The Secret of Success in a Chilly Classic Car Market

A 1951 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 S. The car, thought to be one of just 17 surviving examples of the model, sold this month for about $177,000 at an RM Sotheby’s auction in Paris.

PARIS — “It’s a real kerplunk.” José Luis Celada smiled with satisfaction as he closed the rear passenger door on his 1951 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 S. “That’s a really strong door,” he added. “All four of them are like that.”

Mr. Celada, 65, a collector based in Buenos Aires, had just bought the immaculate maroon Alfa saloon for 143,750 euros, or about $177,000, at an RM Sotheby’s auction in Paris on Feb. 7. The car, thought to be one of just 17 surviving examples of the model, sold for far less than the presale estimate of €175,000.

The result and the buyer were both typical of the trading in classic automobiles in Paris during the 43rd annual Retromobile fair and its accompanying auctions.

Demand has cooled considerably since 2013, when prices soared as much as 62 percent for collectible Ferraris, for instance, making classic cars the hottest “passion investment.” Equivalent Ferraris increased 2.5 percent in value in 2017, according to an index compiled by Historic Auto Group International, based in London.

“The market has gone down. It’s flat,” said Mr. Celada, who owns a dozen classic cars and who regularly participates in historic rallies.

Mr. Celada said that his collecting field had attracted “a lot of people who didn’t know about cars who were just interested in investment.” They now appeared to be less active, he said, leaving the market once again to specialists like him.

RM Sotheby’s 84-lot sale was the first of three major classic car auctions held during the week. Bonhams followed with 228 lots on Thursday, and the Paris auctioneers Artcurial with 250 lots on Friday.

With buyers more selective, owners are more reluctant to offer exceptional cars at auction. When they do, expectations can be out of step with new realities. Last month, during a bellwether series of sales in Arizona, two 1950s Jaguar D-Type racers, estimated at $12 million at RM Sotheby’s and $10 million at Gooding & Co., failed to sell.

The top end of the car auction market also had some misfires in Paris. Artcurial’s star lot, a 1963 Ferrari 275 P that won the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, was expected to sell for more than €20 million, but was withdrawn before the sale. The car had been owned by the French collector Pierre Bardinon, whose estate remains subject to legal proceedings.

At RM Sotheby’s, only two of the five lots estimated to sell for more than €2 million managed to find buyers.

The evening was topped by a 2017 Bugatti Chiron, which sold to a telephone bidder for €3.3 million with fees, just above the low estimate. With an electronically limited top speed of 260 miles per hour, this road car — one of the first 20 of the 500 Chirons manufactured — bucked new models’ reputation for value depreciation: Last year’s list price was €2.4 million.

The Paris auctions posted an aggregate €70.9 million, down from the €86 million achieved at the equivalent auctions in 2015.

The 2015 auction market “was a boom. Everyone was afraid of missing a car,” said Bodie Hage, founder of Real Art on Wheels, a classic car dealership based in the Netherlands. “There were a lot of opportunists around, and because of that a lot of collectors started selling.”

Mr. Hage, 29, entered a grime-encrusted 1965 Porsche 912 into the RM Sotheby’s sale. Regardless of the state of the market, an untouched “barn find” usually creates a stir at auction. It proved to be one of the few lots to sell over estimate at RM Sotheby’s, reaching €92,000 with fees against an upper valuation of €70,000.

In the absence of the rarest 1960s Ferraris, the Bugatti marque captured the top prices at all three auctions. At Bonhams, a 1935 3.3-liter Bugatti Type 57 Torpedo Tourist Trophy that Earl Howe raced in the Ulster TT sold for €713,000. The following day, Artcurial took €2.9 million for a 1938 Type 57C Atalante coupe. Both prices were below presale expectations. Artcurial had by far the biggest-grossing sale, with €31.8 million, but it offered more vehicles than either of its competitors.

These auctions of automotive classics are increasingly being bulked up with modern cars. The many Porsche 911 variants are the most obvious example, representing for some collectors a more affordable, more dependable investment than a 1930s Bugatti or a 1960s Ferrari.

“Porsches are good for a timid buyer. They keep working,” Nick Bartman, a British collector, said at the Bonhams auction, where a 1973 Porsche 911 S 2.4-liter Targa sold for a low estimate of €145,833.

Mr. Bartman, 63, said that the investment value of older cars could be undermined by mechanical failure. “If you’re looking for 5 or 10 percent, you don’t want the gearbox to go,” he said. “Spares are expensive.”

Many more of the week’s most prized cars were to be seen, if not bought, among the 550 exhibitors at Retromobile. The Zurich dealer Lukas Huni displayed no fewer than 10 Ferrari 250 GT SWB racers; none were officially for sale, but experts valued them at €7 million to €15 million each, depending on their histories. Fewer than 180 of these highly competitive coupes were made from 1959 to 1962.

“That’s car porn,” said Nick Aaldering, the co-owner of Gallery Aaldering, a dealership based in Brummen, the Netherlands. His nearby stand featured a glamorous, recently restored 1967 Ferrari 275 GTS Pininfarina Spyder convertible. An Irish collector bought it for €1.7 million.

“We had three fantastic years when everyone was talking about investment and cars performing better than stocks,” said Mr. Aaldering, 37. “Now we’re back to a normal kind of classic car business. I’m glad.”

“Cars have to be top quality, with a clean history, good documentation and certification, and the right price,” Mr. Aaldering said, adding that two years ago his Ferrari Spyder would have been tagged at €1.9 million.

But will wealthy collectors want to keep buying gas-guzzling sportsters when everyone else is zipping around in self-driving electric cars?

Mr. Aaldering said he thought that there would still be a market in 20 years’ time for the rarest and most prestigious postwar classic cars. “But they have to be drivable,” he said.

If not, your investment could go kerplunk.

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