2 March 2007

Four Flavors of Phoenix

A guide to Arizona auctions

A one-off Daytona 427 coupe thunders into a tent that evokes a boxing ring, while a supercharged Duesenberg glides into a grand ballroom. A few miles away, a dozen Hemi Dodges and Plymouths await their turns facing huge crowds, while a half-hour into the desert, a near-perfect ’56 Plymouth Belvedere is ready to cross the block.

Every year, the collector car season blasts off the third week in January in sunny Arizona where four auctions compete for dollars and headlines. Each sale has a unique flavor and specialties, as well as certain similarities.

West World, Scottsdale, Jan. 13-21, 2007

Craig Jackson runs the biggest show on earth and it’s much more than just an automotive auction. It combines elements of the SEMA show, a major auto show, the Texas State Fair and the largest auction known to man. The auction tent alone could house an NCAA national championship basketball game.

The 120 acre site is packed with tents, vendor booths, thousands of people, and hundreds of muscle cars, although customs, rods, concept cars and post-war American vehicles are plentiful. According to Barrett-Jackson president Steve Davis, there’s “something for everyone” at this event. Barrett-Jackson also attracts the widest possible cross-section from the collector car world, including everyone from single-car owners, to major collectors of virtually all genres.

As each car rolls onto the stage it’s surrounded by hordes of registered bidders. It’s introduced and the auction is called as a traditional American auction chant. Floor workers are scattered through the seating area to spot bidders and acknowledge and encourage bids. It’s loud, high-pressure and high-drama, as when the only surviving Shelby Cobra Super Snake took the floor. Introduced by Carroll Shelby, it soared to a mind-boggling $5.5 million.

Customer View: For Don Koch, Barrett-Jackson is the place to buy and sell muscle cars. He bought an Oldsmobile 4-4-2 on his first visit two years ago. The experience was so positive that he’s been “coming back ever since,” and bought another 4-4-2 in 2007.

Dennis Waldbrook sent his gorgeous 1958 Corvette to Barrett-Jackson because he says “for the high-end cars it’s the only option.” He likes the no-reserve policy because “it’s better for the buyer,” who takes the car home if he’s the high bidder.

The Overview: Barrett-Jackson follows the American mantra of “bigger is better.” In one week, it pulls a quarter-million people and sells 1,200 collector vehicles. The energy is everywhere and the bidder needs to exercise self-control not to get carried away by television lights and adrenaline. The seller also has to be prepared for a no-reserve sale, although the upside is that record prices are common.

Barrett may not be loaded with bargains, but there are some very good cars. You also have to credit Jackson and Company for perpetuating one of the most anticipated events in the world, and the source of continuous automotive buzz, good or bad. Everybody is talking about Barrett- Jackson and you don’t have to be a car enthusiast to have heard about it.

Arizona Biltmore, Phoenix, Jan. 19, 2007

Going from Barrett to RM is like going from a rock concert to the locker room at a country club – from boisterous to refined. The cars are premium, and so are most of the bidders. Even the auctioneer sounds as if he came out of a fine arts auction as opposed to the cattle-auction chant of Barrett-Jackson or Silver. This is the auction for the cognoscenti.

The smallest of the four Phoenix-area sales – only 110 cars are offered – is what RM’s Ian Kelleher calls a “boutique sale.” The cars are fine examples of already rare automobiles with names like Bugatti, Duesenberg, Ruxton, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, Pierce-Arrow and Rolls-Royce. Many are displayed beneath the ballroom’s chandeliers, while the others wait in the parking garage.

Come auction day, the ballroom is cleared and chairs set for bidders and spectators. Each car rolls onto the stage and is called in the English style. While not as high-energy as Barrett-Jackson or Russo and Steele, it clearly suits the clients.

Customer View: Although Barrett-Jackson generally rules in the muscle car world, for his rare 1971 Plymouth Hemi ’Cuda convertible Pat Goff chose RM. The decider was “mainly the venue.” Having run a car through another auction where it was covered in dust, he liked having his car in the center of the ballroom next to the first production L-88 Corvette. Lou Natenshon also had a poor experience with another company when “I didn’t get a good spot [auction time] and I lost money.” This time he chose to consign his custom Muntz Jet to RM.

The Overview: RM is the most exclusive of the four competing auctions. It’s also the only one that keeps all the cars inside and offers indoor plumbing. The audience includes some of the world’s most serious collectors, restorers, curators and auto journalists, not to mention many of the Pebble Beach set.

Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, Jan. 18-21, 2007

Russo and Steele combines very good cars with very good entertainment. The approach is part theater, part prize fight. The stands surround the stage — the only auction where spectators look down on the action, which resembles a boxing ring under the hot lights. It's all designed to face the bidders off against each other and involve the crowd with chants of SOLD! SOLD! SOLD!

In short order, Russo and Steele has made its mark offering highperformance Fords, Mustangs, Shelbys and Cobras. The company also specializes in rods and high-end sports cars.

At Russo and Steele, only registered bidders and press are allowed in the sale tent, where jeans and baseball caps replace the crisp shirts and slacks prevalent at RM. Russo and Steele has a very casual and accommodating attitude. In the ring, however, president Drew Alcazar and his auctioneer are relentless when it comes to coaxing higher bids or using the crowds to pressure owners into dropping reserves.

Customer View: For his first transaction with Russo and Steele, Mark Kramer bought a 396 Chevelle convertible at the 2006 Monterey sale. He was happy with the experience because “they’re honorable and they check their cars. I wouldn’t hesitate to use them again, but I went there because they had the cars I wanted.” Bill Scheffler has been attending the Arizona auctions for years, but a chance meeting with Drew Alcazar on the Muscle Car 1000 prompted him to consign his 1970 Javelin Trans-Am to Russo and Steele. According to Scheffler, “I couldn’t have asked for more advertising.” He loves the “smaller, friendlier, fun” sale and was delighted with a price that topped guide estimates by more than 50 percent.

The Overview: If you’re after a car that fits into Russo and Steele’s model and you like the Circus Maximus atmosphere, you should consider them. It’s neither as big as Barrett, nor as restrained as RM, but it’s certainly great fun.

Fort McDowell Resort & Casino, Jan. 19-22, 2007

Silver’s auction at the Fort McDowell Resort & Casino could be in any rural community in the country. The cars range from the lowest level of collectible cars to some really nice starter and intermediate cars. The consignment, check-in and auction processes are efficient and friendly. Play your cards right and you can find a good, honest car for fair market value. It may also be the best place to snag a bargain. A word of advice, though: Stay clear of the casino and save your money for the cars.

Everything about this Silver auction is relaxed. According to Mitch Silver, people “get comfortable with us really fast because we don’t take things too seriously.” The focus is primarily low and mid-range post-war American cars. That might mean a stock 1956 Ford or a 1966 Chevelle SS, although don’t be surprised to see 10- or 20-year-old Mercedes, Lincolns and Cadillacs, a few late-model sports cars and a handful of pre-war vehicles.

The owners usually drive their cars into the auction tent, where the auctioneer calls the sale just as he would any horse or heifer, which is probably what attracts so many bidders wearing cowboy boots and Stetsons. With cars selling for as little at $7,000 and an average price in the $20,000-$30,000 range, this is the week’s entry- and intermediate-level auction.

Customer View: Silver is one of the two auction houses that Ralph Hubbert uses regularly. He characterizes the company as “good about getting the seller and buyer together.” For Frank Yaksitch, Silver is the choice because “you have a chance to participate because of the prices and they make it as easy as possible.” He also vouches for Silver’s integrity.

The Overview: If you’re new to the collector car world or don’t have big dollars, Silver may be for you. The key is to know your target cars and to spot the diamonds in your pan. As Frank Yaksitch says, there are some “treasures” out there – including the odd pre-war Packard or Ford that could easily end up being a bargain.

When it comes to picking an auction house or a particular sale, there’s no substitute for homework. If you’re consigning, talk to the representative and make sure that he or she is knowledgeable and responsive. If you’re not comfortable with him or her, you should request another representative or move on to the next company.

Above all, if you’re planning to go to Scottsdale to buy or sell a car, it should be fun. However, doing advance research can make the difference between misery and mastery.
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Spring 2007 issue of Hagerty magazine.

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