How to sell your classic car at auction

How much will it cost? Is it the right car to sell at auction? Here are our auction expert's top tips – whatever the car, wherever in the world you are

How to sell your classic car at auction

As you’re on the AutoClassics website, there’s a good chance you have either attended an historic car auction or, at the very least, watched one on TV. But what’s involved in selling a car via auction – and, if doing so is the right move for you, how should you go about it? Our guide sheds light on the process and helps you decide whether the saleroom is the best venue for your classic car.

Putting your collector car to auction can have several advantages over selling person-to-person either via a small ad online or in one of the numerous classic car magazines, or even selling through one of the many consignment dealers. These include:

1. Auctions can often do a better job of marketing your classic. Many of these specialists have marketing and PR teams whose only job is to promote sales, and the vehicles on offer there, through their network of advertising and PR partnerships. Consequently, cars at auction can sell for high retail prices and sometimes even world-record values.

2. Auction companies communicate via their marketing and PR teams to their mailing lists of thousands of qualified buyers, working hard to bring them to their events. This can ensure a large audience of prospective buyers, all competing to purchase a car like yours.

3. Most auction companies employ car specialists at their events to assist prospective buyers in the purchase vehicles on offer there. Many of these specialists have buyers who work through them; they know what their buyers are looking for, and will make them aware that a car ‘on their list’ is on offer.

How much will it cost to sell a car at auction?

Auctions are not always the right answer, but they can be a good one for many sellers. Of course, there is an associated cost – not all of which are obvious to first-time auction sellers.

1. The cost to transport the car to an auction. This can range from the petrol needed to drive it to the event yourself, to thousands of dollars to have it shipped, depending on how far away the auction location is.

2. Most auctions have listing fees that can also include separate fees for catalogue write-ups and photography.

3. There is the very real possibility that if your car does not reach its reserve, you’ll then have to pay to get it back home. So whatever those shipping costs are, you now need to double them.

4. Your car must be insured at any auction you take it to. Even if the vehicle has been uninsured for years while parked in your garage, you must have a policy on it before it’s shipped to the auction company.

5. Auction companies charge the seller a varying percentage that they take from the hammer price. This is not inclusive of the buyers’ percentage. This can add up, rapidly turning your car from a strong to a weak sale. For example, if your nicely restored Triumph TR6 hammers for $14,000 and the seller’s premium is 10%, then you end up with a total of only $12,600. This is only the seller’s premium, and not inclusive of any other costs.

6. Transportation and lodging costs for you at the auction venue. This includes airplane tickets, hotel costs, rental car and other associated costs. At a venue such as Monterey, these bills can add up to as much as $3000 or more. If you’re offering a very high-end car – say, a Jaguar D-type – then you should ask for the auction company to pick up these costs as well as the cost of transport.

With that red tape out of the way, what things should you consider when deciding whether to sell your car at auction? And if you decide to go ahead, what can you do to help insure you get a good price?

To auction or not to auction

First, you must decide whether your car is the right kind to sell at auction. My general rule of mine is that if the model is worth less than $20,000, I wouldn’t consider putting it under the hammer. However, there are a few exceptions.

If the auction is local to you, so allowing you to transport it there yourself, the associated costs decrease. Another exception is when you somehow get a concours example of an entry-level classic, such as a Triumph Spitfire, into a top-tier auction house at a location like Monterey or Amelia Island.

In those circumstances, such cars can often sell for much more than their market value just because they are so nice and are literally surrounded by very high-end machines. It becomes the bargain of the event, and can sell for twice its retail price

If your car is past the entry-level point, and you feel that an auction is the appropriate place to sell it, then you next need to decide which company and location are the best for your specific model. For example, do not take a muscle car to an auction specialising in European sports cars. Nor should you try to sell your 1957 Aston Martin DB MkIII at an auction company that specialises in muscle.

Some consignment specialists will try to sell you on this idea with yours billed as the only car of its kind there. The trouble is that yours IS the only one there; the buyers for that model are not likely to come for the possibility of buying yours. They will come with the idea of ‘stealing’ your car, as it is at the wrong sale and they know it.

No, you need to carefully research each auction company and sale location, and decide what best fits your vehicle. Part of doing this is to review past realised prices for cars such as yours at their sales. You also need to gain a clear understanding of the specific auction companies’ fees, in order to help you pick the best for your situation.

Now that you’ve decided to sell at auction, have picked the perfect company and venue, and have consigned the car, what are the final steps you should take to insure that your motor sells for a strong price?

How to get the best price at auction

1. Be sure your car is in truly sale-ready condition. A collector auction can be as much a show as it is a sale, and details matter. Get your vehicle in the best possible cosmetic condition, and don’t skimp on anything visible. Ensure any and all cosmetic failings are repaired properly. Also take the time to check that every mechanical and electrical system works as it should. Don’t bring your car to auction with the idea that you can fix that broken indicator switch on site. This is next to impossible to do – and don’t forget that prospective buyers will be there watching you attempt a repair.

2. On a similar note, be sure that your car has correct-size tyres, from a respected brand (no K-Mart rubber on your Ferrari). You’ll be surprised how many people skimp on this; it communicates to sellers that you’re a cheapskate, at which point they’ll start looking for what else was done on a low budget and make the assumption that much more is wrong with the car.

3. Prior to the auction, gather all service records, receipts, awards, certificates, sales data and other documentation that cover the car’s history. If your car has club or manufacturer that provides heritage certificates, order it and include it. Take all this paperwork and make two copies. Buy three binders with plastic sleeves and make up three identical books of information for the car. Keep the original safe, and send one copy to the auction company well before the sale. The second copy and third original should travel with you to the auction.

4. Have a professional automotive photographer take photographs of the car. Often the auction company can assist with this, but be sure it’s used the photographer before and ask to see examples of their work. Have the snapper shoot everything including the wheels, engine compartment, interior from both sides, headliner and rear of the car. Also put the vehicle on a lift and fully photograph its underside. Be sure to get pictures of the owner’s manual, service and history documentation, toolkit and any other accessories you have.

5. Unless you’re a professional catalogue writer, let the auction company assign a professional copywriter to craft your car’s description. Provide every detail of the vehicle, citing the factory-specific names for the paint and interior colors (for instance, Polar Silver paint with Parchment leather), the options on your car including the factory option codes, and all the ownership history you can gather. You can assume that they will use all the correct names and list all the pertinent data, but ask to see the description to be certain everything is included and correct. Keep in mind you do not have a lot of space, but ensure names, makes, models, engine and chassis numbers are accurate.

6. Be sure there is someone on site to clean your car. If your auction company doesn’t have a dedicated detailer, employ one of your own to ensure the vehicle always looks great. You can also do this yourself at the auction should you wish. This sends the message to buyers that you care about your car.

7. Be available during all of the auction-preview days to answer any questions about the car. No need to sit in a chair behind the vehicle all day – just be available. Also, make sure the auction specialists have your mobile number, and let them know you’re happy to answer any questions in person from prospective buyers.

8. Don’t bring show-style cardboard information boards or trophies and prop them up next to the car. These look horrible, make the vehicle look like it’s at a local show and can block prospective buyers’ view. Instead, use your second binder of copied documentation (remember you made three) and show it to prospective buyers on site.

9. Unless you’re asked, do not show your car at the preview with the hood up. If someone wants to see the engine, they will ask a specialist to show it to them.

10. Always be in the room when the vehicle is selling. This helps in a number of ways: you can see if the auction company has a buyer, and also, if your car can be sold but the price is under your reserve, you are on hand to have a conversation with a specialist on how to proceed.

These all may seem like obvious things to do, but you’d be surprised at how often sellers neglect to do most of them. Follow these rules and your car is likely to sell at auction for a good price. I’ve sold both well and poorly at auction, and when I sold well it was by following all of these steps. When I sold poorly, I did not…

Learn from my mistakes, and you might even sell your car for a world record.

How to buy a classic car at auction

Thinking of buying at an auction rather than selling? Even better! Best read our full guide here.

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