Of the dozen most expensive cars ever sold at auction, ten were Ferraris, and the most money a classic car has fetched privately was also a Ferrari, in this case a 1962 GTO, which reputably sold for $70m, which was $20m more than another GTO which sold in the saleroom for $48.4m, including fees. Way down in eleventh place was the only British car, a 1956 Aston Martin DBR1, which went for $22.8m. Slightly less practical was a 1954 Mercedes-Benz W196 ex-Juan Manual Fangio Formula 1 GP winning car, which notched up $29.6m at a Bonhams car auction at Goodwood in 2013. The beauty of buying classic cars, or clocks and watches, is that they do not attract Capital Gains Tax, as it is still regarded as a wasting asset, which makes sense when dealing with race horses, and to some extent, wine, as they have a useful life of fifty years, but when applied to say, the Duc d’Orléans Breguet Sympathetique quarter striking clock, it was still ticking and still striking over 170 years after it was made, and it sold a few years ago for $6.8m at auction. Apart from some deeply vulgar Graff, Chopard and Jaegar-LeCoulture diamond-encrusted watches, festooned with gems and gold, and worth tens of millions, a beautiful Breguet Grande Complication Marie-Antoinette pocket watch from 1827 fetched $30m.
There is a thin line between ‘restoration’, ‘reparation’ and ‘conservation’, and there are some unscrupulous dealers around who do little to respect the integrity of a vehicle’s provenance. Define repair (to make good), as opposed to renovate (to make new), ‘restore’ (to reinstate) or conserve (to preserve by protection). Key to all these is the word ‘provenance’; this is crucial to the value of the classic racing or sports car which involves establishing the precise identity of the vehicle, a complete history of ownership, and documentation attesting the specific events in which the car participated, with reference to specific teams or drivers. Classic car collector par excellence Nick Mason bought the charred remains of a camera car that was burnt out during the filming of Steve McQueen’s turgid film Le Mans in 1971, whilst being driven by Derek Bell. As he had the chassis, engine and gearbox serial numbers, he was able to ‘restore’ the Ferrari 512S to pristine condition. There are occasions when cars surface with the most slender grasp of authenticity. We have all been party to the paradox known as ‘my grandfather’s axe’, whereby ‘my father’ replaced the steel head of the proudly-displayed tool when it shattered, and ‘my son’ replaced the beechwood handle when it split. ‘My daughter’ added some tape for a better grip, but is it still ‘my grandfather’s axe’? This paradox is also know as the ‘Ship of Theseus’, as, over time, the planks of wood were replaced as they began to rot, as were the masts and sails, until every piece of the original vessel was replaced. Is this still the ship of Theseus, carrying him and the youth of Athens back and forth across the Aegean? Supposing the shipyard had kept all the rotting planks, and made another, presumably unseaworthy, ship out of the old, discarded timbers. Is this the ship of Theseus? Some unscrupulous classic car restorers have been known to fabricate two, or more, vehicles out of one crashed car. In a recent landmark court ruling put the onus firmly on would-be buyers to confirm a car’s provenance, after three judges overturned an earlier ruling that saw Stanley Mann being sued by a Mrs Mercedes Travis Brewer over a 1930 Bentley Speed Six. Mrs Brewer claimed the dealer said the car had an original Speed Six engine, but she argued that was not the case, and said other parts of the car were not original either and so the Bentley could not be considered a Speed Six model. One ingenious gang of restorers went so far as to source 1920s steel from discarded railroad tracks in India to build the chassis of a fake Bugatti, enabling the car to withstand even the most stringent metallurgical analysis.
There are wine fakers out there as well, who go to extraordinary lengths to get the correct bottle, cork and label. The wine inside the bottle is usually incidental, as these wines are for buying and selling or just plain showing-off. In October 2018, Sotheby’s sold a bottle of 1945 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Cru for the staggering price of $558,000, so the Chinese and Japanese markets are ripe for expoitation, as they are relatively unsophisticated when it it comes to matters oenological. A couple of years ago, a Japanese millionaire on-line writer bought a dram of 1878 Macallan single malt in a hotel bar in St Moritz for 10,000 Swiss francs (£7,600), which he declared at the time, ‘it had a good taste. It’s not just the taste, but also history.’ Sadly, neither its history, nor taste, stood the test of carbon dating carried out by researchers from the University of Oxford, wh smelt a rat, which suggested it was created between 1970 and 1972. Further lab tests by Fife-based alcohol analysts Tatlock and Thomson indicated that it was probably a blended Scotch, comprising 60% malt and 40% grain, ruling it out as a single malt. The hotel apologised and Mr Zhang was reimbursed. Surely everybody knows that a whisky, like brandy, left in the cask for more than twenty-odd years will start to deterioate, as the spirit takes on the impurities of the barrel. Once in the bottle, it becomes inert. Glenmorangie used to buy quercus alba (white oak) bourbon casks from America, because their laws stipulate that it can only be barrelled once with sour mash bourbon whiskey, little realising that any residual raw oak flavour had disappeared and gone into the bourbon. Up to 60 per cent of the flavour and colour of whisky comes from wood.
An unrestored Mercedes-Benz Gullwing 300 SL went for 35% more than a fully-restored model at a recent auction in the States, so maybe the steering-wheel is turning the other way, and that there will be an increase in ‘fake originality’ and ‘fake patina’, and there will there be a specialty business in restoration work that looks like no restoration has been done at all? The largest classic car restorers in the world are not in East Sussex, or even in Switzerland. Nor are they in America. They reside in the Phillipines and are run by an Australian businessman Jim Byrnes, of the Byrnes Motor Trust Restoration who have anything up to 400 Rolls-Royce and Bentleys, E-type and XK120 Jaguars, MGAs, MGBs, Sunbeam Tigers, Mustangs and Porsches. On one trip he bought 37 Jaguars languishing in a scrapyard in Texas, of which they managed to reassemble five. There is a newer trend, namely ‘continuation cars’, which are entirely new, with previously unused chassis numbers and all new components. These ‘remastered’ or ‘reborn cars’ are born again, thanks to extremely thorough restorations done in the newly-created workshops of the cars’ original manufacturers. The hope is that people will buy into an extra authenticity now revealed as not entirely present in a car restored by a specialist. In Italy, a court recently ruled that the iconic Ferrari GTO was a ‘work of art’, and could not be replicated, after Ferrari brought a case against a company in Modena, Ferrari’s home town, who were planning to produce replicas. Of the 36 models made between 1962 and 1964, it is believed that 36 still survive, including the one that was sold for $48.4m by Greg Whitten, a software tycoon and early employee of Microsoft, who had bought it in 2000 for an undisclosed sum.