The Monterey Incident

Saturday, August 18, 2019. A day that will live in infamy. Dramatic, but why beat around the bush, right? While all well-informed classic and collector fans have already heard about the debacle on the final evening of RM Sotheby’s Monterey, California auction, I’m finally weighing in. Why now, you may ask. Well, I have been busily cranking out marketing copy for my clients ever since my return from the Monterey Peninsula and as time permits, still trying to process all the camaraderie, events and fun of the jam-packed festival known as Monterey Car Week. Work doesn’t have to be all work and no play, does it? Thankfully, I’m blessed to combine both. Why discuss this situation in a public forum? Well, because this event still baffles me and many other observers on so many levels.

Time for full disclosure. I started my career in the collector-car world and copywriting in particular, with RM Auctions in early 2008. I remain grateful for my time at RM, where I learned my craft and gained incredible experience researching and writing auction-catalog descriptions of thousands of desirable and valuable collector cars. Eventually, all things must pass, in the wise words of George Harrison, and I was released from my service at RM during mid-July 2012, in a reshuffling a few months after my department head resigned from the company.

I knew that day would come sooner or later. In early 2009, I narrowly escaped being terminated along with 5-6 other poor souls, in a ruthless and teary auction-staff downsizing in the wake of the failed offering of a multi-million dollar ($10 million cost to be exact) 1963 Corvette Grand Sport at Scottsdale. The unsung workers were simply expendable pawns following this risky managerial gamble. The savings by the company in salaries paid amounted to nothing more than a small rounding error on the company balance sheet. Still, real people paid for a dubious boardroom decision they never made. Having said that, I truly have no axe to grind with RM today. Life goes on. However, the debacle that unfolded this year at Monterey does not surprise me and leaves me wondering about the future of my industry.  

I was not there in person at the RM Sotheby’s auction, other than taking in previews. However, dozens of videos posted online paint a clear picture of the silly and pointless proceedings. There, Alain Squindo, an RM Sotheby’s VP and my former department head, just stood at the podium and looked on blankly but with an almost imperceptible smirk during the confused bidding. He made no attempt to stop the train-wreck that unfolded when auctioneer Maarten Ten Holder started unwinding the Seventy-Million-Dollar bid posted for the car on the video screen in the saleroom – to confusion and boos from the spectators and bidders in the room. What really continues to baffle me and many auction watchers – including several in mainstream print, online media, and high-profile podcasts – is how the prior 61 lots were handled professionally that night without any confusion, misunderstandings or language barriers and without any pronunciation and comprehension errors.

This point was most elegantly covered by journalist Hannah Elliott in her article penned for Bloomberg on August 18 – immediately after the RM Sotheby’s auction and with further insight and analysis on August 22. One key issue discussed by Ms. Elliott was how auctioneer Maarten Ten Holder – a polyglot fluent in several languages – could suddenly mispronounce “Thirteen,” “Fourteen,” and “Seventeen Million Dollars,” sounding as though he had bids of up to “Seventy Million Dollars.” Compounding this was the likely and highly questionable practice of announcing “Chandelier” or “Phantom” bids – both non-existent, misleading and intended to flush out any real bidders with real money.

Another thing that baffles me is a chance meeting that I and a close friend had during pre-auction previews a couple of hours before the Porsche crossed the block. While we were taking pictures of, and with the sleek proto-Porsche, a twentysomething man wearing a “Luftgekühlt” T-shirt quietly intimated to us, “It will get to $17 million but won’t sell.” I did a double-take and he repeated his prediction clearly and confidently. Now, it was clear he was a hard-core and well-informed Porsche enthusiast, but that night’s auction-block debacle played out precisely as he predicted. Was he a clairvoyant, just plain lucky with his prediction, or did he know something?

I do realize the car was shopped around privately for at least the past 20 years and its offering by RM was highly, perhaps over-promoted in the weeks preceding the auction, but come on. How can somebody make such a bold prediction without having some inside information? I should have asked him for stock-market tips, sports odds, the ponies, or his take on Bitcoin and the precise location of Jimmy Hoffa while I was at it. My friend and I shrugged and moved on to previewing some other cars and then had a late lunch, all the while scratching our heads about the conversation we just had with the young Porsche enthusiast.

In addition to reading the many articles and watching the videos covering the Type 64’s botched offering,  I’ve been listening closely to the latest two editions of “Spike’s Car Radio,” the entertaining and well-informed podcast covering classic cars, events, comedy and life, hosted by Spike Feresten. Worthy of further listening, these podcast episodes included Hannah Elliott, Jerry Seinfeld and lawyer Paul Zuckerman. In the latest episode, Spike made the startling revelation that RM Sotheby’s may have sensed the Porsche would not sell on the auction stage at Monterey and decided to turn its offering into a sort of comedy act. He even stated that the auction house approached him to join in the antics. Thankfully, Mr. Feresten refused to take part in RM Sotheby’s ill-advised and frankly, cynical scheme.  

Overall, a picture emerges of auction houses trying to land exciting, news-worthy cars to offer and sell and of the intense competition for clients and the drive to be the best seller at each major venue. The latest “Spike’s Car Radio” podcast episode also included the contention I stated earlier, that the whole fiasco makes the collector-car industry look shabby by association.

The collector-car auction world is extremely interesting and yes, it generates significant sales. There are thousands of good, honest and ethical people who make it all happen and a few rotten eggs do unfortunately spoil the bunch. It will be very interesting to see what, if any, fallout comes from this sad – and in my opinion, totally preventable event. It also bears noting that other high-end auction houses do not seem to suffer from the many lapses in judgement that led RM Sotheby’s down this path at Monterey.

Many questions remain. Some of my friends and colleagues may disagree and that is their absolute right, but the farcical offering of such a significant and valuable piece of motoring history has indeed put a massive black eye on the collector-car auction industry. The industry I work in. The industry that to me is a calling and not just another job. And I do not believe for one second that the saleroom antics at RM Sotheby’s in Monterey can be attributed purely to human error or sophomoric humor. And unlike the junior staffers that walked in tears past my cubicle after they got sacked back in 2009, I am doubtful neither Messrs. Squindo nor Ten Holder will face any real consequences for their decisions. What they attempted to do on the auction block in Monterey was crass and totally unnecessary. They would certainly not last long in my employ.  

To me, this incident is the adult equivalent of being a young boy who once met one of his hockey-card heroes at an event during the mid-1970s, only to discover the man was all too human – a drunken, staggering, unemployable wreck who did not fully understand why he played professionally for so many years, earned so much money and had so many loving fans. Having earned and enjoyed a stellar reputation for so long, it is truly sad to see some of RM Sotheby’s top personnel stoop to this level. My honest hope is that the players involved in this current situation will sober up, smell the coffee brewing and realize – soon – that this type of corporate buffoonery is far less tolerable in the court of public opinion today than ever before. Not to mention the arrogance of their actions and their obvious contempt for sellers, buyers, spectators and the general public. I can only guess at the fury yet to be unleashed by the car’s owner. Remember, people vote with their wallets and there are many other solid players to choose from for the big game.     

Addendum: So much to say, so little time. The “dynamic duo” on the auction stage need not be isolated in receiving scrutiny for their leading roles in this arrogant little stunt that massively backfired. Props must also go out to top RM Sotheby’s honchos Gord Duff, Global Head of Auctions, Ian Kelleher, Chief Marketing Officer and several other personages including company founder Rob Myers and Kenneth Ahn. While others take the flak for you and some of the “little people” below you will likely get reshuffled after your blunder, an old Italian proverb comes to mind – “The Fish Rots From the Head Down.” The world is becoming increasingly sick and tired of privileged elites gaming every conceivable system, process, and market today. I suppose this blunder was destined to happen, sooner or later. By the way, gentlemen: didn’t anybody tell you to be nice on your way to the top? The ride down is faster and much bumpier. Buckle up.  

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