Setting records in Sin City
Las Vegas, Nev., Jan. 23–27—As bidders, sellers, tire kickers and gawkers prepared for the onslaught of an impressive 1,324 motorcycles to be sent across the stage at the South Point Hotel & Casino’s equestrian center, Mecum Auctions employees were busily preparing for what would prove to be their biggest motorcycle auction ever. With a record 1,000 registered bidders and overall attendance figures that showed a 15-percent increase, it was no wonder the auction took on a party atmosphere right from the start.
After 23 years of hosting the Vegas motorcycle auctions, MidAmerica Auctions merged with Mecum back in 2014 and the union has been a good one. What used to be a three-day sale has, for the first time, reached a full five days of bidding. MidAmerica’s personable Ron Christiansen continues to be a force of nature on stage and roams the audience as Mecum’s 150 team members work to provide services like detailing, checking in vehicles, auctioneers and ring men as well as administrative duties. Founded in 1988, Mecum has been known as the world leader in car collector sales for more than 30 years and since the acquisition of MidAmerica Auctions, has taken over the antique motorcycle world as well. The company’s core team members really do view the business as a family, with several full-time employees having been with the company for all 30 years and several more that have worked with Mecum 20 or more years. The family-run company continues to operate out of Walworth, Wisconsin, but with 18 auctions in 13 cities spread out across 12 states, you can understand why employees are rarely home.
People from around the world check out the motorcycle auction either by showing up in Vegas in person, which of course is the most fun, or by tuning in from the comfort of their living rooms via NBCSN’s live broadcast. Half the fun of the Mecum auction is having full access to the entire lot and being able to soak up the sights, sounds and scents of motorcycling history. Attendees are invited to inspect the motorcycles up close and personal and are welcome to peruse the vast bullpen of machines for sale. You can actually follow a bike right on up to the stage to participate in the bidding wars between serious, committed buyers if you so choose. Since the venue functions as an equestrian arena the rest of the year, it’s not unusual to pick up the residual scent of horses and dirt mixed in with the smell of gear grease, exhaust and oily old engines, affording a creative mind an opportunity to imagine the bygone days of motorcycling when roads were shared with horse-drawn vehicles. There’s a lot to be said for ambience, after all.
Billed as an antique and vintage auction, it was indeed a joy to find treasures like a 1909 Yale Single, a 1913 Jefferson board track racer, and a 1912 Indian Twin, the latter of which was sent to market by the guys from American Pickers. Steve McQueen bikes are often seen at these auctions and this time was no exception. A 1917 Henderson Four owned by the motorcycle-loving actor came up for sale on Friday and garnered a tidy $110,000. No matter how one chose to participate, the weeklong auction saw a record-setting $13.9 million in gavel action where prices were the main topic. The fervor over what would be the epic sale of the week was kicked off early when the across-town Bonham auction closed on Thursday afternoon. Held at the Rio Casino, the one-day auction with Bonham, auctioneers since 1793 known to specialize in art and collectibles, proved to be a thriller despite the notorious sedate and serious affair that Bonham auctions are so known for. Attendees at that sale reported that ring men actually pushed an offered bike through the orderly crowd in order afford a closer look at the machine’s condition, which was well appreciated by bidders.
Listed among the other lots for auction were a number of drawings from a Von Dutch collection, but the highlight of the sale turned out to be record setting and the talk of the town. A 1951 Vincent 998cc Black Lightning, one of only 33 of the notoriously fast machines ever made, brought in a whopping $929,000. That price tag included “the juice,” which is auction speak for premiums collected by the auction house, thereby making that remarkable machine the most expensive motorcycle ever sold at a public auction. Attendees spent the rest of the week gasping at the astronomical number. Paul d’Orleans, the Vintagent blogger and expert in motorcycle history who provides commentary at both Bonham and Mecum auctions, pointed out that the Vincent was the most ever paid for a motorcycle “at public auction. More has been paid privately, but not much more.”
The second and third most expensive motorcycles on record were both sold in 2015 by Mecum Auctions, a 1915 Cyclone Board Tracker that went for $852,000 and a 1907 Harley-Davidson Strap Tank that went for $715,000.
The excitement over what to expect as highlights over at Mecum was a crapshoot. There was much discussion over what an intellectual property might be worth in regards to the sale of the Excelsior-Henderson brand, discontinued in 1931, that was scheduled for sale on Saturday afternoon and crowds were all a-twitter about the possibilities. Mecum offered a unique opportunity to purchase ownership of all the federally registered trademarks, web domains, previous motorcycle frame and engine designs, expired patents and brand name of the Excelsior-Henderson motorcycle company. A revival of the machines was attempted in 1999 with a 2,000-unit production run of a 100-year proprietary model built by Daniel Hanlon who had secured the trademarks and rights to produce American motorcycles under the Excelsior-Henderson brand. The lot offered for sale meant, in essence, that a buyer could again revive the production of the machines. The chance to own one of the Big Three marques was mind-bogglingly exciting but the actual auction, unfortunately, was disappointing for those of us who jubilantly watched from the fringes as bidding inched its way to the $2,000,000 mark, then fizzled. Alas, the lot did not make reserve and was marked as unsold. Imaginations were dashed and the thought of a revival was effectively squelched. Other offerings throughout the week were several Ironheads as well as Knuckles, Shovels and Pans, which brought out the nostalgia in all the seasoned riders. One such bidder was G. Wiley from Texas who was delightfully traipsing through the bullpen to make shipping arrangements for his exciting acquisitions. He absolutely glowed as we complimented him on his new 1949 Panhead and he giggled, “I got a few more to ship, too.” He turned and pointed to the 1941 Indian Four just behind him. “I got that and a couple more,” he shared. When asked what he intended to do with them all, Mr. Wiley’s face lit up like a kid in a candy store. “I’m gonna ride ’em! All my bikes get ridden; that’s what they’re for!”
In between all that buying and selling, folks who traveled to Sin City took full advantage of the opportunity to catch up with friends and partied the evenings away, and the Cannonballers were one such group. One of the knee-jerk phenomena that has transpired since 2010 is that on the even years, in conjunction with the running of the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Runs, hordes of Cannonball hopefuls have arrived in Vegas with a heart full of optimism, open checkbooks, and an eye for whatever motorcycle they think might carry them across the United States to the Cannonball finish line. Provided, that is, that they are even accepted to the race in the first place. Currently, there is a waiting list for the 2020 race. The cutoff dates for the accepted vintage aren’t announced until after each run, so it’s impossible to plan in advance for the next race unless you plan to ride a very early-year machine, yet we’ve met riders who still try. Buyers show up and purchase motorcycles in anticipation of what might be accepted, which is proving effective in keeping a lively market for antique machines. The biennial antique motorcycle endurance race started by visionary Lonnie Isam Jr. has turned the world of antique motorcycling on its ear, shining a light on a corner of biking that for years was a quiet sect consisting mostly of wealthy collectors or museums. Nowadays the average citizen is walking the aisles to fulfill a dream of joining the ranks of Cannonball survivors, so it’s been interesting to attend swap meets and auctions to see what kind of prices antiques are going for. With a sell-through rate of 91 percent, it seems that Mecum is doing their part to put vintage motorcycles in the hands of those who dare to dream.
The next Mecum motorcycle auction is schedule for June 1–2, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Top 10 auction sales
1. 1911 Harley-Davidson Twin (Lot F133) at $154,000
2. 1917 Henderson Four Steve McQueen (Lot F191) at $110,000
3. 1968 Vincent Shadow Recreation (Lot F156.1) at $107,250
4. 1941 Indian Four (Lot S141) at $101,750
5. 1945 Harley-Davidson EL (Lot S55) at $99,000
6. 1928 Indian Four (Lot S108) at $99,000
7. 1917 Harley-Davidson J (Lot S203) at $95,700
8. 1914 Henderson (Lot F240.1) at $93,500
9. 1911 Flying Merkel V-Twin (Lot F143) at $91,300
10. 1912 Indian Twin (Lot S157) at $82,500