Here’s What It’s Like To Sell Your Collector Car At Auction
Photography courtesy of Auctions America
When I was an active duty member of the United States Air Force, I was fortunate enough to be stationed in Misawa, Japan. While in The Land Of The Rising Sun, I scored a beautiful all-original 1984 Toyota Century. I purchased the royal limo with the intention of forever keeping it in the stable. Despite my best efforts to juggle five automobiles, after three years of incredible memories with my J-tin VIP machine, I decided it was time to let it go to clear up garage space and help fund some other projects.
As difficult as it was to come to terms with letting go of the Toyota, deciding to sell it turned out to be the easiest part of getting rid of the car. Finding the right venue to sell it? That was the real trick. I considered forums, but that fared a limited audience. Being such a quirky grey market import, I needed to maximize the niche buyer pool. I considered eBay but the fees seemed excessive. Bring-a-Trailer was the next obvious choice, but after failing to agree on a reserve figure, I was forced to seek another venue.
Meanwhile, a 1990 Toyota Century sold at Auctions America (AA) Fort Lauderdale and the gavel collected a number that piqued my interest. Shortly after, I noticed Auctions America—a sister company of RM Sotheby’s—was having its annual Santa Monica event in late June. Living in San Diego, the auction’s Barker Hanger location seemed like the optimal choice, so I rang AA up.
After a quick 30-minute phone call with consigner Jake Auerbach, I was sold on Auctions America. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, it should as Jake was previously featured on Petrolicious. The initial conversation primarily consisted of generic questions about the car’s condition, originality, history, and mileage. Jake was genuinely enthusiastic about the Century and thought it’d be perfect on the Santa Monica block.
AA quickly mailed me a few forms to fill out, I paid the auction entry charge online, and received a lot number a couple weeks later. The setup process was a breeze and Jake and the staff at AA were top-notch professionals—promptly answering whatever questions I threw their way either by email or phone. The auction was a few months out, which turned out to be the perfect amount of time to enjoy the Century before the big day.
Now, a lot of auction cars are trailer queens, but I’d never do such a thing. The auction preview opened on Friday afternoon, so that morning I drove the Century from San Diego to Barker Hanger with the wife following closely behind—I would need a lift home assuming the car sold. Thankfully, Los Angeles traffic wasn’t too congested and we arrived plenty early. Event workers were directing traffic for both spectator and auction vehicle parking. I was guided into the lot behind the hanger, I handed over the keys, signed a couple forms, and an event coordinator parked the Century between a Packard and an Alfa Romeo GTV—was that a sign? After all, one of the key reasons I was selling the Toyota was to help pay for my stepnose project.
The wife and I walked the lot, amazed at the incredible automotive variety in attendance. Even the AA folks agreed the Santa Monica lineup was oddly diverse with vehicles of nearly every marque. From Pre-War Detroit antiques to modern supercars, it was quite the spectacle. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my Canon because I thought I’d be too preoccupied—shame on me.
We left Barker Hanger around noon and made our way to Culver City just down the road to stop by the Petrolicious HQ. After some grub with the Drive Tastefully crew, we checked into our Airbnb—a classic Airstream that’d been completely renovated with modern air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, and an outdoor bamboo shower. The fuselage-on-wheels turned out to be the perfect retreat for our exciting but stressful weekend.
The morning of the event, I showered and put on my bespoke navy two-piece suit. I’d only ever been to one auto auction before, and in Texas, the event dress code was formal. I should have known better: nobody wears a damn suit in California. Still, my made-to measure single button double vent feels like wearing pajamas except for being a tad warm. Dressed to kill, we made our back to the hanger. Upon arriving, we noticed the lot had filled up since the day before.
Finally, we entered the hanger and that’s when it hit me: “Our car is going to be on that turntable in front of all these people?” It was somewhat terrifying to think about our beloved Japanese cruiser rolling into the hanger for a bidding war, but we had hours before it would be our car’s turn on the block.
Some good Los Angeles friends stopped by the event to help kill some time. This is when I, for better or worse, made my way to the bar. I had…several Stella Artois and was finally feeling relaxed when I heard them call lot number 1137—two away from our car, placed 1139. Frantically, I made my way to the lineup just outside the hanger and sure enough, the Toyota was sitting idling with a driver waiting to be ushered to center stage.
I approached the driver and asked him to flick the parking lights on in hopes that potential bidders would notice the backlit illumination license plates I special ordered while in Japan. He looked confused, so I reached into the cab, clicked the running lights on, made my way back inside, and took a seat. My wife pulled out her cellphone, ready to record the bids. For whatever reason lot number 1138 was skipped and the two auctioneers began describing the Century just before the car pulled up onto the turntable.
The spotlights were on but the license plates were glowing green—one of my favorite things about the whole car. My bias aside, it looked good. Damn good for a 30-plus-year-old car with all original paint and brightwork. After giving a rundown of the car’s history, condition, and originality, they opened up the bidding.
Chanting off as auctioneers do, my heart began to race to the beat of their accelerated numerical gibberish. $10,000 was the first offer placed. I was anxious, my heart was pounding at this point, and then the bids quickly climbed to $15,000. “Now we’re talking,” I thought. I wasn’t sure if I was breathing. I think I held my breath through most of it, but the bids quickly went stagnant.
A bidder hollered out something about the car being bulletproof? The car wasn’t bulletproof. I’m still not sure why that came up, but I believe it was confusion between what the auctioneers said and what the bidder heard. Either way, our time was up and the auction closed. The gavel dropped at $15,500 but hadn’t met the reserve—this is when the adrenaline stopped.
I was disappointed. I thought the car would pull $20k easily, but I should have been happy, right? Call me optimistic but I thought the car was worth more. That’s when Jake told me, “Give me a few minutes, this isn’t over. I’ve got someone on the phone and a bidder on the floor still interested.” I’ve always assumed when the gavel dropped, that was it. Either remove the reserve and take the highest offer, or take the car back home. Take it or leave it. Turns out, if it doesn’t meet the reserve or someone wants to outbid the final auction offer, there’s still time for negotiating.
About 10 or 15 minutes later, Jake walks us over to the sideline call-in-booth. We discuss the final offers. What to do? It still wasn’t quite our reserve figure, but it was close. “Sold,” I said looking at my wife who was wearing her beautiful smile as always. “We’ll take it.” An instant relief overcame me. I was satisfied. The burden of disappointment left and I felt like a million bucks—well, maybe not a million, but enough for me not to miss the car.
We left, got dinner, and made our way back to the Airstream. What a day. We were both exhausted—selling a car at an auction is like riding an emotional rollercoaster. There are highs and lows, but thankfully we ended on a high note.
So, would I consign another car to an auction house? Absolutely. The experience was priceless, and I’d highly recommend having your classic cross the block—that is when you’re ready to sell, if ever. It made an otherwise mundane transaction absolutely exhilarating.