Christie’s essentially said that the company had decided its resources could better be expended elsewhere. That statement may be disguising a more core reason for dropping the collector car auction division: competition from others.
The entrance of Christie’s and its arch competitor, Sotheby’s, into the classic and collector car auction field served to legitimize that business and elevate its status. Christie’s brought prestige to the field and also brought a reputation for honesty. Its prestige and global reach brought it significant consignments because it attracted buyers willing to pay the highest prices.
Of late, however, the premium collector car auction market has attracted some other very successful competitors who, unlike Christie’s, concentrate on the automotive auction market. In Monterey, Christie’s was competing with auctions held by RM, Gooding & Company, and Bonhams & Butterfields (which also operates auctions in Britain), all of which had higher total sales than did Christie’s – in some instance much higher total sales: RM’s Monterey auction sales totaled $46 million and Gooding brought in $60 million. To retain the ability to continue presenting premium quality consignments in the face of this competition, Christie’s would probably have had to make a concerted effort to regain ground lost to its competitors. It’s a lot of ground and Christie’s was probably correct in concluding that it wasn’t worth the effort.
Christie’s was embarrassed last year when it withdrew a 1939 Type D Auto Union race car from auction in Paris after the consignment had been extensively publicized world-wide. The house’s pre-auction estimate had predicted a final price between $12 and $15 million, which would have set a new auction record for a single car consignment. Originally listed as having been chassis number 21, the car that won the French Grand Prix in 1939, it was later determined by Christie’s working with Audi Tradition that the car was actually chassis number 19, which placed sixth in the French Grand Prix. Even though it was established that the car was a genuine Type D Auto Union and is the only surviving example of one, the publicity resulting from the episode and the speculation created by withdrawing the car from sale was acutely embarrassing to Christie’s.