Battleground Vegas - Special Feature

Auction houses’ fight turns into premier event.

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Each January, the true faithful among vintage-bike nuts head toward Las Vegas to attend the world’s largest old-motorcycle sale. This year, Bonhams & Butterfields piggybacked with MidAmerica Auctions to bring the number of bikes on display or for sale to a whopping 720. Over three days, nearly $8 million changed hands. That’s serious business.

Bonhams displayed more than 220 bikes, ranging from the world’s oldest production motorcycle—an 1894 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller ($161,000)—to a collection of 50 low-mileage 1970s Hondas sold at no reserve ($300 plus). Highlights included two original-paint racers: a super rare 1939 BMW R51RS ($130,200), as last raced at Daytona in 1952 and possibly the only unrestored prewar Rennsport; and a ’29 Harley-Davidson “Peashooter” ($125,800), which had been found in an Australian mine! One of the oldest American bikes extant, a shiny 1901 Indian “Camelback,” sold for just $131,500, reflecting a general distrust of restored early American bikes, as the market has been flooded with recreations, some of which, like the Velveteen Rabbit, have become “real” over time. Wary buyers have suppressed prices for American antiques for good reason.

“All these replicas are really scaring buyers away from early American bikes,” says Ron Christensen of MidAmerica. “We had an unnamed four-cylinder, which turned out to have a replica frame purchased in France. Sometimes, owners have been misled, but we have to be more diligent about documenting the bikes to make clear what we are selling. It’s difficult to get paperwork out of sellers, even things as simple as titles!”

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Battleground Vegas 1

At Bonhams & Buttefields, highlights included this 1894/95 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller ($161,000).

After the efficient, English-centric Bonhams auction, MidAmerica’s three-day sale was cattle-call Americana, with bright lights, video screens and the local Pop Warner football team pushing bikes onto a rotating red-carpet podium. Fears that a competing event might harm prices evaporated as the highlights sold well, with two late-1930s Brough Superior SS100s going for $280,000 and $238,000, respectively—the “lower” price reflecting non-matching engine/frame numbers. Big Broughs continue to dominate the high-end market and set records, although private deals of more than $1 million have been rumored for record-breaker Vincents and Honda Grand Prix bikes. Racing machines did well, too, with two scarce American speedway bikes going for six figures. A 1934 Crocker Single—one of 12 known—made $171,000, and a Harley-Davidson “CAC” Single with original paint hit $128,000.

This year’s sales will be remembered for the emergence of new players in the old-bike auction scene. Bidders from India and South America—places that were previously happy hunting grounds for “undiscovered” two-wheel treasures—dipped a toe for mid-priced machines. More significantly, this year, the “car guys” finally swarmed the top-dollar collectible motorcycle market. Rumored, anticipated and feared, deep-pocket car collectors showed up at Las Vegas and bought most of the crème de la crème for peanuts. At least compared with a ’67 Ferrari 250 GTO...

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Battleground Vegas 2

This factory-built 1939 BMW R51RS went for a cool $130,200 at Bonhams & Buttefields.