Not only Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction rooms, but whole rolling fields in the North Weald are being parked in by fascinating, small old vehicles with lot numbers.
Until the beginning of this century, every form of transport not drawn either by a horse or a slave, or dependent on the whims of the wind to bear it across frothy waves, was something of a novelty. The railway appears in the painting of Turner and in the poetry of Emily Dickinson as a mysterious force, cloaked in the thrilling strangeness we now tend to reserve for evidence of life on other planets. These days, every vehicle but the spaceship has been around long enough to warrant nostalgia, and nostalgic buyers, drawn to a sense of style that clings to technologies most vividly in their infancy, are paying increasingly high sums for period cars, period yachts, period aircraft, period railway carriages, and for memorabilia of various description associated with these means of transport.
The Sotheby’s London sale, which is held at the Honourable Artillery Company in EC1, is one of the three flagship sales the house holds each year. Car sales have broken price records consistently of late, and it is worthy of note that there are now three major and three general car sales each year at Sotheby’s, up from two of each a few short years ago. With the sales in Monaco and America, Sotheby’s has a car sale of some description virtually every month.
Among the high points of the 3 July sale are a 1928 Bentley Le Mans replica four-seat tourer with a 4.5 litre engine, estimated at £160,000 to £180,000, and a 1950 Frazer Nash Le Mans replica estimated at £165,000 to £180,000. Each of these cars was made after automobiles in the Le Mans race captured public attention for the elegance of their design, one before the War, and one after, each with coachwork copied from the racing design. Also in the sale are more recent automobiles: a 1965 Super-fast 500 Series 1 Ferrari sport saloon with coachwork by Pininfarina, which has been in the hands of one titled owner since it was released, and which has accumulated only about 9,000 miles, estimated at over £400,000; and an Aston Martin 1967 DB6 Volante drophead, estimated at £150,000 to £170,000. “I think,” says Malcolm Barber, director in charge of these sales at Sotheby’s, “that there has been a great renewed interest in certain marques, those distinguished by rarity and originality. Bentley, Frazer Nash, Ferrari, pre-war Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, are all of great interest to the English collector today. But buyers are often in their thirties and forties, and they are beginning to buy cars from the Sixties and later. People who are newly wealthy suddenly find themselves able to buy the exact cars they yearned for when they were teenagers, and they rush at the opportunity.”
Sotheby’s will also be holding a sale of cars from continental sellers and of particular interest to continental buyers in Monaco on 23 July.
Christie’s is resting a bit on its laurels this summer; the sale in Monte Carlo on 2 May and 3 May broke every record in the trade. With fewer than 50 cars, the sale brought in £18 million selling only the most distinguished motor vehicles. The next car sale from Christie’s, on 10 July, is the annual sale at Beaulieu in Hampshire, conducted in association with Lord Montagu; it is the oldest car sale in England, and is aimed more at the general purchaser than is the Monte Carlo sale. Among the highlights in this year’s Beaulieu sale is a Benz Duke Victoria of about 1900, one of the first cars ever registered in Surrey. It was bought at the time of its manufacture by a rather eccentric Surrey doctor, who used it to make calls, and it has remained in his family ever since; his grandson is putting it up for sale at an estimated £40,000 to £60,000. When it was originally purchased, it was viewed by the doctor’s patients with great suspicion, as many of them had never before seen a horseless carriage.
Cars are certainly the best-established of the means of transport that come up at auction, but they are by no means the only one. In May, Sotheby’s included in the usual sale of Marine Pictures and Nautical Works of Art a selection of classic yachts and boats. The August sale of aeroplanes and balloons has been conceived along essentially the same lines. Whereas the yachts could be seen on video during the sale, the planes — at least all that can be brought to England — will be landed in North Weald in Essex for the sale. Once more, the sale will begin with paintings and travel posters and medallions and original flying kit and reference books and models and toys and engine parts and other “plane and balloon-related” items, and will then go on to actual planes.
“Collectors of period aircraft like to fly them,” explains John Baddeley, who is putting the sale together at Sotheby’s. “We will supply parking places for about 250 cars and for about 50 planes. Collectors of period planes and yachts are, in a way very much their own, rather given to eccentricity, so anything might happen,” accedes Baddeley. Among the highlights of the sale is a plane which has been in Fortunes of War and in Dirty Dozen — Next Mission, a Junkers Ju52/3m, the only flying Ju in the UK, and one of the only ten in the world.
It is with the utmost sorrow that I report that full-scale train cars are not being sold at either Sotheby’s or Christie’s this summer. Enthusiasts of locomotives, however, will be relieved to note that the entire collection of model trains formed by Count Antonio Giansanti Coluzzi is being offered at Christie’s South Kensington on 20 July. The collection is expected to realise £1.5 million, and includes more than 3,000 pieces, valued at between £5 thousand and £50 thousand. Work by the famous commercial makers — Marklin, Bing, and Carette — will be sold along with work by such artisans as Jean Schoenner and Karl Bub.
The collection is known as perhaps the world’s greatest by model railway collectors. In the Twenties, the very young count saw the Blue Train in the Côte d’Azur, and he became fascinated by the idea of model trains. Many children go through such fascination, but few and far between are those who devote a span of more than 60 years to pursuing the matter. In 1923 he was given a Bing train and eight rails for Christmas, and he crowed with delight — as, indeed, any of us might. He kept that first acquisition, and it is among those offered in the sale. Two years later, King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, who was a great friend of his parents, gave him a locomotive, and his delight could hardly be contained. Such the delight that lasted a lifetime; for the few and the wealthy, such delight is all on offer. Kings may buy for children the gifts of all gifts; then they can carry them off in their vintage cars or their vintage planes, to a kingdom far, far away where the traverse of any distance is a matter of unfathomable joy. The beauty of what is useful may be art’s oldest discipline.