The two-tone grey '29 Duesenberg Model J Dual Cowl Phaeton that sold at a recent RM Auctions sale brought a somewhat surprising $1.2-million (U.S.). Even though it had been restored to pristine condition, the price was still about a quarter-million dollars more than expected for such a classic.
Why the premium? Quite possibly, it was because Elvis Presley had driven it in the 1966 film Spinout. No, the King did not spin it out in the movie - he used it to tow racecars.
"Absolutely a very good price for that car," said Shelby Myers, a value specialist for RM. "It had an extensive and interesting history. Without that provenance, however, such a car might have brought 15 to 20 per cent less."
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In auction parlance, this is called celebrity provenance, meaning someone famous once owned or notably appeared with the vehicle - and it has been known to incite bidders to irrational exuberance. Examples of this ruboff effect were evident at this month's Arizona classic car sales.
Celebrity ownership does not always assure top dollar. "It really depends on who the celebrity is," Myers said. "Age brings a premium."
As an example, he cited Steve McQueen, whose Ferrari Lusso sold in 2007 for $2.3-million, blowing away presale estimates of about $1-million.
"People of a certain era grew up envying Steve McQueen," he said. "Now ownership by a modern celebrity, say even a Brad Pitt, would not add much to a car's value."
David Gooding, founder of the Gooding & Co. auction house, agreed. "In the instance of the Lusso, McQueen had a long-term association with that car, and there was plenty of photo documentation of him with it. Without those components, celebrity provenance gets pretty weak and doesn't help."
Alleged, but unproven, provenance can actually hurt. An unusual aqua-green 1941 Lincoln Continental Coupe offered by RM may have been a good example. It was said to have been the car bought by Orson Welles for Rita Hayworth, his romantic interest at the time. But the association could not be proved beyond doubt. Instead of drawing bids close to its presale estimates of $150,000 to $200,000, bidding for the Lincoln fizzled out at $100,000 and the car was withdrawn from the sale.
"Celebrity cars with strong, proven provenance get good dollars," Myers said. "But ones with questions? Buyers steer clear of them."
An odd - but noteworthy - example of what one person's attachment to a certain celebrity can do to a vehicle's auction price was demonstrated three years ago with the late actor James Coburn's 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder. It was sold to a British radio host for the exceptional price of nearly $11-million, far beyond the established value for that model.
"That was crazy and out of whack," Gooding said. "It didn't even have the original engine."
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