In the spring of 2006, Mark Osborne, the head of Bonhams’ motoring department, stepped inside the Lake Havasu City, Ariz., home of Barbara Minty to appraise a few pieces of motorcycling memorabilia that had belonged to her late husband, Steve McQueen. In particular, Osborne was eager to see McQueen’s Belstaff motorcycle jacket, which the actor had famously worn while riding many of his bikes. Osborne assumed that there would also be a few other items of interest, but nothing prepared him for what he found, including motorcycles suspended from the kitchen ceiling and smaller mementos, like the Persol sunglasses McQueen wore in The Thomas Crown Affair, tucked into dresser drawers.
Until then, Minty had not considered the items particularly valuable or imagined that there was a strong collector’s market for them. “The things that Steve had, they were just my things,” Minty says. “I never even thought about them.” In fact, it was only after Osborne shared his lifelong admiration of McQueen and his films that Minty decided to show him personal items like the sunglasses. Once he took stock of his surroundings and gathered himself, Osborne explained that the house contained the makings of a single-owner sale, perhaps a blockbuster. Minty, he remembers, was skeptical. “She looked at me with a blank expression on her face,” Osborne says. “She must have thought that I was quite mad.” Indeed, Minty says, “I was surprised.”
In truth, the motoring specialist was relying on his instincts more than any concrete evidence. Osborne, who was born and raised in Britain, grew up watching movies like Bullitt and was fascinated by the actor’s cool persona. “I was brought up on a diet of those gritty movies of the late ’60s and early ’70s,” he says. “We’d watch The Great Escape every Christmas; it was like putting the tinsel on the tree. But outside of blokes like me, I really had no idea that there would be people from such varied walks of life and social strata that felt the same that I did—that this guy was something very special.”
Osborne eventually persuaded Minty—and his superiors at the auction house—that a McQueen sale would be successful. On November 11, 2006, inside the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, Osborne oversaw the auction of 216 lots of McQueen memorabilia. Using conservative estimates, he had predicted that Minty’s consigned cars, motorcycles, clothing, and other collectibles would gather about $166,000. But when the hammer fell for the final time that day, those items had commanded more than $1 million. McQueen’s 1934 Indian Sport Scout? Sold, for $177,500. His 1920 Indian Powerplus “Daytona” motorcycle? Sold, for $150,000. Even the actor’s 1958 GMC pickup (“Steve never let me drive it—he was so particular about that truck!” Minty says) commanded a hefty $128,000. But the biggest surprise was the sale of those Persols from 1968’s The Thomas Crown Affair: They went for $70,200—the same price as the 1967 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow that also appeared in the film.