Bonhams calls, the Emirates answer

  • 29 November 2023
  • 3 min read
  • 7 images
Bonhams calls, the Emirates answer image

Photo credit: Bonhams

Cliff Goodall’s view

Two Formula 1 Grand Prix events in a single week, Las Vegas and Abu Dhabi, and two auctions: RM Sotheby’s in the USA, Bonhams in the Emirates. A bold intersection, given the Arabian Peninsula’s past struggles with car auctions. I’ll spare the details of past failures but note that RM tried in Abu Dhabi during the F1, and the result was far from memorable. The reasons? A nascent market, the Emirates’ boom is very recent, differing tastes, and a lack of deep-rooted automotive history. The recent surge in flamboyantly customised supercars isn’t surprising. Observers now note that in the past three years, the local car culture has matured significantly, becoming more receptive to classic cars.

Hence, Bonhams’ decision to give it another go, and RM’s upcoming Dubai auction in March. Could this be a turnaround? Bonhams Abu Dhabi, 2023 At least looking at Bonhams’ results on 25th October suggests they’re on the right path: not many cars, just 33 all told, with 23 sold – a 69.70% success rate – and $13,543,000 in takings out of pre-sale estimate of $25,835,000. These aren’t staggering numbers, but it’s worth noting that the extremely limited number of no-reserve cars (9, just over one in four) didn’t help, and the average price was a respectable $588,850.

And the cars? Predominantly modern hypercars, but we’re starting to learn the first major lessons about the emerging “classic” preferences in these markets, which hold immense potential for collectibles.

Two Formula 1 cars tell us there’s still much to learn: the 1978 Lotus Type 79 and the 2006 McLaren MP4/21. The Lotus, in its iconic black and gold JPS livery, driven by Carlos Reutemann to a third-place finish at Monaco GP, but more importantly, the car Mario Andretti used to win the World Championship in 1978, was estimated at $6.5m-$8.5m but only reached $3.4m and remained unsold. Why? Just a week before, Hamilton’s first Grand Prix-winning Mercedes-Petronas fetched over $18m. If the $18m for the Mercedes is surprising, just $3.4m for a Lotus that’s far more significant in Formula 1 history and usable in historic races, is even more so. Perhaps the location was a factor: Abu Dhabi in 1978 was not the hub it is today. A Lotus of this pedigree might be more suited to an auction in Monaco or Silverstone.

Bonhams calls, the Emirates answer - 11978 Lotus-Cosworth Ford Type 79 “John Player Special” went unsold at $3,400,000 (€3,105,000)

The result for the 2006 McLaren MP4/21 was a little more encouraging: driven by Kimi Raikkonen in eight Grand Prix races, with its best showing in Australia where it finished second before passing to its current owner. With a much more recent car and a driver who retired just a couple of years ago, the sale was undoubtedly facilitated. Estimated at $2.5m-$3.5m, it changed hands for $2.76m. The top lot of the sale.

Bonhams calls, the Emirates answer - 22006 McLaren-Mercedes-Benz MP4/21 Chassis no. MP4/21-2 sold for $2,760,000 (€2,522,000)

A unique curiosity was the Italdesign Aztec. Not so much the car itself, a 1988 roadster that looks like it’s just been plucked from a sci-fi movie, or for the 7,770 km on the clock, but because of a sense of déjà vu. It took me back 13 years to another Bonhams auction in Dubai, where a similar Aztec was offered. Was it the same car? Back then, it was estimated at $100,000-$150,000 but remained unsold at $98,500. This time, the asking price was $180,000-$220,00. The good news is that in 2023 it changed hands; the bad news is that it did so for much less than the estimate: sold for $143,750.

Bonhams calls, the Emirates answer - 31988 Italdesign Aztec Barchetta sold for $143,750 (€131,500)

Another memory was reignited by the 1993 Porsche 911 (series 964) Carrera RSR 3.8 Strassenversion. I recall its appearance at the Villa d’Este auction in May 2017, where RM offered this very car. Back then, it had just 10 km on the clock and hadn’t been driven since. The buyer paid €2,016,000, at the lower end of the €2m-€2.2m estimate. Fast forward, and the valuation hadn’t changed much, this time at $2m-$2.5m. After a series of bids, it settled at $2,127,500. Not exactly a great deal for the seller.

Bonhams calls, the Emirates answer - 41993 Porsche 911 Type 964 Carrera RSR 3.8-Litre Strassenversion sold for $2,127,500 (€1,945,000)

A car that literally exploded in value was the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren 722 Edition Coupé. It seemed tailor-made for Emirati collectors. Virtually zero kilometres (just 131, in fact), a very limited edition with unique accessories making it quite... dazzling, and it even came from the Arabian Peninsula with all the specifications for the Abu Dhabi market. What better location? The estimate was strategically low ($350,000-$500,000), considering the car had been stationary and would need a hefty sum for a check-up, but when the hammer fell at $851k, the room erupted in a resounding applause.

Bonhams calls, the Emirates answer - 52007 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren 722 Edition sold for $851,000 (€777,500)

A personal curiosity was the 1973 Pontiac Firebird TransAm, almost hidden away in a corner as the last lot of the auction, with no reserve. It’s the kind of car that appeals to “Western” tastes, typically fetching between $50,000-$70,000 in the West. Its sale at $48,300 was a litmus test, proving that the Emirates truly is a geographical crossroads between North and South, East and West. This successful sale hints at a bright future for classic car auctions in the peninsula. A promising sign indeed.

Bonhams calls, the Emirates answer - 61973 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Hardtop Coupé sold for $48,300 (€44,150)