Could This Ferrari Be the Most Expensive Car Ever?

An old thoroughbred transcends the car-auction market and crosses over to the art world.

Tim Scott ©2015 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's

RM Sotheby’s awkwardly calls their Dec. 10 collector car auction in New York “Driven by Disruption.” It will focus on “creatively styled, pioneering automobiles,” including Janis Joplin’s Porsche, the first Series III Lamborghini Countach and an Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato. But, of course, the undeniable star attraction is a Ferrari.

That’d be this, a 1956 Ferrari 290 MM, and there’s talk of it fetching $35 million come December. Some folks are even speculating it could take a swing at the record-setting Ferrari 250 GTO that sold for $38.1 million last summer. There was a time when this 290 MM wasn’t even a seven-figure car, let alone eight; back in the Vietnam War era, mid-four figures. You know, like a nice Triumph Stag. It wasn’t really until money moved into vintage racing that a market for nicer, old race cars developed. From there, though, it has quickly taken off.

That’s the key piece of the puzzle. This classic monoposto-style Ferrari transcends the car market and crosses over to the art world.

Why could this Ferrari break the record? Enter Juan Manuel Fangio, a hugely charismatic and talented Argentine who competed during the golden age of postwar racing, most notably with Mercedes and Maserati. He’s perhaps the greatest (and most popular) of all time, winning five World Championships during the Fifties. He still holds Formula 1 records for both winning and pole position percentages.

Tim Scott ©2015 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's
Tim Scott ©2015 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's
Tim Scott ©2015 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's
Tim Scott ©2015 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's
Tim Scott ©2015 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's
Tim Scott ©2015 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's
Copyright Alexis Callier Collection/RM Sotheby's
Tim Scott ©2015 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's

And, for one year, Ferrari was able to lure him away from Mercedes-Benz and into this 290 MM, custom-made for the Mille Miglia. Later, the car was raced by a virtual Rolodex of the era’s best drivers, from Phil Hill and Masten Gregory to Peter Collins and Olivier Gendebien.

With this specific car, though, more than pedigree is in play. “It’s a Ferrari factory car, a well-known car when Ferrari was still in their formative years,” says Dave Kinney, publisher of Hagerty Price Guide. Plus it’s a rock-solid car, with very strong documentation and unlike so many race cars, it’s never been truly wrecked. “The same car without the history, or with major crashes, would be worth a lot less,” says Kinney. “And don’t underestimate that it looks great.”

That’s the key piece of the puzzle. This classic monoposto-style Ferrari transcends the car market and crosses over to the art world. In the last two-and-a-half years, 20 paintings have sold at auction for at least $66 million, with a $101 million average. The $38.1-million barrier was broken by a Picasso in 1988, when a contemporary Corvette made 245 horsepower. Those dollar amounts made a whole mess of wealthy people—who'd otherwise have no interest in cars—willing to take a flyer on a good investment. When you stop looking at cars as cars, and start looking at them as artworks—some of which have appreciated over 500,000% in four decades (as opposed to gold, which has appreciated 0.6% as fast)—you can see why money continues to pour into the "hobby." The best Acura Legend in the world might be worth $17,000, but it’s not going anywhere. In the big leagues, your car is going to have to make it rain.

An earlier version of this story misidentified the number of Grands Prix won by Juan Manuel Fangio. The story has since been modified.