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Analysis & Expert Perspective: Passion of a Lifetime Auction

Turtle Garage is proud to publish the following exclusive piece authored by friend and pre-war classics expert Jonathan Sierakowski. I first met Jonathan back in 2011 while he was at RM Auctions. Following the death of Malcolm S. Pray, Jr. in 2013, Jonathan was a crucial member of the team that helped us evaluate, value, research, and market several of Malcolm’s best cars. Jonathan has become a great friend and today we regularly chat about life, love, business, and the pursuit of collector cars. On short notice, Jonathan agreed to share his perspective with Turtle Garage readers on Gooding’s Passion of a Lifetime auction held last week at Hampton Court Palace in England. The auction outcome was exceptional and so is Jonathan’s thoughtful perspective and analysis. We hope you enjoy this unique post. You can learn more about Jonathan and his services at his website by clicking here. Also, see below for his full bio.

By Jonathan Sierakowski

As one of the first-tier automobile auction houses, Gooding & Company maintains the best catalog sale discipline, producing only three catalog sales a year. Consignments of private collections, especially one with a relatively modest volume of cars, can easily be accommodated within their available schedule.

In its history, Gooding has produced only a handful of one-off site sales. Although the right collections can stand tall on their own in an automotive calendar already filled with auctions, concours, and driving tours, there is a huge amount of work involved. A myriad of logistics to be considered include proximity to a major airport and hotels; whether preview, parking, telecommunications, offices, and restrooms can be accommodated on-site at the vendor’s collection or someplace nearby. And of course, the collection needs to be documented and photographed to produce a special catalog. All of these items on the checklist are already committed to the muscle memory and budget of an auction house at their regular annual auction locations, not so in the case of a private collection sale. The lead time for all of this can be four to six months or more, the drain on organizational bandwidth is substantial, and the costs add up quickly, all before the gavel falls on the first lot.

Point being, producing an auction around a single-vendor sale warrants special consideration and if agreed by both auction house and vendor, becomes a high-stakes partnership. The stable amassed over decades by Belgian collector Hubert Fabri’s, a small but select group of rare automotive treasures, possessed all the qualities that warranted such consideration.

After being incubated in secret, the sale became public knowledge when Gooding & Company shared a press release on January 22 announcing the sale, dubbed “Passion of a Lifetime,” for April 1 at Somerset House in Central London. When the sale was announced just after the Arizona auction week, reports of the flu-like virus that had emanated from Wuhan, China were starting to get the attention of the Western world. Two days before Gooding’s announcement, certainly planned long ahead of time, the CDC announced that three major airports would begin screening passengers for symptoms. One day before the announcement, the first human-to-human transmission was confirmed.

The Retromobile car week in Paris was extremely well attended. As news developed, I had many conversations with my wife, who is a physician, about under what conditions I should make the annual pilgrimage to Retromobile, and what precautions to take if I went. I attend with the knowledge that this would likely be the only trip to Europe for the year. There was an air of caution as daily headlines drove home the gravity of the situation. The hugs and kisses typically shared by friends who gathered from all over the world were muted or absent entirely, replaced by elbow bumps and cautious waves. By the end of February, it was clear that the global spread was becoming exponential and heading towards pandemic status.

The Amelia Island concours in early March took place- again with healthy overall attendance – but the faces of many notable elder collectors were absent, and the caution between close friends even more acute. On what could be the subject of a separate post is the uncertainty in the financial markets in the week leading up to Amelia which resulted in auction sessions that were more muted than might have been expected for such a highly attended annual event.

The WHO declared a pandemic on March 11. Travel was being restricted, lockdowns enacted, and the entire year, which had barely started, was now uncertain. The inevitable announcement was made on March 18 that the auction had been postponed until further notice, ultimately becoming part of a cascade of event cancellations. As an auction veteran who fully appreciates the temporal and economic investment made in producing the Passion of a Lifetime sale, I can only imagine the palpable tension in Gooding’s offices.

In the meantime, the beautiful set of catalogs would have to languish indefinitely on the desks of those fortunate enough to receive them, while global health and safety necessarily took center stage.

The first catalog, a small travel-friendly version, contains basic identification, specification, and no more than a few hundred words on each of the sixteen cars on offer. Smart. Most collectors don’t want to travel with bulky catalogs, and often ask for a replacement at the venue.

The second catalog is a beautiful hardcover book of two hundred pages with chapter & verse on each car. More on individual cars shortly, but generally speaking, they had all the right attributes of value that I coach clients on. Rarity, authenticity, provenance, condition, and historical importance. More than a typical sales catalog, the Passion of a Lifetime hardcover spoke of collecting philosophy. Music to my ears. It is typical that even a named collection such as this will keep the principal in the background while the auction house works its marketing magic, but in this case, a personal introduction written by Hubert Fabri spoke about the childhood experiences that shaped his motivation to collect automobiles, and the entry on each car covered the seller’s personal history with each. It was clear that this stunning, blue-chip collection was not assembled by accident. He liked cars that had special provenance, that were highly original, but which he could drive. The last two form an especially tricky combination to achieve, as very few specialists can articulately preserve patina while restoring functionality.

Though the pandemic was not and remains nowhere close to being over, by August 5 the fog had lifted enough that new sale plans could be announced. With some travel ability restored- although often with quarantine requirements, the sale venue was necessarily modified to limit attendance to pre-qualified individuals, with ample spacing and all other distancing requirements followed. The new date was September 5, with the sale location moved to be held in conjunction with the Concourse d’Elegance at Hampton Court Palace.

It was clear by late Summer that the forced adaptation by auction house from a bricks-and-mortar to most-online or online only format was successful, and was going to permanently change the nature of the auction industry. As a guy whose heart flutters for prewar cars, I had to wonder, could cars of this magnitude be sold in the current climate? I am of the opinion that most buyers of prewar automobiles need to see, touch and hear them, and the online-only format could hold back interest. Then again, the cars were so significant, known quantities, and a once in a lifetime opportunity, that if a principal did not travel, surely a representative would be there to inspect.

Kudos to Gooding’s staff for their efforts to facilitate inquiries. A week prior to the sale, a client called with interest in the Bugatti Type 35C Grand Prix. At first blush, the car met all of the criteria that we have established for his collection. Within an hour of speaking to one of Gooding’s specialists, who was patiently waiting out a two-week quarantine in London before visiting cars at the sale venue, I had received the complete and well-organized history file via WeTransfer. Whatever we needed in terms of additional photos and video was available. Details of the file bore out the seller’s philosophy; the car had been carefully selected, provenance documented by the right people, and the carefully considered mechanical recommissioning of the car carried out by a marque specialist that preserved the patina while allowing nearly two decades of enjoyable use. After digesting and passing on the file, several hours of discussions ensued, and I contemplated the reality of traveling to London on a moment’s notice. No way were we bidding on something this significant without one of us seeing and touching it. In the end, we held back. The car was a wonderful object, but too precious to use in the spirited fashion envisioned by its prospective suitor, and too valuable to simply keep under glass to stare at.

“What do you think it’ll bring?”, he asked. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it does high estimate,” I told him. A sales room filled with hundreds or thousands of people is impression, but only a small percentage of those actually affect the prices realized. In this case, with a modest handful of cars to sell, perhaps only a few dozen collectors from around the world would really make a difference: “You could put most any of these cars on the South Pole and they would draw out the serious collectors.”

And draw out they did with bidding that could be described as cautious, but steady. When the dust settled, the sales total was £34,048,900, just shy of $42,000,000. This eye-popping result could have been even higher, had the Bentley R-Type Continental Fastback not been withdrawn, and had the Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato found a home. The latter was the only no-sale, but a perplexing miss. By all accounts it was one of the best examples of one of the most sought-after models, and Aston Martin being one of the most internationally liquid brands. (For the record, I believe that super valuable cars like this Aston will become hot commodities in the very near future, with the Federal Reserve printing trillions of dollars and allowing inflation to rise, some of that money will flock to hard assets, including automobiles.)

In the end, I hope that Hubert Fabri and the Gooding team feel they achieved what they set out to accomplish. The results were well-deserved for an exceptional, curated group of that in many cases represented once-in-a-lifetime opportunities which represented thoughtful, purposeful acquisitions for their buyers.

There will certainly be no shortage of commentary on individual sales, so I have attempted to keep my editorializations brief:

Lot 1, 1927 Bentley 3-Litre Speed Model Sports Tourer
Sold for £345,000 ($458,487) against an estimate of £350,000-450,000
A matching-numbers, pure car restored by a marque specialist, it’s amusing that one of the world’s great, pure 3-Litres was the first lot of the sale, but that shows the caliber of the following offerings.

Lot 2, 1971 Lamborghini Miura P400 SV Speciale
Sold for £3,207,000 ($4,261,491) against an estimate of £1,600,000-2,000,000
Top Miura specification, documented, and marque specialist-restored, a world record price resulting from enthusiastic bidding which was uncharacteristic of the cadence of this sale.

Lot 3, 1955 Lancia Aurelia B24S Spider America
Sold for £709,400 ($942,756) against an estimate of £700,000-900,000
Excellent known history – and there are many of these that do not have excellent history – in a beautiful color scheme.

Lot 4, 1934 Bugatti Type 59 Sports
Sold for £9,535,000 ($12,671,534) against an estimate in excess of £12,000,000
A world auction record for a Bugatti. Patinaed and magnificent, certainly not a restoration candidate, but too precious to drive hard with a clear conscience.

Lot 5, 1924 Lancia Lambda 3rdSeries Torpedo
Sold for £391,000 ($591,619) against an estimate of £320,000 – 400,000
A sympathetic restoration of a car that is possibly one of the best in terms of originality and quality. A lot of money, but the premium for “the best” vs. “next best” is huge.

Lot 6, 1965 Lamborghini 350 GT
Sold for £379,500 ($504,336) against an estimate of £400,000-550,000
Attractively restored in pleasing colors, owned by Mr. Fabri because he got a ride in one as a child. Fair money in the current market, and the delta between low estimate and sale price is a rounding error in the overall result.

Lot 8, 1959 Lancia Flaminia 2500 Sport Zagato
Sold for £310,500 ($412,639) against an estimate of £400,000-500,000
Preceded by a lengthy addendum noting discussion of whether it had been born with the desirable competition-style covered headlights.

Lot 9, 1939 Bentley 4¼-Litre Cabriolet by Vanvooren
Sold for £517,500 ($687,731) against an estimate of £450,000-600,000
One of the most beautiful 4 ¼-Litres, with great history. Preceded by lengthy addendum noting that original crankcase had been removed and preserved separately, with another correct crankcase being run in the car presently.

Lot 10, 1928 Bugatti Type 35C Grand Prix
Sold for £3,935,000 ($5,229,416) against an estimate in excess of £3,000,000
A world record for a Type 35. Engine had been damaged in the 80s or 90s but had sensible repairs that preserved the original components. Several observers commented that the patina, especially where newer, patinaed paint covered areas of original paint loss, was perhaps a little too much. I had an in-depth look at this amazing car, and in the end, it is a pure Grand Prix Bugatti that retains all of its bits from 1928. It rang the bell because you won’t find another one like it.

Lot 11, 1935 Aston Martin Ulster
Sold for £1,583,000 ($2,103,727) against an estimate of £1,600,000-2,200,000
A pure car but noted that a replacement motor was fitted in 1936 when the car was a year old; that motor is preserved loose while a racing engine is currently fitted. This car and its history matter more in its home country than anywhere else.

Lot 12, 1924 Vauxhall 30/98 OE Wensum Tourer
Sold for £1,247,000 ($1,657,200) against an estimate of £800,000-1,200,000
Sale preceded by a lengthy addendum noting the car is on its third engine, yet it still brought high estimate, being purported as perhaps the most original survivor with the rakish, most desirable Wensum coachwork.

Lot 13, 1955 Aston Martin DB3S
Sold for £3,011,000 ($4,001,467) against an estimate of £3,000,000-4,000,000
Bidding on this was slow and steady but eventually it reached the mark. Perhaps the period racing crash history had something to do with it, or perhaps the crowd wasn’t in attendance for Astons?

Lot 14, 1919 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost in the Style of Million-Guiet
Sold for £1,023,000 ($1,359,515) against an estimate of £1,100,000-1,400,000
Alpine Eagle model; represented as having been delivered with Million-Guiet coachwork originally. These Silver Ghosts are well-researched so the omission of any explanation as to how the car came to lose its original coachwork is surprising. However, text does indicate that the body is a thoughtful fantasy based on the study of Million-Guiet bodies. A lot of money for a beautifully rebodied, postwar Ghost.

Lot 15, 1937 Bugatti Type 57S Atalante
Sold for £7,855,000 ($10,438,899) against an estimate in excess of £10,000,000
A world auction record for a Type 57. The “S” designation indicates a low chassis, and the difference is obvious with two cars sitting side by side. Although it had a supercharger added later in life, effectively rendering it the ultimate “57SC” specification, it is correctly a 57S. Among the most desirable and breathtakingly beautiful Bugatti coachwork, this was sympathetically restored by a marque specialist and probably driven more miles by the seller than any other 57S. A wonderful example and no doubt placed intentionally last, this is the one I’d wish to take home.

About Jonathan Sierakowski:

Jonathan Sierakowski began his love of classic cars as a teenager, visiting a restorer in his hometown of Manchester, Connecticut. He soon worked there most summers and weekends, progressing year-by-year to greater and greater responsibilities, until finally serving as Service Manager for his mentor Butch Gordon’s Manchester Motor Car Company. Early interaction with a pair of unrestored Horch 853 Cabriolets, and a 1934 Packard 1104 Coupe Roadster, cemented his passion for prewar Classics.

Following his graduation from the University of Connecticut, he moved to freelance work as a catalog writer and historian, later spending several years as a senior researcher and specialist for a major international auction house. Jonathan, his wife Elizabeth, and their newborn daughter Gabriela are based in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Sierakowski is well-known in the hobby, including service as a judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, and was more recently appointed by the Classic Car Club of America as the Editor of its national publications. For the last three and a half years, Jonathan has served the hobby essentially as an art advisor with his firm Sierakowski Classic Car Advisors. Friend and colleague Chris Summers has been with him for almost two years, and together they provide research, appraisal and consulting services to help shape the connoisseurship of their clientele.

Passion of a Lifetime on display at Hampton Court Palace

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2 Responses to Analysis & Expert Perspective: Passion of a Lifetime Auction

  1. A.J. September 16, 2020 at 7:20 am #

    Well done Jonathan!

  2. Middleton O’Malley-Keyes September 14, 2020 at 9:04 am #

    As a life long motorhead, inspired by my European father’s exciting description of pre-war Mercedes 540’s, he loved the pipes exiting the engine cowl, and Isotta Fraschini, etc, I grew up in America where I developed an interest in late 30’s Americana, and British, German, and Italian, 50’s and 60’s sports cars, the majority in which I couldn’t find room for my 6’5” body. But in my own very minor serial collector way I’ve enjoyed owning interesting, affordable and drivable cars. Alfa Romeo GTV 1750, a bevy of MGB’s, ‘65-‘73 Corvettes, TR3’s, SL Mercedes, and so on. The count is pushing 70 cars, all were/are drivable and good looking. Plus there is the enduring fascination with motorcycles, the latest of which is a beautiful, low mileage, 75 BMW R90. There’s a common thread among automotive aficionados separated only by money, and that is, as J. Mays once put it, the “lust, longing, and desire”, generated in the hearts and minds of those who love cars, (and motorcycles). Reading about Farbri’s Passion Of A Lifetime, was akin to reading about the achievements of a famous war hero. Thank you for this exceptional article.