Words: Aaron Frank
Photos: Auction America by RM
After years in the shadows, motorcycles have now entered into the collectible vehicle spotlight. As motorcycles become more mainstream and collector car prices become ever more obscene, the idea of bikes as intelligent investments is taking hold. Events like the recent sale of the John Edgar/Rollie Free Vincent for a reported $1 million have made vintage motorcycles a hot property, and competition for the motorcycle collector dollar is heating up.
This was beyond evident in Las Vegas last January, when three of the country’s biggest auction houses held motorcycle-only sales on the same weekend. Bonhams set up at the Imperial Palace and offered 120 bikes, while Mid-America Auctions hammered off 500 motorcycles at South Point Hotel and Auctions America opened bidding on 490 bikes at the Rio Hotel and Casino—the latter’s first-ever motorcycle auction.
Each auction had its own marquee machines to attract bidders. Bonhams offered 50 vintage Indians from the collection of former Indian Motocycle Company President L. Paul du Pont, plus an unrestored 1915 Harley-Davidson 11-F estimated at $250,000. Auctions America offered two of the oldest motorcycles in the world, a steam-powered 1894 Roper and an 1899 De Dion-Bouton, along with Steve McQueen’s Von Dutch-restored 1929 Scott Flying Squirrel and 1938 Harley-Davidson WLD Solo. Mid-America also played the McQueen card with the actor’s 1971 Husqvarna 400 Cross Sports Illustrated coverbike, 1940 Indian Four and 1938 Triumph Speed Twin.
Bonhams’ du Pont collection was a home run, selling 100 percent for more than $1 million, led by a 1906 Indian Camel Back for $72,540. Spare Indian parts sold for 10 times above estimates and a Henderson four-cylinder engine sold for $35,000, proving collectors will pay anything to finish a restoration. Antique American machines were top sellers for Auctions America, led by a beautifully restored 1910 Flying Merkel at $86,800 and an ex-Bud Ekins 1926 Cleveland Fowler at $76,160. Mid-America sold $4.6 million in bikes, led by another American original, an unrestored 1915 Iver Johnson that went for $299,600.
The failures were as notable as the successes. The Roper steamer stalled at $425,000, failing to meet reserve, and the 1899 DeDion-Bouton trike stopped at $195,000. Auctions America’s 1928 Brough-Superior SS100, purchased new by the Dunlop Rubber Company as a test mule, also failed to meet reserve at $190,000, while the 1938 Brough-Superior offered at Mid-America failed to sell at $180,000. Many McQueen items went unsold as well, including the ’71 Husky that fell short of reserve at $137,000.
Maybe motorcycles aren’t ready for Barrett-Jackson-level primetime quite yet. Competition between three top-tier events didn’t help the house, but it made bidders the winners—especially those shopping on the more pedestrian end of the spectrum. Perfectly restored, ’60s Brit-bikes sold for $5000 all day long, and half that amount bought your choice of clean ’70s UJMs. Modern classics were a bargain, too—how about a Ducati Desmosedici with many upgrades for $30,000?
Las Vegas might have been too much of a good thing, but it won’t be the end of the motorcycle auction trend. With rare automobiles changing hands for $20 million, what’s $125,000 for an equally beautiful and historically significant Vincent Black Shadow? Among car guys at least, our secret is out.