RM Sotheby’s has a lot of explaining to do, and even after all of that, it might not be enough to save its reputation

RM Sotheby’s is in a world of trouble after its auction of a 1939 Porsche Type 64 went off the rails. Confusion and embarrassment reigned as the auction turned into a farce over as an upset crowd booed the attempted sale of the high-value model. In the end, the Type 64, otherwise known as Ferdinand Porsche’s “Nazi car’ failed to meets its reservation price. It is currently marked as “still for sale” on RM Sotheby’s online auction catalog, though given everything that transpired during the actual auction, it’s unlikely that anyone’s going to touch the Porsche Type 64 anytime soon. As for RM Sotheby’s reputation, well, that’s up in the air, too.

Porsche Type 64 Fails to Sell After Massive Auction Blunder
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In what can be described as the biggest auction blunder in automotive history, RM Sotheby’s gaffe is as bad as it gets. But before we go in detail on what happened, a back story on the car that was being auctioned off is in order.

The model in question is a 1939 Porsche Type 64, considered by some as the first-ever Porsche model in history. I say “some” because others don’t consider it a Porsche, and if you want to be completely technical about it, the Type 64, is not a Porsche model built under the banner of the company that Ferdinand Porsche started.

See, the Type 64 was built in 1939, when Porsche was a designer for Volkswagen.

He was tasked to build the Type 64 as a commission from the National Socialist Motor Corps, which intended to use it to compete in the Berlin-to-Rome race that was planned to celebrate the “Pact of Steel” between Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and fascist Italian regime of Benito Mussolini. The race never got off the ground because World War II happened, so Ferdinand Porsche instead used the Type 64 as his daily driver, adding credence to the belief that this was the first Porsche model, even if it isn’t. See, Porsche A.G., the automaker that we know and love today, wasn’t created until 1948, almost 10 years after the Type 64 was built. The car most people point to as the OG Porsche model is the iconic 356.

1939 Porsche Type 64 specifications
Engine 1 liter, 985 cc
Carburetors Solex
Output 32-40 horsepower
Weight 1,346 pounds (610.5 kilos)
Power to weight ratio 65.5 horsepower / ton
0-60 mph 10 seconds (estimate)
Top speed 90 mph (estimate)
Porsche Type 64 Fails to Sell After Massive Auction Blunder
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Even with its checkered and controversial history, the 1939 Porsche Type 64 remains a must-have vehicle among Porsche collectors, in part because only three models were built and only one remains in proper working condition. That one model happened to be the same one that RM Sotheby’s put up for auction over the weekend with the expectation that it would sell for more than $20 million. Well, it did sell for more than $20 million. A lot more. Until it didn’t. Confused? Get in line.

The auction started with videos of the Type 64 playing on screen as music played in the background. A short lecture on the car’s history ensued as the Type 64 was built up as the equivalent of an automotive holy grail, which it is, at least in some ways. Then the car was wheeled out and the bidding started at $30 million. Yep. $30 million, which was $10 million higher than its expected selling price. Perhaps a lot of those in attendance were eager to own the Type 64 that they immediately started bidding on the car, reaching a maximum bid of $70 million, making it the most expensive car ever sold at an auction, eclipsing a 1962 Ferrari 350 GTO that sold for $48 million last year by more than $20 million. As people started cheering at the record-breaking bid, RM Sotheby’s switched the current max bid from $70 million to $17 million.

Porsche Type 64 Fails to Sell After Massive Auction Blunder
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Turns out, the people in charge of posting the current bid price on the screens mistakenly heard the emcee say the car’s starting bid was $30 million, not $13 million.

You can tell in the video that something weird was happening because the emcee was offering $500,000 increments on the bids, and bidders were bidding up by $9.5 million. The emcee tried to play it off like it was a minor gaffe, but the room wasn’t having it. Boos came in, people walked out, and by the time the auction ended, the room was stone-cold silent as the people who were still there were stunned by what they had just witnessed.

RM Sotheby’s later released a statement, saying that the whole incident wasn’t a joke, but a lapse in communication between the bids that were overheard and the amount that was displayed on the screen. Regardless of the explanation, it’s a huge mistake from one of the world’s foremost auction houses. Ironically, RM Sotheby’s is the same auction house that sold the $48-million 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO at last year’s event in Pebble Beach. As far as blunders go, this one takes the cake.

Porsche Type 64 Fails to Sell After Massive Auction Blunder
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Understandably, a lot of people were upset at how the auction played out, including Johnny Shaughnessy, a collector from southern California, who told Bloomberg that the auction was a “joke.” “They just lost so much credibility. My father could have bought that car for $5m years ago. It has been passed around for years and no one wants it,” he added. Even John Bothwell, director of Pur Sang Bugatti in Argentina, called it a “massive (expletive up” on RM Sotheby’s part.

Even with a high bid of $17 million, the 1939 Porsche Type 64 remains unsold, and it’s unlikely that it will be able to approach the $20 million asking price for the car after being the subject of a blunder for the ages.

The auction house tried to spin it as much, focusing instead on the inability of the seller and buyer to “reach common ground” on the car’s price.

Porsche Type 64 Fails to Sell After Massive Auction Blunder
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But it does look like the damage has been done, both to the value of the Porsche Type 64 and the reputation of RM Sotheby’s. The latter is far more damaging to the auction house, in part because its entire business model rests on its reputation as one of the world’s most reliable and most trusted auction houses. That’s not the case anymore, at least for the time being.

For most people, RM Sotheby’s botched what would have been the highlight of Pebble Beach’s auction weekend. Instead of celebrating the sale of a historical model, RM Sotheby’s is instead picking up the pieces of its shattered reputation.

Further reading

Porsche Type 64 Fails to Sell After Massive Auction Blunder
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Read our full review on the 1939 Porsche Type 64.

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