Is Olive Drab the New Black?

Last May, a lot of media outlets were carrying a story that was titled something like, “Are Classic Military Vehicles a Collector’s Bargain?” Written by an insurance company, the story was picked up and repeated in various outlets. As recent as last week, one “author,” Stefano De La Cuesta, juggled the story around and represented it as his own on a competing insurance company’s web site. While the story gained traction, it appears no one actually checked to see if the provocative headline is anything more than that—provocative.

ACTUAL SALES

I reviewed more than 20 renditions of the same article on news outlets such as FOX, SOFREP, NEWSVOICE, before I actually discovered its origin. Apparently, a quintet of authors,Todd Starnes, Judith Miller, Juan Williams, KT McFarland, Keith Ablow, produced the article for Hagerty Insurance. It was published on May 18, 2016, under the title, “Retired from Service and Reporting for Duty.” That was probably a more accurate title for the article than the anxiety-producing re-titling that appeared three weeks later (June 5) on FOX News. Though FOX enticed readers with the hint of investment advice with the new title, the article never delivered any.

So what about it? Are classic military vehicles (what we tend to call, “historic military vehicles—or “HMVs”) a bargain in today’s market?

Only a serious study of actual sales can provide any trustworthy response to the question. Making it a bit more difficult than, say, evaluating the muscle car market, HMVs are bought and sold on a global market. Think about it this way—how many buyers in the US are there for a Scimitar (FV107 an armored reconnaissance vehicle used by the British Army) as compared to England? Supply, demand, and nostalgic connection drive the prices on HMVs.

In the recent sale in Catz, France, on Sunday 18 September 2016, Artcurial Motorcars sold the entire collection of he Normandy Tank Museum at no reserve. Every one of the 130 lots in the “D-Day Sale” changed hands, achieving total sales of $4,160,436–well above the auctioneer’s estimate.

High prices dominated the afternoon. Early in the sale, an MB Jeep (lot 7) sold to a European bidder for $112,112, setting a new auction world record. Shortly after, a 1942 BMW R75 motorcycle with sidecar (lot 17) also set a new world record. A third record was achieved for a 1944 Cushman military scooter (lot 90) when it sold to a collector in the room for ten times its estimate at a surprising $167,440!

Lot 46, 1944 CHRYSLER M4A4 SHERMAN, sold for $407,680

Lot 46, 1944 CHRYSLER M4A4 SHERMAN, sold for $407,680

Lot 61, 1943 HARLEY-DAVIDSON WLA sold for $74,995.20.

Lot 61, 1943 HARLEY-DAVIDSON WLA sold for $74,995.20.

The tanks, some of which demonstrated in front of the museum the day before the sale, attracted a lot of interest and bidding as well. Not surprisingly, supply, demand, and nostalgia drove a Sherman to the top of the auction’s “price paid list.” The Chrysler M4A4 Sherman (lot 46) fetched $407,680 while a M4/105 Sherman (lot 95) sold to a French collector for $347,984.

Those are some really impressive sounding prices. By following sales over the past decade, I will say that only the Shermans were “down” in price. A few years ago, a restored M4A3 would dependably sell for about $500,000. So, in defense of FOX’s headline, I can say Shermans did appear to be in the bargain category at this sale.

But those prices are from the auction house’s press release. This is what you have to remember about auction press releases: They are written to entice future consignors. That’s why they report the highest prices paid rather than the bargains. The question remains as to whether the FOX News report was misleading. Were there any bargains at the D-Day Sale?”

The umbrella answer to this would have to be, “Not really.” Scanning through the final sales of the 130 lots, the only things I spotted that I would consider being bargains were, well, nothing. The only vehicle that was even remotely close to a bargain was an unrestored, non-running LVT4. It sold under its pre-sale estimate of $44,800-$67,200 for $41,664—a bargain–depending on how much restoration is required to get it running and swimming.

Without a doubt, at this sale demand was high, as was nostalgia. After all, this was touted as the sale of the “D-Day Tank Museum.” So, it should come as no surprise that there were NO bargains at the sale.

AND IN THE REAL WORLD?

Most of us aren’t in the realm of bidding on tanks at French auctions. Rather, we are more likely to spend our afternoons scouring classifieds, web sites, or even driving back roads in search of a historic military vehicle to restore and drive for the fun of it. So what about it? Any bargains in the “real world?”

The answer here is, “Sort of.” Over the past couple of years, demand has fallen, so the prices of vehicles sold has actually dropped. WWII Jeeps that would have sold for $22-$25,000 in 2010, are not commanding those prices today. Realized sales tend to be happening in the $17,500-$22,000 arena—a slight drop, but not really in the realm of “bargain.”

The same is playing out in other areas: M37s, M715s, WCs, M35s, and CCKWs (the latter two probably a bit harder hit in value simply because of size). The reality is, the world is different today than it was in 2010. We are facing an election, the economy is still recovering from the Great Recession, and a lot of collections have been hitting the market at the same time—all of these factors combine to to lower values. So, are HMVs a “bargain?” Well, as Dad would say, “It’s only a bargain if you have the money to buy it.”

But, what you and I know—as opposed to the five authors who worked on the piece for Hagerty, or the people who twisted the article for FOX News–owning historic military vehicles has little to do with bargains or investments—its all about a sense of history. The soldiers who had to depend on the vehicles paid the real price. All we do is honor them by purchasing the vehicles and presenting them as rolling memorials to the sacrifices that really paid for them.

Preserve the memories,

John Adams-Graf

Editor, Military Vehicles and Military Trader

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