By on August 19, 2019

1991 Pontiac Trans Sport, Images: RM Auctions, Inc.

Over the weekend at Monterey, RM Sotheby’s executed what will forever remain one of the worst screw-ups in auction history. With a piece of is-it-or-isn’t-it Porsche history on the block, the auctioneer started his patter at what the crowd (and the media screen) thought was thirty million dollars. That same media screen quickly rocketed to seventy mil before said auctioneer clarified he was saying seven-teen not seven-ty. Boos rained down upon the room and bidding predictably evaporated like chloroform. The car failed to sell.

Conspiracy theorists will forever debate what really happened, but our question for you today is this: what’s the biggest error — either in buying or selling — you’ve ever seen at a car auction?

Some are murmuring the house got caught in a dangerous game, one which allegedly happens at auctions across the nation. An auctioneer, eager to bump the price of a car, takes bids from the Coke machine at the back of the room when there is in fact only a single human bidder. This is bad at the thousand-dollar beater level, let alone at the rarified stratosphere in which this event was playing. We are not implying that happened this weekend.

As for purchase blunders, your author watched a former editor of this esteemed publication raise his hand at the sum of $250 for a knackered Ford Focus whose rear suspension was hanging at angles not approved by Blue Oval engineers. This, despite the obvious fact that no other human was marching in the vehicle’s direction and he could’ve bagged the car for $50. It should be noted this particular house had a proclivity for slapping outrageous fees on sale prices, so the Focus ended up costing nearly five hundred bucks out the door. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.

How about you? What mistakes (on either side of the gavel) have you witnesses in the auction lanes?

[Image: RM Auctions, Inc.]

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27 Comments on “QOTD: Witness to Auction Shenanigans?...”


  • avatar
    R Henry

    At an auction of muni owned fleet vehicles, a ratty F250 utility bed was idling in front of the 500+ bidders crowd, bidding in progress. Then, without warning, the next vehicle in line, a three axle compactor trash truck somehow lost its airbrakes and rolled into the back of the F250. Since I was directly in front of the F250, I was suddenly terrified, then overtaken by laughter….

  • avatar
    Steve Lynch

    What happened at Sotheby’s was a classic case of “taking bids from the chandelier” or, at a non-high end auction, “taking bids from the Coke machine.”

    Problem was, this auctioneer was not very schooled in this trickery..

    • 0 avatar
      ToddAtlasF1

      I watched the tape. The auctioneer was as legitimate as any of them. He called out the bids by half million dollar increments. It was the person entering the bids into the display that changed teens of millions into tens of millions. As for the disappointed spectators, I could not care any less. They came to prostrate themselves before currency figures. Typically the bidders on eight-figure cars have agents doing their bidding, often over the phone. I just think the Type 64 stalled below what its current owner assumed it would bring.

  • avatar
    slavuta

    I’ve seen people overpaying for Hondas. Why go to an auction and pay a dealer price?

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      Probably it’s a BHPH dealer there picking up 30 or 50 cars, no fuss, time saved, moving on. They don’t care what they pay, they’re tripling their money at worst. If it’s repoed/resold/rinse/repeat, it’s open ended.

      • 0 avatar
        slavuta

        This is not the case. These overpaid were from private buyers. Oh, you should see the celebrations. Like if they won the Stanley cup.

        • 0 avatar
          DenverMike

          Sure, but who was bidding him up? Other private buyers? It makes no sense for private buyers to attend dealer type, filled auctions. Insurance auctions, custom, vintage, etc, I can understand.

    • 0 avatar
      PandaBear

      Sometimes small dealers can’t get enough inventories, and have to buy from auction even at a higher price. They need some good cars to bring in the customers, then sell them junks when they can’t afford the good cars.

  • avatar
    bunkie

    Twenty years back, I needed a cheap car. Living in Brooklyn at the time, I went to the permanent “Tuesday Nite Auction” place near the Gowanus Expressway. Most of the inventory was high-mileage domestic stuff (I identified a Mercury Sable wagon that I ended up buying for $1200 plus a few hundred in fees). This was a reverse auction where the price starts high and drops until either someone bids or the car rolls.

    Then a mid-90’s BMW 7 series rolled up. The auctioneer starts the bidding at “35”. It dropped until, at “25”, this kid in the crowd spoke up. He thought he had gotten the deal of the century until it was made clear that he had just contracted to buy the car for 25 thousand, not 25 hundred. The staff was having none of his “I didn’t understand” and, when I left, they were still giving him the going over. He didn’t look very happy.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Euro spec TransPort FTW!!! Last one of those I saw was in Southern Italy in the late 90’s. It may have been one of one in Naples.

  • avatar
    dwford

    During my time working at the Hyundai store, our new GM came back from the auction with a stick shift 3 series for some insane reason. Seems he wanted it as his demo. When the owner saw it in inventory, he demanded that it be sent right back to the auction. The GM didn’t get rid of it, I guess he didn’t realize who he was working for. That GM got fired a couple weeks later.

  • avatar
    Fred

    Not an auction, but my brother told me about a $2000 Porsche Speedster some 30-40 years ago. Short story, it turned out to be $20,000 which was way too much for that car. Just shows that it gets confusing sometimes.

  • avatar
    cognoscenti

    The shenanigans were mine in this true story. I bought my first BMW 3-Series (a 1989 E30 6MT with houndstooth cloth interior) at auction in 1994, using a technique my regular-auction-attending friend taught me: “The Angry Bidder”. Basically, it involves bidding quickly and aggressively to scare off other bidders, as if you are irritated that anyone would dare to compete with you. At one point I accidentally bid against myself and was admonished by the auctioneer. In this case it worked, and I got a car in fantastic condition for roughly half of Private Party value, intending to flip it for a profit. Instead, I fell in love with the little BMW while waiting for the title to come, and drove it out beyond 250K miles. I eventually gave it to a friend in need, still running & driving fine but starting to rust in key areas. Michigan winters…

  • avatar

    I don’t know about errors but Dana Mecum not taking $20M for his rebodied Ferrari seemed really odd to me. Muddy history with non-pontooned 250 GTs trading for under $10M, $20M seemed extremely generous.

    I called out my “43 Shocking Results @ Monterey” on my podcast this morning. Please check it out if you like autos and podcast:)
    https://pod.link/1460713022

  • avatar
    namesakeone

    I remember a classic car auction where the auctioneer couldn’t be interrupted in his patter–until it was fairly obvious that the late 1960s Chrysler 300 in front of him was on fire. The car escaped with minor damage, and I believe was sold.

  • avatar
    Lichtronamo

    I went to the Silver Auctions in AZ a few years ago with friends from MN. For some reason, they got a card and made a few bids during the day but never intended to buy. Apparently the auction company didn’t appreciate it. Late in the day, a 50s era stake truck was crossing the block and my friend bid on it at $4000. Bam down came the hammer in an instant – sold! They had to pay fees and ship it to MN on top of the winning bid.

  • avatar
    danio3834

    Dirt lot guys or their shills bidding up their own “no reserve” cars.

  • avatar

    Like having them turn off the green light to red as soon as the car leaves the block?

    Boy, I could tell some stories…

  • avatar
    ToddAtlasF1

    I worked for a place that would send cars to an auction held weekly by a dealer and open to the public. Cars needed to start and have valid inspection stickers. A Jeep Grand Cherokee with a 3.7 V6 can run until it heats up even when it needs an engine that you won’t find in working condition in a junkyard, and it will bring over half of retail at the public auction! F150 4.6 Triton with valve timing issues that limit max engine speed to just above idle? Perfect auction vehicle. VW W8 Passat? Forfeited to us to settle a $300 bill. Junkyard wouldn’t tow it for free. Brought $1,100 at the public auction.

    Sometimes dupes would show up at our shop the day after an auction with their latest bargains. None of them were worth more than scrap.

    I’ve been to a big auction near Richmond, Virginia. There were hundreds of cars that didn’t interest me at all and half a dozen curious cars that I wouldn’t have taken for free when I was sixteen years old.

    In college I went to an auction in Harrisonburg to watch people overpay for cars that no decent auction house would allow in their customer parking area. I don’t think I’m a fan of end-users buying cars at auctions. Watching televised auctions, I don’t think I’m a fan of them selling their cars at auctions either. I’ve seen bidding shut down on a car in an instant for an unfavored no-reserve seller and drawn out for minutes on chandelier bids for a friend of the house seller. I don’t want any part of that.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Can’t think of a good one involving the auctioneer but do have a funny anecdote. Jason and I were walking through lane one at BAA admiring all the high end Eurotrash in the summer of 2005. Coming up was a silver S-Klasse S55, I think an MY03. As the car approaches us, Jason points to the hood near the ornament and says “what the hell is that?”. I look and at first I didn’t see anything, but in the right light yes there was slight paint fading after the ornament but not on the front of the hood. I looked at him and said, someone must have had a bra on this and parked it frequently in the sun. Several other bidders overheard this and all gathered in for a view. I looked at Jason and nodded let’s get out of here and we quickly skedaddled down to our normal lanes where the cheap stuff ran. I’m not sure who was selling that day, but Jason easily cost them several grand on a bid if not a no sale by pointing out the paint flaw.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    I used to buy ‘builders’ from fleet, government and impound auctions, the dishonesty the sellers do will curl your toes .

    No matter what, never pay over scrap value for an auction vehicle, /BT, DT, for pinched every time by hidden defects or damages .

    -Nate

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