Yesterday's sale of the 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO for $38.1 million at the Bonhams Auction in Pebble Beach is the best thing that could have happened to the collector car market, and anyone who tells you different probably had a stake in the sale price.
Most early predictions pegged the likely sale price between $50-60 million, a sum that would have easily broken the record for most expensive car ever sold at auction and could have poured gasoline all over a red-hot market already close to a bubble. Instead, the final $38.1 million figure is still the new record holder (by over $8M), and actually leaves room for growth. Why? Because this wasn't even one of the better GTOs.
Ferrari built 39 examples of the 250 GTO between 1962-64, making them among the most rare and coveted collector cars of all time thanks to their stunning looks and racing pedigree. GTOs took second and third in their Le Mans debut in 1962, second and fourth the following year, and won many events all over the world including at Daytona.
The particular 250 GTO, the nineteenth of those 39, that sold at auction on Thursday night did not enjoy much racing success, and in fact professional skier Henri Orellier was killed in this car during a race in France – the only driver to die in a 250 GTO. Its other owners crashed the car often during races, and wealthy Italian businessman Fabrizio Violati took possession of the car in 1965. By all accounts, Violati took excellent care of his GTO and enjoyed it every chance he got in historics racing, until his death in 2010.
The fact that Violati owned the car for 45 years, the longest stretch for any 250 GTO, certainly added to its value. But 250 GTO No. 3851 GT has far from the greatest backstory, and if it were worth more than $50 million on the open market, then what are the Le Mans winners worth? What is chassis No. 3223GT, the first 250 GTO ever made that was driven by Phil Hill and Dan Gurney at Sebring, worth?
We recently reported on the skyrocketing price of entry to the world of collector cars, which has many observers wondering if the market is headed for another bubble like the one that crashed spectacularly in the late 1980's. A sale of over $50 million for GTO No. 3851GT could have set the wheels in motion for another inflated market. As it stands, $38.1 million is still an obscene amount of money for a car, but one that can be justified based on demand.
Bonhams put the car on the block without reserve, knowing that it was possible it wouldn't reach their $50 million projection. Surely the final price is a disappointment to them, as another 250 GTO sold privately for $52 million last October, and the exotic collector market has increased sharply since then. But private sales often garner higher sums than public auctions, and that car, No. 5111GT, had a decorated and storied racing history.
Bonhams still receives their 10 percent commission of over $3.4 million, and the owners of the car still receive a hefty sum. That's right, owners, plural. An investment group bought the 250 GTO only two months ago, immediately flipping it around to try and make a quick profit. Their purchase was conducted in private, so there's no way to know whether the car brought a good return on investment.
But if anything, that's a good thing. Investor groups and quick flips are part of what destroyed the collector car market in the 80's. It encourages lightning growth and feeds the growing bubble with cars that might not be worth what the owners say they are. If the GTO would have actually sold for $60 million or even $70 million, the effect would have been felt across the entire collector market – not just the super exotic racecars. Prices on classics of all kinds would likely have skyrocketed to catch up, pricing out true collectors and enthusiasts in the million-dollar range and below.
On Thursday night, Bonhams baited the hook, but buyers didn't bite. They resisted the opportunity to feed the frenzy and instead stuck to their own valuations. If anything, doing so actually increased the value of the Ferrari 250 GTO because it encourages steady growth – not ludicrous buying and trading.
Those jaw-dropping looks and that prancing horse badge will keep the 250 GTO at the top of the list of collectibles for a long, long time. This just isn't the car to bring the kind of numbers that some people expected. That car is out there, and it will probably be found soon enough. Until then, enjoy 250 GTO No. 3851 GT for what it is: one of the greatest cars ever made, and the one that didn't ruin everything.