Motorcycle Auctions | Hammer Time | Megaphone

By Tod Rafferty, Photography by John L. Stein

For years, decades in fact, I had avoided motorcycle auctions. As neither buyer nor seller, but simply yer humble observer/reporter, they seemed little more than a pain in the ass. Then last year, at the suggestion of erstwhile Motorcyclist columnist Ed Milich, who was otherwise occupied, I covered the Bonhams auction at the Quail Lodge in Carmel Valley, California, for Sports Car Market magazine. Since they covered my expenses I figured what the hell, it’s only about an hour up the road, may as well check it out. And if you can’t trust a tattooed poet who races vintage Italian bikes, who can you trust?

Well, despite some keen machines on the block, after 3 hours on a folding chair the pain-in-the-ass theory was confirmed. This was, however, allayed by the proximity of the auction hall to the lodge bar, which served a fair brew called Fat Lip Ale, so I couldn’t pout.

While Steve McQueen’s Husqvarna 400 was the bidding highlight of the Quail Auction ($140,000 including a 17 percent seller’s fee), another McQueen Husky, the one on the 1971 Sports Illustrated cover (producing a groundswell of international popularity for shirtless motocross), was on the block recently in Las Vegas. Mid America Auctions was one of three companies at the January duel in the desert, with some 1200 motorcycles crossing the block.

Bonhams opened the glittering showdown with the prestigious duPont collection; about 50 machines covering a broad span of time, rarity, condition and price. Given the duPont family’s ownership of Indian Motorcycles in its concluding phase, a dozen tribal machines from 1907 to ’52 were offered up at no reserve and reasonable market estimates. Nearly all sold well above the listed range. The only bikes to hit six-figures were Vincents: a ’53 Black Shadow and a ’55 Black Prince, each at $122,500.

Then Mid-America Auctions, the veteran of Vegas throwdowns, and Auctions America, newcomer as the motorcycle division of the auto auctioneer RM, were ready to slap gavels. The latter won easily the antiquities title with an 1894 Roper Steamer and 1899 de Dion Bouton trike. Mid-America showcased a half-dozen Vincents, a 1915 Iver-Johnson, McQueen’s Husqvarna and 1940 Indian Four, plus dozens of Triumphs.

The prices of British bikes, especially well turned out pre-units and Bonnevilles, are again on the rise, although various BSA models are still good values. Some bargains were also available among early Hondas, small-bore European bikes and semi-obscure racing machines. Bonhams consultant and part-time scribe David Edwards put on his bidder’s cap and scored a Gilera 124 and BSA/Greeves for a song.

The restored vs. original debate continues to favor the latter. Over-restoration is increasingly perceived as desecration; period patina prevails. They’re only original once, the saying goes, and racebikes usually for only one race. When in doubt, do not refurbish. Assuming you’re selling, not riding.

The fact that collector car marketing has embraced two-wheelers bodes well for the profit profile of vintage bikes. Of course it also attracts grifters, poltroons, Murphy artists, scoundrels and sundry scumbags. Last year a classic was posted as an ex-McQueen bike, with dubious provenance.

I checked with an accredited expert source, whose word I trust, who responded: “Your job, when it goes under the hammer, is to stand up and yell, ‘This is bullsh*t and I’m not going to take anymore.’ It should add a much needed breath of fresh air to the ever-fetid smell of the auction game. I smell mendacity!!!” Yours faithfully, The Duke of Westminster.

Then this other guy I know says that McQueen became a Mormon in his last years, and that someone recently found some of his underwear in an old locker at the Santa Paula Airport. Word is they have magical properties. Start the bidding at $50,000!

By Tod Rafferty
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