“I think the auction approach to collection sales is dying,” a dealer recently commented to me. “Sales seem to have really been down,” he added as to somehow bolster his argument. I listened through the phone cradled on my shoulder as he went on to quote specific items the prices realized. Little did he know, at the same time, I was scanning a press release from Auctions America in which the company announced, “Global interest and spirited bidding drive $10.24 million in sales at historic Littlefield Military Collection auction.” Clearly, the caller and the press release were not, “on the same page.”
Every month, I read spectacular “after-auction” press releases about “million dollar sales.” On many occasions, I have written to the auction firms explaining, “Our readers aren’t as much interested in how much money you made, as they are in the low prices they missed.” This reasoning, however, doesn’t play well with the auction companies.
I will attempt to paraphrase the responses I have received. Basically, when an auction company reports on grandiose total dollar amounts achieved at a particular sale, they are really targeting the next big consignor. At that point, they aren’t so much interested in attracting new bidders as they are in finding the next big collection to offer. Their hope is the large dollar amounts in their press releases will make some collector say, “Wow, they are really doing their best to achieve the top dollar for the seller. I think I will consign my collection with them.” The last thing the auction companies want to report on are any bargains that slipped through the cracks.
From my point of view, however, those bargains are what will attract me to bid in their next auction. Like all collectors, I am always on the hunt for a sleeper. If I see Model 1860 Colt revolvers in mediocre condition are selling for $2K, I am less inclined to look at that company’s next auction. If, however, they report that bargains were had with M1860s Colts selling for $600, you can bet I will be looking at the next auction!
WHO PROFITS ON AUCTIONS?
With auctions of militaria and firearms reaching into the millions of dollars, the hobby should be strong and vibrant, right? The good news is, all of the sales keep the interest level high. If people are buying, the hobby benefits. But are individuals happy with the results?
Reports of the recent sale of the Littlefield Military Vehicle collection could be found in all of the popular media channels. I don’t know how many friends and acquaintances sent me links to the story that had appeared in their local paper or on their local television station. $10.24 million dollars taken in on 119 vehicle does sound like a lot of money. Heck, that’s an average of about $86,000 per vehicle! How could that not be good news for the family selling the collection?
I remember one conversation with Jacques Littlefield about a particular vehicle: A British FV3901 Churchill “Toad” flail tank. Jacques knew the significance of this oddball vehicle: The Toad is the last surviving example of 42 built in 1942.
Jacques was the definitive collector. He didn’t care if something was “valuable.” His concern was whether a vehicle was “significant.” Realizing the significance of the Toad in the history of “Hobart’s funnies” (mission-specific vehicle adaptations for the D-Day invasion), he committed the necessary resources to restore the dilapidated remains of the mine-clearing tank. Though the restoration wasn’t complete, Jacques modestly commented he already “Had a million” in the work.
The Toad was offered in the sale of Jacques’ collection as lot 1086 with an estimate of $400,000-$500,000. Even before it was sold, it was obvious the vehicle was a losing proposition as far as a monetary investment. Offered without a reserve, the vehicle sold for $80,500—far below the cost to restore and even below the average vehicle price for the sale.
The point of all this is, auctions are not accurate barometers of our hobbies. Prices all depend on bidders. Who knows why one of the most iconic vehicles of the invasion of Europe sold for a bit over $80,000? Only one bidder? Cost to ship? Lack of a gun, and therefore, no “sex appeal?” Regardless, it only establishes a value for that vehicle, at that time, at that event. It does not establish a value that appraisers can cite as an accurate price estimate.
Conversely, glancing through the sales results for the same auction, an M43B1 Ambulance (lot 1109) sold for $34,500. Just as for the Toad, this doesn’t establish the “real value” of M43 Ambulances. Who knows why the M43B1 sold for more than $20,000 over the very reasonable sale estimate of $5,000-$10,000? Two spirited bidders? Obviously. Prices don’t go up just with one person holding up the paddle. But who knows why either bidder wanted the vehicle? Nostalgia? Competitiveness? We won’t know, but it is important to realize flukes at auction do not determine the market.
SO WHY USE AUCTIONS?
Part of my eventual, personal collection liquidation plan has been to utilize an auction company. If I am hit by a bus tomorrow, I don’t want my partner or daughter to have to worry about how to get rid of all the uniforms, helmets, weapons, insignia, photos and other relics that fill my office. This is an obvious reason to use an auction company—and probably why the Littlefield Foundation contracted Auctions America to sell Jacques’ collection. With one phone call, an auction company will take care of the rest.
In my situation, neither my partner nor my daughter will care how much I spent to acquire my collection. They will, however, be interested in the final results. Based on what I have observed, it is pretty much a guarantee the collection will not sell for the price I paid for everything. Some items might go high, and many, many items will go low. But, I will be gone, and those remaining won’t care about the money spent. The ease of liquidation and the receipt of a final payout will far offset any memory of “What JAG paid for it.”
I am a fan of auctions. Hardly a month goes by when I don’t place bids with one or several of the large auction companies that advertise in our magazines. Usually, I just place “safety” bids—you know the kind. “If it sells low, I want to be the buyer!” But every once in a while, an auction company will offer some cool AEF Tank Corps item. Then, as the poker players say, “I am all in.” I place a bid with the strategy developed by George Bush: “Shock and Awe!” I drop a dollar amount so crazy, another person would have to be out of their mind to come close in the bidding.
Waitta minute…I think I just figured out how a $10,000 ambulance can sell for $34,000! Shock and awe, baby! Some spirited collector probably has the same passion for Korean and Vietnam War medical material that I have for AEF Tank Corps stuff. Passion is a tough thing to monitor and even harder to predict. But it is what drives our hobby. Your family won’t understand it. Your accountant won’t approve of it, but you know what it is, and what it means to you. It means—just as it did for Jacques when he decided to restore the Toad to its former glory—preserving, studying, and honoring the military history—regardless of the price.
Collect because you love it,
Editor, Military Vehicles Magazine and Military Trader
For a full report on the Littlefield Collection sale, click here: http://www.militarytrader.com/military-vehicles-news/historic-littlefield-collection-drives-sales-to-10-24m
Speaking of passion, check out WWII Days at Midway Village Museum in Rockford, Illinois, this September 20-21. It is the largest WWII reenactment in the United States with more than 1,200 participants. There will be lots of armor, vehicles, and foot soldiers participating in different public display battles. For more info, log onto www.midwayvillage.com