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Left in the Dust

Auto critic Robert Ross sifts through the barn-find phenomenon at auction—and in his own garage.

Auto critic Robert Ross sifts through the barn-find phenomenon at auction—and in his own garage.  

They excite the imagination unlike any other kind of automobile. Like a treasure hunter unearthing a pirate’s hoard or an Egyptologist cracking a pharaoh’s tomb, the most inveterate car collector dreams of someday discovering one. That dream is not of cars fresh from restoration or those lovingly maintained by lifetime owners—but of automotive relics hidden from view for decades and often forgotten by the owners themselves. Whether tracking a paper trail of provenance or just following a hunch, the goal of these automotive Howard Carters is to be the first to throw open the door of a dilapidated garage and lay claim to the prize within. That prize, known by every dealer, restorer, curator, and collector as the barn find, is the most elusive of discoveries, and like bottles from a great vintage yet to be drunk, the number remaining undiscovered diminishes with every passing year.

Derelict old cars did not always foment such excitement, and historically, most have been relegated to the junkyard for scrap or the farmer’s field to slowly decay. Those not so ill-treated were squirreled away by owners who were often eccentrics at best and hoarders at worst, and labeled accordingly, depending on their financial wherewithal. 

A variety of factors have conflated to make the barn find the holy grail of today’s automobile collector community. Following the 2008 financial downturn, hard assets such as collector cars have demonstrated a particularly robust uptick in values, with market experts cautiously optimistic that the trend will be sustained for cars at the top end of the market. At the same time, an appreciation for unrestored examples—primarily in the postwar sports car segment, where collector activity is most frenetic—has never been more widespread. Observing the truth that “a car is only original once,” leaving a good original car untouched is today widely regarded as the most prudent decision (as it can always be restored), when historically, the same car might have received a complete, partial, or at least sympathetic restoration. 


Finally, a ubiquitous mind-set—and a logic wholly indefensible to this writer—has many members of the collector community, its restorers, historians, and even factory certification programs agreeing that cars can be created from, as it were, whole cloth. The vehicle identification number (VIN) plate and other salient digits have become the determining details used to establish an automobile’s authenticity. If an original VIN plate or a new plate stamped with that number can be riveted to a fragment of an original chassis, an entire car can be re-created from spare parts and raw materials to replicate a lost original. In some instances, a freshly cast engine block—if performed under the aegis of a factory program like Ferrari Classiche and stamped with the original number of the long-gone engine—might be considered more “authentic” than an engine made the same day as the original, bearing a sequential number and replaced in period condition, at a time when “parts were parts” and serial numbers were irrelevant. And it is here that a derelict original—the barn find—can rise like a freshly feathered phoenix.

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There is something irrational in the reasoning by which the barn find is sometimes valued more than its shiny equivalent. My friend Herb Harris, a well-known motorcycle collector from Austin, Texas, whose stable has included many immortal Vincents, once shared advice that resonates in light of recent auction results, when he remarked, “Robert, there is no such thing as original dirt.” Yet, the sight of bodywork and a windscreen cloaked in dust can fan the fire of a bidding frenzy, all for the privilege of being the first to do a victory dance with a feather duster.

Some cars, like early Ferraris and Maseratis, were built in small and finite numbers, so the chance is slim that a previously unknown example will emerge from the recesses of a rural barn or an abandoned warehouse. But it does happen, and February’s Artcurial Motorcars auction during the 2015 Rétromobile in Paris generated a whirlwind of excitement before, during, and after the sale, which totaled $52 million, establishing a record for a collector car auction in continental Europe. 

The cause of all the commotion was the known but hitherto unavailable Roger Baillon collection of barn finds, all 59 of which sold for a total of $28.5 million. Baillon was a French industrialist who, during the 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s, saved numerous cars from a scrap-yard fate, relegating his hoard to sheds and other less-than-ideal storage environments. Most of the cars on offer were in deplorable condition: rusted, crumpled, or missing entire sections. The star lot was Baillon’s 1961 Ferrari 250 GT SWB California Spider, previously owned by French actor Alain Delon, which brought the hammer down at $18.5 million, including premium, establishing a world-record auction price for the model. While that amount is staggering and exceeds the top estimate of $12 million, it was not indefensible for a Ferrari of such rarity—56 were produced, about 37 have the more desirable covered headlights—and for one that is possibly the last unrestored example in the world. Unlike many other cars in the sale, its original and largely complete condition made it particularly attractive as a partial restoration candidate. Only one notch below the 250 GTO in status and market value, an SWB California Spider is among the most prized Ferraris by any collector so fortunate to own one. 

Less valuable but no less desirable was a Maserati time capsule from 1956, an A6G 2000 Gran Sport Berlinetta with Frua body, which set a world-record price for the model at $2.2 million including commission, against an estimate of $800,000 to $1.2 million. Again, in the minds of some collectors, this Maserati is a prime candidate for preservation as opposed to full restoration, despite—or because of—its shoddy appearance.

What is remarkable about the sale, however, is not the prices achieved by the high-profile Ferrari and Maserati, but the fact that the rest of the lots, most of them barely salvageable automobiles, realized two to 10 times their presale estimates. French marques predominated, and it is likely that an element of Gallic chauvinism fueled the bidding for dilapidated examples of Bugatti, Delahaye, Delage, Facel Vega, Panhard, Renault, Talbot-Lago, Voisin, and stuff more strange. Particularly telling was the sale of a 1949 Talbot-Lago T26 Grand Sport SWB Fastback with body by Saoutchik: It sold for $1.9 million against an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. “Body by Saoutchik” is relative, as the rusted hulk had been been rear-ended aeons ago and was missing the driver-side door and fender. Yet, given its rarity and significance, it is likely that another $2 million might be spent for restoration to like-new condition.

But some collectors have a great appreciation for the most dilapidated cars, which, despite their sordid condition, tell a fascinating story. Such historic relics are perhaps best preserved as they have come down to us. Or in the case of the 1925 Bugatti Brescia Type 22 Roadster, gone down from us. At the 2010 Bonham’s Rétromobile sale in Paris, one of the most legendary Bugattis, affectionately known as the “Lady of the Lake,” was sold for $279,334. While there are a variety of stories about how the car ended up on the bottom of Lake Maggiore, which borders northern Italy and Switzerland, one has it that the owner, Mr. Adalbert Bode, had attempted to avoid registration fees and taxes levied on the car by Swiss authorities, and decided to hide it in the lake, attaching it to a float and a chain. The chain broke, and the car descended to a depth of 173 feet, remaining submerged for 73 years. Whether or not the story holds water, the car was discovered in 1967, but was only exhumed from the depths in July 2009. The sale at auction funded a charity, and the car, displayed at the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, Calif., as an objet d’art, reposes in poignant contrast to the gleaming Bugattis with which it is exhibited. 

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Indeed, the barn find is as much an American fascination as any aspect of its automotive lore. Decades ago, my father, a bit of a car enthusiast himself, recalled eating his sack lunch in the backseat of a neighbor friend’s family Duesenberg, willed to them by a rich relation before the war and immobilized in their shed during that era of gas rationing and unaffordable fuel and tires. Upon its owner’s return from the Pacific theater, the Duesy remained in situ, a future barn find to be sure. 

Meanwhile, recent sales in American auctions highlight the magic of long-neglected cars. Gooding & Co. featured a dusty 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing in its 2014 Scottsdale Auction that sold for nearly $1.9 million against a $1.1 million to $1.4 million estimate, which was “all the money” for a pristine restored example. Coincidentally, an identical black-over-red 1956 Gullwing, restored to concours specification and also with its original engine, was sold the following day at Gooding for $1.4 million, despite an estimate of $1.35 million to $1.7 million. Keeping in mind that a competent Gullwing restoration cannot be accomplished on even the least needy example for less than $500,000, it is safe to surmise that the more rustic subject will retain its patina for the foreseeable future.

RM Auctions (which recently partnered with Sotheby’s, the 800-pound gorilla of the auction world) has trumpeted a number of barn finds over the years. In 2012 at Monterey, Calif.—the most important annual collector-car auction venue worldwide—RM featured a 1965 Shelby 289 Cobra Mk II that had one owner from new and was brought to auction after her death at age 81. Since 1987, when the owner’s husband had died, the car was never driven, but was parked under two car covers in her dusty garage. The curious were told “It’s just a piece of junk.” With the owner’s original Ray-Ban sunglasses still in the glove box, the Cobra was rolled on stage, having not been started in 25 years, and sold for $792,000 against a presale estimate of $400,000 to $500,000. Three years later, its value has nearly doubled. 

Making a barn find unleashes all manner of emotions, especially in those collectors whose passion eclipses the financial implications of such a discovery. In late 2002, I was approached by a Robb Report reader whose late father had acquired a funny little car in the 1950s and who was seeking help establishing its value. I recognized from three fuzzy Instamatic photos the unique predecessor to the famous B.A.T. Alfa Romeo prototypes 5, 7, and 9. The little-known creation was a car of legend among serious enthusiasts of Italian “etceterini,” though only an elderly few had likely seen it. This car—unseen in public since it was last parked in a Connecticut garage decades prior—was the one-and-only Abarth 1500 Biposto Coupe, designed by the mercurial Franco Scaglione of Bertone for the 1952 Turin Motor Show. Following considerable independent research on my part, the car sold in 2003 at Christie’s for $293,500 against an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000, and was subsequently brought back to life by a very lucky owner. B.A.T. 1 came out of an impeccable restoration and made a brilliant appearance in 2010 at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

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Barn finds hold a special allure, and finding one is like dusting off a secret kept for years. And while this author cannot claim to have made the discoveries, I have been fortunate to acquire a barn find or two through the efforts of sleuths whose job it is to ferret out such treasures. Along with the best barn finds comes documented provenance, which adds tangible value and an immeasurable romance to ownership. One is thankful that interim years of idle dust-gathering have conspired to preserve these machines from all manner of irreversible mischief committed by previous owners, had the cars been in service. My 1965 Shelby GT 350 reposed in a Tennessee barn from 1973 until it was rolled out in 2004. 

Elevated on four buckets, it had perched in a torpor from the time its well-intentioned owner commenced upon a “restoration” that stalled after a few squirts of primer. Three decades later, the car remained untouched, with its original drivetrain and all parts intact. Only chalky white paint betrayed the benign neglect; in fact the paint had preserved it. The car was restored to its original condition by Cobra Automotive in Wallingford, Conn., by Curt Vogt and Scott Morton, who shared my respect for the long-suffering car’s fine state of preservation. Resisting the urge to achieve perfection,  certain things, like original seat upholstery, remain untouched. Barn finds are better that way


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