“The bid is $500,000 folks, do I hear $505,000? Five-oh-five, gimme five-oh-five …” A charismatic character on stage hypes a crowd, rich folks in eccentric regalia competitively splurge while spectators try not to twitch and accidentally spend half a million bucks—the front end of a fancy car auction is a scene you can picture. But if you’re more interested in the cars than the cash being flung around, the moving cogs behind the scenes at auction house RM Sotheby’s biggest annual automotive auction is even more fun.
The famous “Car Week” in Monterey, California hosts three marquee events every year: the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, The Quail custom car show, and the Monterey Motorsports Reunion at Laguna Seca. In addition to those are handfuls of satellite events and not one, but several, elite-tier auction houses running multi-day sales of incredible cars. And while not every vehicle across the block is worth $1 million or even $100,000, they’re pretty much all cool and unique.
It’s amazing that there are enough cars and collectors in this orbit to call for the dozens of high-end auto auctions that happen every year (often packed with hundreds of cars). But the sale at Car Week is the big show—”the Super Bowl of our auctions,” as more than one RM Sotheby’s staffer told me.
Other auction houses such as Gooding & Company host sales within the gates at 17-Mile Drive (adjacent to the Pebble Beach Concours show), where you'll see huge dollar figures and exceptional cars. But the RM Sotheby's auction at the Portola Hotel in Monterey is where a lot more money and hardware changed hands this year. I got embedded with the Sotheby’s team for a few hours up to and during one of its sale nights at Car Week 2022; the cars in line to roll up on stage ranged from pretty cool to drop-monocle-in-champagne amazing. But the behind-the-scenes stuff—the secret sold-cars parking lot underground, the impromptu repair shop, the records/accessory room (my personal favorite), and a few other less-public elements—are what few get to glimpse, and they’re what we’ll explore today.
Mustering Cars Worth Selling for a Fortune
Gord Duff, RM Sotheby’s Global Head of Auctions, told me that planning for this year’s Monterey auction started pretty much as soon as last year’s event ended. “Coming into March, April, you’re full steam ahead trying to find cars for the [August] auction,” he added.
But a crucial element of his job, which never stops no matter what the calendar says, is keeping tabs on where ultra-valuable old cars are stashed, and maintaining relationships with people who own (and might want to own) them. Duff indicated that informal and unofficial lines of communication are how the really precious hardware gets acquired. “We’re out on the road, we’re going to car shows, we’re going to rallies,” Duff said about finding inventory. He also acknowledged that repeat customers are a huge part of the equation.
Of course, sellers can (and often do) also reach out to the auction house and pitch their products to the company’s Car Specialists for consignment.
Turning a Conference Center Into an Auction House
RM Sotheby’s has posted up at the same venue, the Monterey Conference Center and attached Portola Hotel, for many years.
Setting up hundreds of chairs for bidders, rigging a stage and lighting, and establishing a video control room is a big job but pretty routine as far as event setup action goes. What stood out to me in RM Sotheby’s presentation were the mini display stages and video walls in smaller rooms hosting the highest-value sale cars that were being held for sale until the grand finale of the three-day auction.
Walking around the conference center and hotel lobby areas is basically like walking through a car museum, with not only well-presented cars but intricate displays for them to sit in.
Thatcher Keast, Consignment Department Manager and Auction Coordinator, is one of the main people designing the physical layout of an RM Sotheby’s auction. He told me he’s always working on a few at a time and was on "version 14" of his AutoCAD file for the Monterey auction before a final design was approved. “It’s an evolving process,” he said, regarding how he plans to lay out an auction space. “You’ve got to have your ear at the door for what you’ve talked about and what’s potentially coming and you kind of get your brain going.” When he starts, he rarely knows what cars, or even how many, might need prominent parking. But he and his colleagues start sketching out presentation halls based on broad numbers and past experience, then tweak and optimize as the company figures out exactly what cars are going to be headliners for the auction.
Once the auction’s actually underway, Keast's focus pivots to managing an immense conveyor belt of ultra-valuable cars.
In his words: “Most important thing here is the movement of cars and the timing of how they get moved. We have about 200 cars in the auction. And we’re on public city streets, and public malls, and … we get to park cars in a state park, and we have to have specific times in which specific cars are moving depending on what day they’re selling on … it’s an extremely coordinated effort to get cars in line in the right order at the right time. We start doing that Wednesday and it doesn’t end until Saturday night.”
The traffic jam of cars moving onto the sale stage, snaking around and out of the Portola parking area, was wild to behold. But the most visually striking element of customization inside the auction was the video walls. Screens were set up as dividers in large rooms, and the team cut sizzle reels running on loops for hyping certain high-interest cars (optimized for bizarre screen dimensions) that drenched the atmosphere in automotive nostalgia and energy.
Maintenance and Restoration of Irreplaceable Autos
A big part of RM Sotheby’s operation—its main value proposition as a purveyor of artifact automobiles, I think—is the comprehensive restoration facility it operates in Blenheim, Ontario, Canada. There, mechanics and craftsmen can repair and rebuild extinct cars dating back to the first days of the horseless carriage. They’re not just diagnosing and part-swapping; you can’t exactly order items for something like a Talbot-Lago Teardrop (a so-shaped coupe from the 1930s valued in the $10 million neighborhood) on Rock Auto. Reverse engineering and fabrication of ancient automotive technology is not just an element of Sotheby’s restoration ops, it’s a core function.
Duff told me there are 35 people working to recondition cars at Sotheby’s facility in Canada. Apparently, 18 of the cars sold at this year’s Monterey auction had been sitting for “upwards of 30 years,” and his crew north of the border got them turned around and ready to roll across the auction block in two months. I could also tell he was proud when he said, “There isn’t another auction house around that could have handled that.”
Naturally, car sales aren’t held in the rural industrial zone where major work is performed. And every car is supposed to buzz up to the stage under its own power, or at least, be able to with a boost from a dozen white-gloved hands. To make sure that happens, a special crew hangs out in the parking garage with tools, lights, and generators to make a miniature maintenance station. The crew didn't have any wild last-minute panic repairs to report when I caught up with them—but I gathered that a clutch job on a Rolls-Royce Phantom II (early 1930s) was among the more memorable restoration tasks taken care of before this sale.
Precious Cars Stashed Underground
I came through the RM Sotheby’s Monterey setup on the second of a three-day auction, so quite a few cars had already been sold. After their stint in the pre-sale parking paddock and moment on stage, they get rolled into a regular old parking space just like any other CR-V or Cayenne. Well, kind of. Sold auction cars are sanctioned on the bottom floor of a garage shared with the mechanics and kept watch over. But it’s still a trip to see vehicles with features like hand-painted wicker accent stripes lined up in dim lighting on a sloped parking garage floor.
Where the Real Treasures Are: Behind The Research Desk
The coolest corner of the RM Sotheby’s Monterey setup is also one I’d never heard about before rolling up—the Research Desk.
Part of the process of prepping a car for auction is running down as much service history and accompanying accessories as possible. Knowledge is power, and in this case, power is value. The more of a car’s backstory buyers can access, the more enticing it (usually) is to bid on. I mean, the same goes for cheap Craigslist specials, right? So the idea here is that if you’re a bidder sniffing around a certain car, you can rock up to the Research Desk before the sale starts and get the lowdown on whatever info Sotheby’s people have been able to scare up about a given car.
The effort Sotheby’s archivists put in is proportionate to the expected sale price of the car. Due diligence will be done on every car that goes up, but when cars get into seven-figure valuations, many of which were in the mix at RM Sotheby’s 2022 Monterey show, great care is taken to assemble accompanying tools, accessories, and records.
Huge pieces like hardtops, sets of wheels, or extra body panels end up being stored in the garage along with sold cars. But smaller and more valuable pieces are labeled and parked in a little conference room temporarily converted into a kind of library. It’s actually like a miniature version of the warehouse the Ark of the Covenant gets hidden in at the end of the 1981 Indiana Jones movie.
Cool and fun accessories are not exclusively paired with the most exotic cars, though. Plenty of the vehicles that look modest next to 1930s Bugattis are still super-rare and often enthusiast-owned; the racks I was shown holding these bonus items had plenty of gems. And not just oil change receipts. There were old photos of the cars racing, period literature from over half a century ago, and some signed Beatles memorabilia. The latter was accompanying a Porsche 928 S crossing the block that day which had been once been bought and owned by George Harrison.
The steering wheel from Michael Schumacher’s F1 car was also among the treasures. And possibly my favorite of all was the tool kit that went with a McLaren F1 that was on display as part of an adjacent sealed bid auction; it was being sold in the same venue but in its own run.
If you’re ever at an auction like this, make sure you find the Research Desk and ask what kind of info or objects the sellers might have about a car you like.
The Buyer’s Experience
Anybody off the street can look at these cars from the other side of a low fence, but if you want to be able to walk among them (and open them up, size them up closely) you need to be a registered bidder or guest. Registering to bid doesn’t commit you to buying anything, but it does involve a confirmation that you’ve got money to spend.
Once the auction house determines that you’re worth entertaining, you can even test drive vehicles for sale with the company’s car specialists. If you want to bid on something remotely, that’s another thing you can coordinate with the staff. At this level, buyers don’t have to sit at home mashing the refresh button on their browser to try and snipe an auction win—calls and timing is arranged ahead of time if you register your interest with a particular machine.
As for logistics, it’s generally on the seller to furnish transportation expenses on the front end (it’s still their car until it sells, after all) then once the hammer falls a buyer has to pay for arrangements to get the car wherever it’s wanted. Cars from oceans away typically arrive by boat and leave months before the auction begins. You can opt to have your cars flown in or out, too, but the cost of that is, I'm told "simply astronomical."
Even just registering to bid isn’t exactly cheap—it’s $400 for the privilege of having the option to raise a paddle at the auction. And if you’re bold enough buy, you’re on the hook for a significant buyer’s premium. It’s 12% for cars that have a hammer price of $250,000 or less, and if the sale goes higher, you’re spending 12% of $250,000 ($30,000) plus another 10% on the rest.
RM Sotheby's reports its individual sales and totals with the buyer's premium included. The most expensive car that sold at the company's auction this year, a 1955 Ferrari 410 Sport Spider by Scaglietti, went for the preposterous sum of $22 million. So the buyer dropped seven figures in fees alone to buy the car at this particular party. And while that Ferrari was far and away the biggest sale of the weekend at the Portola Hotel, it was hardly the only car sold for over $1 million. Once you remember there were almost 200 cars sold at this show, it becomes pretty clear how an outfit like RM Sotheby's can afford to put on such a spectacle with so many staff members and logistical elements.
Many Cogs Spinning While the Auction’s Underway
A whole lot is happening concurrently to make the show work besides the auctioneer on stage hyping up the crowd. The function hall the auction goes down in is immense—so staffers in suits vigilantly scan the audience for somebody who wants to get into the bidding mix. They facilitate folks getting the auctioneer’s attention, with kind of a Secret-Service-agent intensity and posture.
Meanwhile, a whole row of RM Sotheby’s folks seated in a special box take calls from bidders getting their offers in over the phone. And yet more bidders can throw down online. It’s hectic, without a doubt, and the auctioneer has to make sure they haven’t missed anybody while simultaneously moving the price up as swiftly as possible while also keeping the whole show on schedule. It seems like a fun job, but man, the more that I think about it, that’s a lot of spinning plates to watch.
Bidding isn’t even the only activity that needs to be run smoothly. A video control room, set up in a balcony overlooking the whole show, runs both a livestream to the internet and a huge video wall playing those sizzle reels of each car as it gets up on stage. In the way back, RM Sotheby’s PR people watch and take notes for media releases to be written later.
And finally, somebody’s got to get the cars in front of the customers.
Vehicles go straight from the parking paddock they’re displayed on to the stage, making two stops along the way. Right before they go indoors, they’re wiped down with soft cloths by a swarm of people. Then, as soon as the car preceding them gets sold, they rumble to the edge of a ramp behind a big curtain. From there, folks in white gloves supervise as it very carefully clutch-slips its way up on stage for its auction. Then it’s powered down, and usually, pushed ahead and back around the corner without being started again.
Most of the cars I watched roll up were all fairly modern and didn’t seem to have an issue scooting up that last ramp on their own. But you can imagine some of the particularly ancient—or tiny, like a kid-sized Ferrari Junior—benefit from a little boost by the gloved helpers.
After the Auction, the Cars Go Home, and the Circus Ships Out
Sotheby’s staff stays on the ground at Monterey for about five to seven days after the show’s over. Besides breaking down the actual stages and infrastructure, they’ve got to make sure every car gets loaded and sent off to its new owners (or back to the sellers, if the car didn’t move). But the latter’s not that common. At Pebble Beach 2022, Sotheby’s sold 95% of its inventory, “180 cars in 11 hours of auctioneering” as Duff stated in a release. That tallied up to $239,258,340 in total sales.
When Gord started with the company in 1998, “a Monterey auction did maybe $12 million,” he told me. This year, a single car sold for almost double that. Even accounting for the wild inflation we’ve seen since the '90s, that’s an intense rate of growth for the most elite tier of collector cars. It’s no wonder the auctions have turned into such spectacles.
The RM Sotheby's scene was a lot different than my usual car-buying experience—meeting some guy in a dingy parking lot to exchange a small grip of cash for a title—and if you can relate, I hope you enjoyed this little tour of how some of the world's richest car enthusiasts trade vehicles with each other.
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