Autos: Hello, Old Friend

  • Phil Llewellin

On Nov. 19, 1987, a month after the Black Monday stock market crash, a Christie’s auctioneer named Robert Brooks auctioned off a 1930 Bugatti Type 41 Royale for a world-record $10 million. Last year, Brooks was informed that the Japanese multinational corporation that bought the car in 1987 wanted to sell it—and hoped he would oversee the sale once again.

Circumstances have changed this time around. Instead of being auctioned, the car will be sold privately. (Bidding was scheduled to close at the end of April.) The Bugatti is expected to sell for as much as $14 million. Brooks, a 45-year-old Englishman, is no longer a Christie’s employee, but the chairman of Bonhams, and he is delighted to sell the prized machine once more. “We were always hopeful that we would have the opportunity of handling its sale again,” says Brooks. “In many ways, it is the ultimate motorcar and certainly the ultimate luxury car of all time.”

Bonhams was chosen over two competitors to handle the Bugatti sale. Simon Kidston, president of Bonhams, believes the corporation that owns the Bugatti chose Bonhams because of its expertise in selling rare machines. “The deciding factor was that our company is specialized in classic cars and has an international presence in this field,” says Kidston.

It also helped to have Brooks, a car fanatic, associated with the sale. When he was 18 years old, Brooks entered a Formula Ford single-seater in a London race, and as he steered into the first corner, he smashed the Ford into a wall. “It made me realize that I wasn’t going to be the next Formula One world champion, which was what I’d always wanted to be,” says Brooks.

Instead, he became a furniture porter for Christie’s, graduated to auctioneer, and sold a stash of Autocar magazines for approximately $250 as his first lot. Since then, Brooks has sold a Bugatti Type 57S for $1.7 million, a Vanwall grand prix car for $2.31 million, and an Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 for $3.08 million. “What makes Robert Brooks different is his personal knowledge of what he’s selling,” says Bob Ames, a Portland, Ore., resident who collects sports and racing cars. “He has driven, and in many cases raced, most of the world’s great cars.”

The Bugatti Royale, which was originally owned by Ettore Bugatti, qualifies as one of the world’s great cars, but it was also a financial fiasco. “It was of such high specification and artistic beauty that the cost of its design, development, and construction ensured that it was a commercial failure for Bugatti,” says Brooks. “In full knowledge of this, he and his company completed the project more as a statement of engineering excellence and perfection than with any intent of successful ongoing production.”

Brooks is wary about predicting where the vintage car market is heading, but thinks his auction house, which deals with books, furniture, paintings, wines, watches, and other objects, will continue to grow. A good sale price for the Bugatti Royale would only help. “I’m determined to pass Christie’s and Sotheby’s,” Brooks says. “There are a few laps to go, but we'll catch them."

 

Bonhams, 415.391.4000, www.bonhams.com

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