Wistfully Watching My Dream Collection Go to Auction
Photography by Afshin Behnia for Petrolicious
Paris-based auction house Artcurial will hold its fourth annual Retromobile sale this Friday, followed on Saturday by an auction dedicated to some very special Alfa Romeos. I frequently browse Artcurial’s catalogues and results, but a friendship forged years ago on a winter night in Italy gives me a personal reason to focus a keen eye on this year’s sale.
In the fall of 2010, I was browsing the Alfa Romeo bulletin board classifieds (one of my daily rituals) when I came upon a post telling of a large collection of Alfas for sale in Italy. The post was short on details—and thus long on intrigue—so I contacted the author of the post who turned out to be a middle-man based in Florida (doesn’t get any shadier, right?). After explaining to the middle-man that I’m fluent in Italian and that I was already planning on being in Italy in a couple of months, he agreed to put me directly in touch with the seller.
My wife, Kika, and I flew to Milan that December as we always do for the Christmas holidays, and I didn’t waste much time before getting on the phone with Francesco, the collection’s owner. A few days later, Kika and I were on a train heading south to a seaside town where Francesco’s collection was located. Francesco met us at the train station and, seeing the two weary travelers, decided that cars could wait.
“Have you eaten lunch yet?” He asked.
Before we could even respond, we found ourselves riding in Francesco’s black Mercedes-Benz S500 headed to a restaurant. For a man in his very late 60s, Francesco had a ton of energy and not much regard for traffic regulations. We arrived at our lunch spot, a charming restaurant run by a local fisherman, friendly with Francesco. As it turned out, Francesco was friends with every second person we encountered: the man was obviously well-known and well-liked around town, and Kika and I, as his guests, were welcomed into town like old friends.
Fast cars and slow meals are quintessentially Italian, and we spent the good part of the afternoon eating too much and drinking just the right amount. We could have happily spent all afternoon at the lazy sea-side spot if we hadn’t been so curious to see what automotive treasures he had in store for us.
After a quick stop at our hotel (which Francesco, overlooking nothing, had arranged), we headed for his warehouse. As we pulled up to the building I realized that it was, in fact, a hangar.
My jaw dropped as we walked inside. Arrayed in front of me were about twenty-five pristine Alfa Romeos, mostly rare, highly desirable ones—certainly one of the most impressive Alfa collections I’ve ever seen. A pair of GTA Junior race cars sat next to their street-legal siblings; a red Mille Miglia-eligible 1957 Sprint Veloce Lightweight kept company with a 1960 Giulietta SZ. There were Ferraris too and not just any Ferraris but two of Michele Alboreto’s F1 cars! And a 2009 Alfa 8C Spider offered a modern contrast to the room’s centerpiece, a red 1965 TZ. Dozens of other Alfas—including numerous GTVs, early Berlinas, Supers, and rare ex-police wagons—filled out the space. The condition of these cars fell into just two categories: perfectly preserved original condition or expertly restored. This room alone was worth our trip.
Imagine my surprise, then, to learn that as cavernous as this room was, it was only half of the building. Francesco led us through a small door in the rear and we entered yet another room full of Alfas, an additional forty or fifty in all. This was clearly the rehabilitation clinic: many works-in-progress, including a Giulia TI Super, several Duettos, a Montreal, and even a humble Arna sat in various stages of restoration. Overseeing the work was Francesco’s personal mechanic, Giordano, who had been with Francesco since he began his collection.
Francesco, we learned, had sold his company in the mid-1990s and in semi-retirement had set about assembling his collection of Alfas and Ferraris. Never married and without children, his cars were his life and it was impossible not to share in his bountiful enthusiasm as he talked of his love for building and restoring this collection.
“Why Alfas and Ferraris?” I asked him, always wanting to hear what sparks an owner’s passion for a certain marque. The question seemed to puzzle him.
“What else is there?” Francesco replied, as if I had asked why he chose to breathe oxygen.
He then thought for a moment and said, “No other car sounds like an Alfa, and Alfa Romeo is the mother of Ferrari. If Enzo hadn’t had his racing success with Alfa, who knows what might never have happened?”
We wandered about the shop for a long while, snooping in corners, snapping photos, and chatting with Francesco and Giordano. We could have happily remained amidst this family of Alfas for several more hours, lingering over their every detail, but the December sun was quickly setting outside and I worried that we might be overstaying our welcome. Our tour, however, was just getting started.
“Are you ready for the next stop on the tour?” asked Francesco.
“You mean there’s more?” I asked.
Whatever else awaited us, I couldn’t imagine it being more impressive than that hangar full of Alfas. Francesco bundled us into his car and we sped off into the darkness, Giordano and his assistant, following in a second car. After winding our way through the dark Italian countryside for twenty minutes we pulled up in front of an old farmhouse and barn.
“Where the hell are we?” I wondered to myself as we piled out of the car. I worried that I would soon find myself feigning interest in a collection of antique tractors and plows. Francesco never lacks for surprises, however, and this stop was no exception.
With some effort, Francesco and Giordano parted the rickety barn doors to expose two gleaming industrial steel doors painted bright red. Clearly, this was no ordinary cow shed. As Francesco slid the steel doors open and flipped on the interior lights, we found ourselves standing in a climate-controlled clean room worthy of Intel. With an HVAC system humming in the background and Ferrari-red walls covered in electrostatic anti-dust fabric, the room felt like a villain’s lair.
In the first room, parked end-to-end on the glossy white floor, were each of Ferrari’s supercars: an Enzo, an F50, an F40, a 288 GTO, and a 512 BB. Next to this row sat a 360 Challenge Stradale, a 575 Super America, a Daytona, a 330 GTC, and even an Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione that had evidently sneaked over from the Alfa hangar. This place took the notion of “barn finds” into entirely new territory.
Over the next several months, Francesco and I became good friends and I eventually convinced him to part with two of his cars: a GTA Junior race car and a 1960 SZ, both of which I shipped back to California. Sometime later, after much pleading and cajoling on my part, Francesco relented and sold me his 1957 Giulietta Sprint Veloce Lightweight that I keep in Italy.
Since that first visit in 2010, we have visited Francesco each time we are in Italy, always talking cars but also nurturing a friendship that goes beyond the garage. Even after knowing Francesco for several years, though, the man still surprises me. Now in his early 70s, Francesco rang me one day in 2013 to announce that he was now engaged to a 27 year-old and, what’s more, that he and his fiance were expecting their first child. A stable of Prancing Horses, it seems, is the key to eternal youth.
Francesco had planned to turn his collection into a museum and give the public a chance to share his passion for Alfas and Ferraris, but a lack of suitable locations and the recent changes in his home life finally led him sell most of the cars. A single buyer purchased the majority of the lot and, just like that, Francesco’s barn and hangar were left with about a dozen Alfas on land that will soon be turned into a commercial development.
Francesco had hoped to sell his cars to individuals as crazy as himself, and though a couple buyers like myself did pick up a few of his Alfas, it makes me feel a little uneasy knowing that a flipper bought the bulk of the collection. I guess I should take heart in the fact that they will ultimately go to true Alfisti.
As I watch those Alfas and Ferraris cross the block in Paris this weekend, I will be thinking back fondly on that stunning assembly of cars in the Italian countryside. In restoring and preserving his cars, Francesco accepted nothing less than excellence. I know that the lucky individuals with the winning bids this weekend will also appreciate the cars’ former caretaker for his uncompromising standards.