When spring comes to Paris the humblest mortal alive must feel that he dwells in paradise. – Henry Miller
Henry Miller was close to the mark. Paris in the first week of February is paradise for any classic car enthusiast, many weeks before the first shoots of spring have erupted along the Champ de Mars in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Rétromobile isn’t just the most important car show in France, nor is it merely the European season opener; it’s now undoubtedly the preeminent historic vehicle event outside of the USA.
Paris is the perfect location for such an extravagant celebration of collector vehicles. An easy train ride from London, still a powerhouse of the historic vehicle market, home to some of the most important dealers in the world, and within easy reach of the rest of Europe, the city offers spectacular historic venues for the satellite events that take over the place for a week. Three major auction houses hold their landmark sales here – RM Sotheby’s in the Salles du Carrousel at the Louvre Palace, Bonhams at the Grand Palais Éphémère, and Artcurial at the Rétromobile event itself, hosted at a sprawling exposition centre at the Porte de Versailles. Everyone who is anyone in the industry is in the city, visiting the auction halls, dropping in to the stands at the show and making deals over dinner.
RM Sotheby’s: Slow but Steady
RM Sotheby’s was the first event of the week, on Wednesday, 31st January. After announcing a flurry of forthcoming new European sales, chief auctioneer Sholto Gilbertson’s night began relatively easily, the near-50 per cent rate of no-reserve lots meaning that the less expensive cars pretty much all sold, although some did take their time. A few lots exceeded expectations by some way, notably a very pretty 1989 Porsche 930 coupe in Linen Grey Metallic that sold for a strong €172,500, followed by a 1993 Turbo that sped past its €225,000 top estimate, finishing at €511,250, including fees. Bidders were apparently happy to forgive its 116,000km odometer reading and instead valued its extraordinary colour combination of Oak Green Metallic over a Sherwood Green interior.
But as the estimates rose, things became a little more difficult. A 1950 Ferrari 195 Inter coupe by Ghia was bid unsuccessfully to €620,000, although the next lot – a 1973 Dino GTS – sold for €635,000. If you’d told someone 15 years ago that a Dino would outperform a 195 Inter at auction, they would have suggested a quiet lie down. Then, a trio of big Porsches – a 1991 962C, a 993 GT2, and a 918 Spyder Weissach – were all bid up to more than €1M but failed to sell. Modern hypercars struggled too: A 2017 Bugatti Chiron, a 2003 Ferrari Enzo, and a 2018 Lamborghini Centenario LP770-4 roadster were all bid to well over €2M but still didn’t fetch their reserves.
Finally, the headline lots came into view. One of just a dozen Maserati MC12 Corsa models sold for a mid-estimate €3,042,500, and a very rare alloy factory-bodied Ferrari 275 GTB/6C returned an over-estimate €3,211,250. Then, it was the turn of the star: the ex-Chinetti/Grossman 1960 Ferrari 250 SWB Competizione. Bidding was painfully slow – Gilbertson at one stage even apologised to the room – and toward the end it broke down to a two-way battle rising in increments of €25,000 with the hammer finally falling at €9,025,000 (€10,158,125 including fees).
Bonhams: No-Reserve Bargains
The Bonhams auction took place on the following day with a mixed catalogue of enthusiast cars and a few more expensive lots. A 1969 Lamborghini Miura P400S sold mid estimate for €954,500, as did its younger sibling, a 1981 Countach LP400S that made €621,000. Two modern classic Ferraris – a 1988 Testarossa and a 1996 F512M – both sold over top estimate, and a stunning black 2004 Enzo returned the highest price of the day at €3.91M (£3.33M), just under Hagerty’s #2 ‘Excellent’ Price Guide value of £3.4M.
There were a few big misses, too. A 2005 Porsche Carrera GT didn’t reach its low €1.1M estimate, nor did a 1933 Maserati 8C 3000 Biposto or a 1931 Invicta S-Type low chassis. Other prewar cars struggled as well: A group of no-reserve Amilcars sold for an absolute song, including a 1927 CGSS Voiturette, estimated at €70,000 to €100,000, that changed hands for just €27,600 with fees. Although an unfinished project, this was a huge amount of car for the money and one that has the potential for prewar racing when finished.
Artcurial: Big Misses
Prewar cars fared slightly better on Friday, 2nd February, at the Artcurial auction. Bugattis did well – as they tend to at this venue – with four of the five selling; only a 1936 Type 57 Stelvio by Gangloff, with complex history, failed to meet reserve. But a 1929 Avions Voisin C14 Charteuese and a 1933 Hispano-Suiza Junior Berline by Vanvooren both sold without reserve for well under estimate.
But the top lots had a bad day. All four Ferraris estimated at over €1M failed to sell, including the star lot, a 1958 long-wheelbase, covered-headlamp 250 California, which was bid up to €7.8M against a presale estimate of €8.5M to €11.5M. There were misses also on a 2021 Lamborghini Sian, a 2020 McLaren Speedtail, and a 2018 McLaren Senna, amongst others.
Trends: Modern, More Expensive Cars Struggled
When the results of the three auctions were analysed together, Hagerty spotted some interesting trends. By year of manufacture, three decades performed worse than the others: The very earliest pre-1900 cars, models built in the 1940s, and the latest 2020-onwards cars. That said, there were only two 1890s cars and just five from the 1940s – the two decades with the fewest entries at the sales. The 2020s were represented by ten cars, of which four failed to sell, and the average low estimate of the four was €1.58M.
Examining at sell-through rates across the different price points reinforces the suggestion that less expensive cars made all the running at Paris this year. An astonishing 98 per cent of sub-€100,000 cars sold, as did 75 per cent of those priced €100,000–€500,000, despite these two price categories accounting for 94 per cent of the total lots.
Looking at it another way, the average sale price achieved by the three auctions compared to the average no-sale price shows a huge delta: At all three sales, the cheaper cars sold better than the more expensive ones. Although they were helped by a significant number of no-reserve instructions, this suggests that the pre-auction estimates and the bidders’ enthusiasm to purchase were both very strong at lower levels, less so at the top end. That’s pretty much a reversal of last summer, when the top of the global market was carrying the lower end. This is an encouraging sign for a healthy market.
But the show itself was superb. Romain Grabowski has been director of Rétromobile for fewer than 18 months, but his fresh approach has already made an impact, with a wonderful 100th anniversary celebration of MG that included bringing two speed record cars – EX181, which was piloted by Stirling Moss and Phil Hill, and Goldie Gardner’s EX135 – out of the British Motor Museum and across the channel for the first time in many decades. Other trade stands were just as impressive. As Hagerty reported, both Girardo & Co and Kidston both displayed Ferrari 250 GTOs, with Girardo’s 1963 model (and the nine other classic Ferraris surrounding it) attracting the attention of the Scuderia’s Charles Leclerc. Indeed, Rétromobile 2024 will undoubtedly be remembered for the show itself rather than for any remarkable auction results.