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Historica Selecta’s “Yearbook”: A Checkered Flag for the Classic Car Market

Published on , by Nicky Griggs

Last week the 47th edition of Retromobile in Paris, the first major international classic car show of 2023, kicked off the market’s “season” in Paris. Each year the legendary classic car historian Adolfo Orsi of Historica Selecta brings clarity to this market with his Classic Car Auction Yearbook.

   Historica Selecta’s “Yearbook”: A Checkered Flag for the Classic Car Market

Adolfo Orsi takes his rightful place among the classic car world elite. Born into the milieu, Orsi’s grandfather, after whom he is named, purchased the Italian sportscar company Maserati in 1937, which his father, Omar Orsi, ran until 1968. Since the mid-1980s the younger Orsi has devoted his life to classic cars. He serves as a judge at the most prestigious Concours d'Elegance around the globe including the Villa d'Este on Lake Como and Pebble Beach in California. In October of each year the much-awaited Classic Car Auction Yearbook, a compendium dedicated to the classic car market, hits the shelves.
The 27th edition of the Yearbook, is a 414-page, full color, tome featuring the record breaking Mercedes-Benz « Uhlenhaut » Coupé on the cover. Within these 400 plus pages is a wealth of information, a vertiable gold mine of expert analysis and data that helps make sense of the classic car market.
The first section of the book contains the introduction together with a selection of market summaries by industry professionals. The contributing authors bring an interesting perspective, focused how their particular company or auction house performed. Orsi takes over presenting a detailed analysis of the market that includes easily readable charts and graphs. He digests the data, putting the numbers at the reader’s finger tips. No aspect of the market is left untouched. Drawing from comprehensive data reaching back to 2011, Orsi offers an astute synthesis, putting the information in contextal. The second part of the book, is the database. Here, nearly all car auction data for the 2021-2022 season is organized and presented in color. Included in the Yearbook is the chassis, engine or registration numbers for the vehicules sold.


A Market Revolution
The impact of COVID 19 on the classic car market, much like the art market, was dramatic. In the wake of canceled meetings and fairs, like Retromobile, along with the concours d’elegance judging events and auctions, the market limped through 2020 hitting a 9-year low, as noted in the most recent edition of the Yearbook. This decline came on the heels of already weak results in 2019. Yet as the art market pivoted online so did the classic car market. The panoply dossiers complete with photographs taken from every foreseeable angle along with videos gave buyers more confidence to bid on cars sight unseen, a practically unheard of before. Orsi rightly cites the rise of Bring A Trailer (BaT), the online car marketplace based in the United States, as the online auction posterchild for classic cars. BaT’s turnover skyrocketed from $398 M in 2020 to an astounding $828 M in 2021, eclipsing the heavy hitters like Mecum Auto Auctions and RM Sothebys. In 2021, the classic car market expanded, accelerating not only in the new online marketplace but the average price of cars also increased by 35%.  Orsi attributes this « turbo effect » to high liquity, a result of Covid restrictions, mixed together with the presence of new collectors and people’s desire to buy their dream cars—after all you only live once. Cars from the 1990s figured strongly in the market.  Auctions held between 2021-2022 resulted in a high percentage rate of lots sold (86%), signaling the market had bounced back from its 2019-2020 slump. According to Orsi the key index in determining the health of the market is through the percentage of lots sold (its sell through rate) for a particular auction. A powerful bit of information to keep in mind when shopping for that dream car. The number of million-dollar cars has also reached an all-time high with 103 cars having been sold over $1 M, up 64% since 2017-2018. Among this group was a 1970 Plymouth Hemi Superbird, a so-called muscle car, that sold at the Barrett Jackson, Las Vegas sale in 2020 for a whopping $1,650,000.


The « Uhlenhaut » Coupé: the Salvator Mundi of Cars
Gracing the cover of the 27th edition of the Yearbook is the famous 1955, 300 SLR Mercedes-Benz “Uhlenhaut” Coupé, which sold at a special event held at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany by RM Sotheby’s, for an astonishing €135 M to an anonymous buyer. This ultra-rare car, only two examples were made, earned its spot on the cover by smashing the previous record for a car sold at auction. It doubled the 2018 record-setting $70 M bid for a Ferrari 250 GTO. Not only was this special 300 SLR crowned the most valuable car, but it is among the ten most expensive items sold at auction. It was also the first car to pass the $100 M mark.  While $135 M is not the exactly the same price point, the Uhlenhaut Coupé sale recalls the famous Salvator Mundi sale. The Renaissance painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci set a record when it sold at auction for a bit more than $450 M to an anonymous buyer back in 2017. Similarily to the Salvator Mundi sale, the amount paid for the Uhlenhaut Coupé surpasses an important threshold, vastly expanding the highend of the market and attracting the attention of a global audience.


The New Season
What does the 2023 classic car season have in store? Armed with the data from the most recent Yearbook together with the Retromobile, an early barometer, it appears that this uptick is set to continue. Organized around the 100th anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the legendary endurance race, the 2023 edition did not disappoint. Cars that have raced and will race at the historic circuit in the Sarthe were in the spotlight, like a 1991 Jaguar XJR-14, the legendary sky-blue and orange Gulf sponsored Porsche 917K, one of the four factory 512 Ferraris to race in 1970 among many others. The sprawling show, which attracts professionals, collectors and car enthusiasts alike from all over the globe, equally ushers in the classic car auction season. RM Sotheby’s, Bonhams and Artcurial, which holds the officially branded Retromobile sale that takes place onsite, all put their respective best foot forward with comprehensive auctions. Both RM Sotheby’s and Bonhams boasted impressive results and high sell through rates. The future looks bright, but of course we will have to wait for the next Yearbook to truly make sense of it all.

Worth Reading
Adolfo Orsi, Classic Car Auction Yearbook: 2021-2022,
ed. 27th
, Historica Selecta, 414 pages.
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