Auction slip-up sees Dh73m 1939 'Porsche' fail to sell

Crowd outraged and RM Sotheby's left squirming after auctioneer announces he had meant to say “$13m” and then “$17m”, rather than $30m and $70m for rare classic car

1939 Porsche Type 64 Jack Schroeder ©2019 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's
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After the biggest blunder in recent auction history, the car that Ferdinand Porsche made didn’t sell.

During Saturday night’s highly charged standing-room only auction in downtown Monterey, California, auctioneers at RM Sotheby’s premier sale dimmed the lights and showed a promotional video they had made ahead of the much-anticipated sale of the 1939 Type 64. The controversial silver coupe had been expected to sell for about $20 million (Dh73.4m) before a costly mistake, or a blundered attempt at a lighthearted prank, by the auction house upset the crowded room.

“This is the only surviving example personally driven by Ferdinand Porsche,” the evening’s MC said, then announced that bidding would open at “$30m,” a figure that was written on the front media screen of the auction theatre. Half of the crowd laughed; the other half cheered. After rapid bidding up to “$70m,” with the crowd on its feet, iPhones raised, and cheering, the auctioneer announced that he had meant to say “$13m,” and then “$17m,” rather than $30m and $70m. The media screen was quickly changed to reflect the $17m sum.

Boos and shocked yelps and shouts ensued. People walked out.

“What a joke,” said Johnny Shaughnessy, a collector from Southern California, who was in the room when it happened. “They just lost so much credibility. My father could have bought that car for $5m years ago. It has been passed around for years, and no one wants it.”

Comments from collectors among the crowd right after the possible error or backfired prank included “What a scam,” “They just slit their own throat,” and “It worked for Banksy; it didn’t work for RM,” a reference to the 2018 Sotheby’s sale which saw a piece of artwork by Banksy shredded in a surprise stunt just after it sold.

Two RM Sotheby’s representatives were not available for comment after the sale; a third walked away without a word when approached for a statement about the car.

The auction for the Type 64 was terminated in minutes, after no bids above $17m appeared in the room. It’s unclear whether RM Sotheby’s actually received a bid for that sum, which was the number on the screen when the auction hammer came down but not enough money to actually sell the car. The car is listed as “Still for Sale” on the RM Sotheby’s online auction catalogue.

The Type 64 was far from the only rough sale during a weekend where gross totals through Friday were down about 25 per cent, or about $50m, from 2018. Across the board, while there were 16 more cars offered for the first two days of auctions in 2019, almost 30 fewer cars were sold. The average sale price was $75,000 less than last year. Insiders at RM Sotheby’s described the current market as “a bloodbath”.

The top seller on Friday, a McLaren F1 expected to sell for as much as $23m, took just over $19m during the RM Sotheby’s auction that night.

But the Type 64 was the most white-hot of the lot, with noted collectors and Porsche bigwigs discussing its veracity in hushed tones for weeks before the sale. Rather than its UFO looks or its astronomical asking price, it was the name of the car that caused all the hubbub.

Some observers, led by the terminology in RM Sotheby’s own auction catalog, called the silver coupe a true Porsche. After all, it was made by Ferdinand Porsche himself; he even added his name to the front of it about a decade after he made it. And with its round headlights and small rounded hood and roofline, it clearly bears signs of early design philosophies that trickled down to the car that is widely accepted to be the first Porsche, the 1948 356 Gmünd Coupe, and later Porsches like the 911 and Cayman.

1939 Porsche Type 64 Jack Schroeder ©2019 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's

Others, including the man who inspected the car for RM Sotheby’s before it went to sale, were careful to note that the Type 64 is not technically a “Porsche”. Its engine and most of its parts were supplied by Volkswagen, with components from Fiat and other niche suppliers of the time. Ferdinand Porsche was building cars for just about everyone in Germany at the time anyway, including Daimler and Auto Union. Porsche wasn’t even founded until 1948 - 10 years after this car was built - so it surely isn’t accurate to call it a true Porsche, the line of thinking goes.

1939 Porsche Type 64 Jack Schroeder ©2019 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's

Porsche and the Porsche Museum were careful to distance themselves from the sale, declining for weeks to comment to Bloomberg on its nomenclature and relative significance to the Porsche company story. What remains to be seen is what happens to the car next - and how RM Sotheby’s will recover from the debacle.