The annual Las Vegas vintage motorcycle auctions show plenty of demand and a changing market.
The annual January Las Vegas vintage motorcycle auctions always produce interesting if not surprising results, with record highs and unexpected lows. But while the auctions are seen as an indicator of where motorcycle values are going, the direction isn't always clear. Longtime enthusiasts and collectors Robert Smith and Somer Hooker share their observations, with Robert's report first.
The ex-Tony McAlpine, Jack Ehret 1951 Vincent Black Lightning set a new motorcycle price record of $840,000 ($929,000 including buyer's premium) at Bonhams' 2018 Motorcycle Auction in Las Vegas. The 1953 Australian Land Speed Record Vincent was sold to a telephone bidder and is heading back to Australia. Also into six figures were 1926 and 1939 Brough Superior SS80s, fetching $126,875 and $120,500, respectively.
No other motorcycles offered at Bonhams (including five other Vincents) sold for more than $100,000, and two machines expecting big money failed to sell: a 1975 MV Agusta 750S America reached $72,000, while a 1977 MV 850SS was bid to $80,000. Neither made the reserve price.
Meanwhile, the five-day Mecum auction across town offered 1,750 motorcycles. Headlining the Mecum auction was a 1911 Harley-Davidson model 7D, the first H-D twin, which made $154,000 (a similar machine sold for $260,000 in 2014). A 1917 Henderson Four with Steve McQueen provenance sold for $110,000, with a Patrick Godet Egli-Vincent with Black Shadow engine (a former Best of Show winner at the LeMay concours) going for just $250 less. Also selling for just over $100,000 was a 1941 Indian Four.
The biggest difference between the Bonhams and Mecum auctions was of scale, with some 100 motorcycles on the block at Bonhams against Mecum's 1,700-plus. But there were still some interesting comparisons of similar machines sold at both auctions. For example, a 1990 Honda RC30 with just 14 "push" miles fetched $92,000 at Bonhams, but you could buy one with 11,000 miles at Mecum for "just" $44,000. Two examples of the RC30's competitor, the Yamaha FZRR OW-01, sold, one with 74 miles at Bonhams and another with 8,700 miles at Mecum, for $34,500 and $17,050, respectively.
And while Ceccato may not be a household name, there were three of the tiny race bikes from the early 1950s for sale: a 75cc single overhead cam at Bonhams from the Jack Silverman collection and two 100cc machines (one single overhead cam, the other a double overhead cam) at Mecum. Bonhams' single overhead cam Ceccato sold for $16,100, while Mecum's in similar condition sold for $33,000. The difference? Possibly the fact the Mecum bike was signed by its designer — the legendary Fabio Taglioni. Other Italian bikes at Mecum included an unrestored 1974 Ducati 750GT that sold for $17,050, a 2008 Ducati Desmosedici D16RR for $50,600, and a rare 1988 Bimota DB1SR at a very reasonable $19,250. A 1978 Ducati 900SS bevel sold for $47,300, while a 1973 750 Sport sold for $55,000.
Early Japanese superbikes included a rare sandcast 1969 Honda CB750 Four selling at $32,450, while two 1973 Kawasaki Z1s fetched $23,100 and $24,200.
British bikes usually abound at Mecum, and typically, shiny sells higher. Restored Triumph unit-construction twins from the late 1960s were selling in the low- to mid-teens, with top dollar going to a 1966 T120 at $16,500. But a signed 1952 Dick Mann replica TR5 with the rare "generator" engine managed only $6,600, and a 1952 TR5 Trophy just the same amount. Thirteen Norton Commandos sold for an average of $12,500, while unit BSA twins made an average of $8,800, and eight BSA Victors averaged $7,300.
But two of the most expensive items at the Mecum auction had no wheels at all: the rights and title to the Excelsior-Henderson brand for a reserve price of $3 million — bidding stalled at $1.9 million — and a metal neon sign that was formerly fixed above the employee/visitor entrance to the Harley-Davidson Milwaukee plant. It sold for $88,500!
— Robert Smith
I've been going to motorcycle auctions for 30-plus years now. In many collectibles markets, trends change and collectors buy certain vehicles for different reasons, primarily: You always wanted one and now you can afford it; you had one and sold it and now you want it back; you think it is going to appreciate.
These are all valid, and I'm sure you've heard people say, "They're always going to go up. Get on board now." Once, I heard an auctioneer implore bidders to buy and come back the next year and double your money. The only thing that doubled were the fees. In the past, collectors enjoyed nice, over-restored vehicles. This was a trend in cars and bikes, and many original bikes got restored because their good sheet metal provided the ideal canvas. But as we moved into the 21st century preservation became the buzzword, along with original paint. I'm glad to see an effort to preserve original bikes — it's how we save our history — but it's also led to people creating original paint bikes: faux patina and distressing has become an art form.
Whenever something sells at auction for a new high price, a dozen more come out of the woodwork. I remember a pristine BMW R69S selling for double the usual price. At the next auction around 40 or so /2 series BMWs showed up! They were cheap that day. It is a commodity-driven market. British bikes were and are popular with the Baby Boomers, but as Baby Boomers age out, they are starting to dispose of their British motorcycles, and lots of parts and bikes have come to market. Many a Boomer's dream was fulfilled when they purchased that Norton or Triumph, and then the bikes just sat afterwards.
There were 19 Vincents offered in Las Vegas this year. In the past, only a few showed up at auction, and they usually did well. I sold a Vincent Black Shadow at auction in 1988 for $27,000, a shocking price at the time. A few years ago, they were selling for five times that amount. Although the Ehret Vincent Black Lightning record holder with original paint sold for $929,000 this year, Vincents typically sell for under $100,000. Twenty years ago, people were amazed when a Triumph Bonneville sold for $17,000. Immediately, a lot of them came out of the woodwork, and Britannia began to rule. It was the same scenario for any bike Steve McQueen had sat on or much less looked at. When I started attending vintage motorcycle auctions in the 1980s, you almost never saw Japanese bikes, and if one did show up, people complained! Then Japanese buyers showed up and started buying the desirable ones, and this year Japanese bikes may have outnumbered English bikes. What we called Superbikes have become the Supersellers. This year there were 16 Honda CBXs offered, and their values were up, with one getting $15,400 and three going for $12,000-plus. Suzuki GT750s were strong, with five on offer and selling in the $7,000-$8,800 range. Kawasaki Z1s were also strong, with two' 73s breaking through the $20,000-plus range, and a low-number Honda CB750 KO sold for $32,450. It probably would have done better but for the incorrect parts it had. Clearly, the Rising Sun has risen.
Some dirt bikes are looking good, too, with lots of solid, well preserved or restored offroad bikes offered this year, and truly nice examples like a 1975 OSSA 250 Phantom fetching over $10,000. Add in some significant, documented race history and the price goes up. While offroad and vintage Motocross racing is popular in AHRMA, I don't think any of the ones selling are going to kick up a dust trail anytime soon.
The bottom line is simply this: Collectible markets are always in a state of flux. Certain things can become "hot," but nothing stays hot forever. My advice is always to buy something you like, because you may have to live with it for a long time, and objects that "spark joy" are always a good investment.
— Somer Hooker MC