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Amid Lockdown, Car Auctions Are Moving Online—and Collectors Are Following

In light of the pandemic, rare and classic automobiles are increasingly crossing the block by way of digital platforms.

Online car auctions are on the rise. Photo by cgstock/Shutterstock.

By the third week of March, in-person collector car auctions around the world had come to a screeching halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, the number of major automotive sales events that have either been rescheduled for the second half of the year or cancelled altogether flirts with double digits; however, one recent auction—RM Sotheby’s Palm Beach event—did not wave the white flag. Instead, the auction house conducted the sale, originally scheduled for March 20 and 21 at the Palm Beach International Raceway, as a week-long online auction with bids closing on March 28.

By the conclusion of the final day, hammer prices had been set on almost 70 percent of the offered lots. The digital auction totaled $13.7 million in sales, led by a 1996 Porsche 911 GT2 and a 2019 McLaren Senna, which sold for $891,000 and $847,000, respectively.

A 1996 Porsche 911 GT2.

This 1996 Porsche 911 GT2, offered online by RM Sotheby’s, fetched $891,000.  Photo: Courtesy of RM Sotheby's.

Although those overall numbers are a regression when compared to the results of RM Sotheby’s Fort Lauderdale auction in March 2019 (the company didn’t host an event in Palm Beach last year), the adapted online sale did provide some positive feedback. Most notably, almost 900 bidders (from 44 countries) participated in the auction, more than a third of which were first-timers.

A 2019 McLaren Senna.

The 2019 McLaren Senna that sold for $847,000 through the recent RM Sotheby’s online-only auction.  Photo: Courtesy of RM Sotheby's.

Many of the top-selling lots achieved prices that were at least 90 percent of their low estimates, which suggests that the bottom hasn’t fallen out of the collector car market. Roger Falcione, the CEO of ClassicCars.com, also believes that to be true. “High-end cars have been impacted the least as far as pricing is concerned,” he says, evaluating the recent listings on his company’s website during the COVID-19 outbreak. “That’s held very steady, and we don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.”

Reflecting on the industry’s robustness over the past five weeks, Falcione considers March 12 to be D-Day. On that Thursday, as news and forecasts surrounding the pandemic made it clear that conditions were likely to get much worse before they got any better, the Dow Jones dropped 2,000 points and daily traffic to ClassicCars.com dipped by 16 percent. The following day, the website’s blog registered a 28 percent drop in page views.

A 1969 Lamborghini Islero.

The 1969 Lamborghini Islero above sold for $263,500 through Bring a Trailer’s website.  Photo: Courtesy of Bring a Trailer.

Since then, however, website traffic has rebounded by more than 20 percent—it continues to rise each day—and readership of the website’s blog has more than doubled what it was on March 13. “There’s still interest in those higher-end cars,” Falcione says. “I think people are just being very careful right now. They’re looking at these cars and reading about them, but I think that’s the best thing you can draw from this right now.”

Recent sales through Bring a Trailer prove otherwise. On April 7, a 1969 Lamborghini Islero sold for $263,500. A day earlier, the online auction company sold a 2006 Ford GT—with only 9,000 miles—for $250,000. And at the beginning of the month, a single-owner 2007 Spyker C8 Laviolette sold for $310,000, suggesting market values are largely unchanged since RM Sotheby’s sold a 2008 C8 Laviolette during its Paris auction in February for approximately $271,000.

A 2006 Ford GT.

On April 6, this 2006 Ford GT sold through Bring a Trailer for $250,000.  Photo: Courtesy of Bring a Trailer.

According to Bring a Trailer’s CEO, Randy Nonnenberg, the company typically sells vehicles with values that peak around $400,000—but are usually in the $10,000 to $250,000 range. However, he believes that could change, especially as quarantine conditions across much of the world draw more enthusiasts’ attention to online marketplaces.

The Ford GT had 9,000 miles on the odometer.  Photo: Courtesy of Bring a Trailer.

“We’re going to start seeing people with those higher dollar cars consider selling them in places with lower-fee models,” says Nonnenberg. “That’s one of the attractions to markets like ours. It’s very efficient and the fees are low. We think there’s going to be an influx of business in our platform that would’ve been at other physical auctions. Success builds upon itself. As people see that cars are selling well, it snowballs and there’s more and more interest.”

A 2007 Spyker C8 Laviolette.

Selling for $310,000 online, this 2007 Spyker C8 Laviolette bested a 2008 model’s performance at a live auction by $39,000.  Photo: Courtesy of Bring a Trailer.

Such interest is already well documented. Bring a Trailer generated 27 million page views during the month of March, which represents a 45 percent increase from March of 2019. In fact, during February and the first half of March, the website generated about 900,000 page views per day. Those numbers, however, increased by 10 percent during the second half of the month and even eclipsed 1 million before April began.

The interior of a 2007 Spyker C8 Laviolette.

The interior of the 2007 Spyker C8 Laviolette presented by Bring a Trailer.  Photo: Courtesy of Bring a Trailer.

According to Nonneberg, consumers who typically wouldn’t dabble in online sales arenas like Bring a Trailer will be persuaded to learn about (and begin participating in) those digital marketplaces. He believes that even when these current lifestyle restrictions are lifted and things begin trending back toward relative normalcy, more and more people will continue to adopt the practice of buying and selling collector cars online.

“This is a difficult time,” Nonnenberg says, “but it has pushed forward awareness and the number of people that will experience the benefits of an online platform.”

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