The younger generations are disinterested in driving — or so futurists, politicians and even some auto industry executives keep reminding us — and someday soon, they will simply summon rides in self-driving pods rather than buy their own cars. And yet, the fastest, finest, most extraordinary automobiles of yesteryears continue to grow more precious (and lucrative), evidenced in the most unlikely of places — Blenheim, in south- western Ontario — and courtesy of Rob Myers. Myers restored his Edsel Corsair in a one-car garage in Chatham, Ontario, in 1976 and started a business fixing vintage cars, eventually earn- ing himself an impressive reputation. News spread — mainly of his exacting standards — and increasingly, worthy automobiles arrived for Myers, who by then had officially formed RM Auto Restoration, one of the world’s leading automobile restorers and auctioneers.
The conviction that auctions could be taken to a higher level dawned in the wake of opening a sales division. RM’s first auction took place in Toronto in 1992; auctions held in conjunction with America’s foremost Concours d’Elegance were in place by 2000. After opening a Euro- pean division in 2006, Myers met with Bill Ruprecht, then chief executive officer of Sotheby’s, to explore a possible collaboration.
Their relationship started with Ferrari, at the auction titled Leggenda e Passione, in May 2007. Conducted in association with Sotheby’s, on the hallowed ground of Ferrari’s headquarters in Maranello in northern Italy, the sale was a sensation with a sell-through rate of 97 percent and $46 million in sales and fees, instantly establishing RM’s auction stature on the continent. Subsequent sales at Maranello followed in 2008, 2009 and 2017.
The auction Art of the Automobile in 2013 presented classic cars on the 10th floor of the global headquarters of Sotheby’s on New York’s Upper East Side, arrayed in a series of rooms with dramatic backdrops. In two hours of bidding, 31 classics sold for $63 million, a sell- through rate of 93 percent.
In 2015, Sotheby’s had acquired 25 per cent of RM Auctions, further solidifying a “hobby” as a major player when it comes to quality investments. Triumph followed tour de force in the first year of Sotheby’s in an ownership position. Sales totalled $593 million — a record that included $172.9 million at Monterey, California, the highest grossing classic auction ever. The icing on the cake: RM Restoration earned its sixth best-in-show award at Pebble Beach, with an Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A restored in its Blenheim facility for renowned collector Jim Patterson of Louisville, Kentucky. In the world of car auctions the Sotheby’s and RM Restoration partnership has been significant, establish- ing the largest client network of any collector car auction house in the world.
While much credit goes to Myers for this Canadian success story, change is underway. Myers continues as chairman and CEO, and Sotheby’s has brought in its own experts, like Kenneth Ahn, who moved from New York to RM’s head- quarters and restoration shops in Blenheim, and Ian Kelleher, who was called in from managing west coast auctions to go to New York to help integrate car auctions within the vast range of Sotheby’s specialties, such as 20th-century design and modern Asian art.
In an effort to bolster the perception of auto- mobiles as objets d’art, last November, Sotheby’s hosted a contemporary art evening sale in Manhattan that offered mostly paintings, some sculpture and one fantastically red race car.
That Ferrari Formula One race car from Lot 55 — the one Michael Schumacher drove and that won the 2001 Monaco Grand Prix — found its new home, courtesy of a telephone bidder, for $7,504,000. At that same auction, Three Studies of George Dyer, a painting by Francis Bacon, realized the highest price among the contemporary art offerings, at $38.6 million. A closer comparison for the race car, perhaps, was sculptor Jeff Koons’s Five Vacuum Cleaners, which framed five actual vacuum cleaners and hammered at $6,437,500. Even five vacuums at full throttle are no match for a Ferrari’s V-10 howl.
Ferraris have come closer to rivalling art or sculpture than any other car. Certainly, Les Wexner, whose Victoria’s Secret lingerie stores made him a billionaire, thinks so. After accumu- lating a formidable collection of Pablo Picasso’s works, the richest man in Ohio has repeated the performance with Enzo Ferrari’s.
Gord Duff, global head of auctions at RM Sotheby’s, understands how the lines blur between fine art and vintage cars. He’s in touch with hundreds of clients, many of whom he met during his first 10 years with RM as a truck driver, picking up cars for the next sale or delivering classics they’d purchased. His next role was as a car specialist bringing buyers and sellers together. As this story was being written, Duff was flying to Moscow to visit clients before continuing on to the biennial auction at Monaco.
“Many collectors don’t drive their cars,” remarks Duff. “Close to half, I’d say, display them in purpose-built facilities, spend time with them, have friends come over for social gatherings among the cars — much like art collectors.” Duff knows every car-collector category. “Some focus on one marque,” he says, citing Steve Plunkett’s fabulous range of Cadillacs the singer and composer has assembled near London, Ontario. “Others [focus on] a category, like Detroit Muscle Cars.” At Vernon’s Antique Toy Shop — in Swift Current, Newfoundland — Vernon Smith’s preference is obvious: most of the 65 cars on show are convertibles.
Some collectors drive their treasures at every opportunity. Most days when he’s home, Steve Plunkett chooses one Cadillac to drive to breakfast, another to lunch. Lawrence Stroll, who developed the Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors brands along his way to billionaire status, returns to Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, to sample his extensive collection of Ferrari race cars — including the 1967 275 GTB/4*S N.A.R.T. Spider, for which he paid $27.5 million at an RM Monterey auction — on his own race track.
Vintage racers compete wheel-to-wheel at multi-track venues, like Canadian Tire Motor- sport Park, east of Toronto. Others prefer less intense road rallies, such as Italy’s Mille Miglia. Once a storied and dangerous road race, it’s now a highly social celebration of owning classics that many view as objets d’art.
Collectors typically begin with the cars they yearned for in their teenage years. If they’re not sure where to begin, specialists like Duff can help play a critical role in counselling and motivating clients to build or prune their collections. Toronto collector Brent Merrill remembers Duff identifying the opportune moment to sell his 1950s classics before their prices fell.
A current favourite of Merrill’s is a spectacular 1932 Marmon Convertible Coupe that he purchased since bidding farewell to the ’50s in favour of cars from the ’30s. And the Marmon’s appreciation in recent years has proved it to be investment-quality. “I am rather an independent soul with my own mind and thinking,” Merrill explains, “but the RM specialist team, especially Gord Duff, helps keep me focused and disciplined in my purchases.”
And even with the advent of self-driving cars, these types of purchases will continue. Doomsayers worry that the Les Wexners of the collector world are 80 years old and counting. “Plenty of new collectors are coming into the market at the same time, as older collectors in their 70s, 80s, 90s have fabulous cars they bought for a tenth what they’re worth today,” says Duff. “These collectors are loyal and will likely enlist us when it comes time to consign their cars. Time works in our favour.”
By Dan Proudfoot – *This article originally appeared in INSIGHT: The Art of Living | Fall 2018
Photography by: Tim Scott/Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s; Darin Schnabel/Courtesy of RM Auctions