Barn finds take the stage at the world’s most prestigious vintage auto auctions during Monterey Car Week.
(Bloomberg) — Next week in Monterey, California, at the world’s foremost annual gathering of glamorous cars and car auctions, RM Sotheby’s will erect a broken-down barn with dusty crossbeams, old tires and a rusty tin roof.
Built near the dazzling white auction tents and manicured putting greens of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, such an edifice would normally be considered an eyesore. But the contents of the display justify its presence. It’s by design; they fit right in.
The fallen barn is a holding pen and billboard for 20 derelict Ferraris recently uncovered and set to go on sale during Monterey Car Week. It’s a re-creation of how the cars were exposed to the public in 2004, after a hurricane demolished the building where owner Walter Medlin had them stored.
With a total high-estimated value of nearly $20 million, the grouping is the biggest cache of dilapidated Ferraris ever sold publicly. They’re also the latest offering in a trend that has long enticed car collectors worldwide—the allure of the barn find.
“Part of the charm and awe of the collection is the famous photo of the cars after the hurricane took the barn down and fell on them,” says Thatcher Keast, the auction coordinator for RM Sotheby’s. “We felt that re-creating the way the cars fell into their current condition was extremely important. This is the ultimate barn find, and we really wanted that to come through while on display.”
Often used colloquially, the term “barn find” refers to a vehicle discovered in a barn—or a garage or field—that has remained untouched for decades as time has worn it through. But there are levels to the concept. The term “vehicle” could refer to an engine-less, seat-less shell of a car, or to an engine sitting on a chassis with some leftover wheels and spare parts sitting in a warehouse corner. It could mean a rotted-out Aston Martin DB4 or a well-preserved Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing that has sat intact for generations, waiting for the right person to discover its charms—and fund its resurrection.
“There’s that fine line between something that’s been put away and properly stored and loved, and something that was forgotten about and utterly neglected,” says Stephen Serio, an automotive broker who sold a barn-find 1953 Porsche 356 to Jerry Seinfeld in 2004. “I’ve had mostly great experiences with things that I have found that have been properly stored.”
Barn-find versions of significant cars from brands such as Bugatti, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche represent a holy grail of collecting. They have the most potential for a low-output, big-income reward for those lucky enough to discover them. Ideally you pay the owner—often someone who doesn’t recognize the potential value of the car—a bargain-basement sum, restore the vehicle and then sell it for a healthy profit. It’s the automotive equivalent of finding a Picasso in your closet or a Qing Dynasty jar at a thrift shop.
In May 2021, a 1960 Jaguar XK150 S sold for $127,552 in a Bonhams auction. The hammer price on the crumpled drophead coupe beat the sale estimate by six times. Another project car at the same auction, a 1968 Aston Martin DB6 Sports Saloon, doubled its price estimate to sell for $217,142.
Although the sizzling heyday of barn finds has faded since its high in the mid-2000s, after high-visibility finds like the last of the 29 alloy-bodied 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL gullwing coupes unaccounted for, there’s still an eager audience for patina. So-called “Preservation Class” divisions in concours worldwide showcase cars with most if not all of their original paint and components intact, even if they’re not pristine. Shows such as Hagerty’s Barn Find Hunter regale viewers with rusted-out discoveries and lucrative junk finds. In May, a cache of 230 cars went to auction after they were discovered in a church near Rotterdam.
Online car seller BringATrailer.com doesn’t keep specific sales numbers just for barn finds, but it does have a dedicated sales category for project vehicles, many of which are. The entries run from $3,000 for a corroded heap of BMW metal to $70,000 … for a Porsche in even worse condition.
“It always financially tends to make more sense to just buy the car done,” says BaT co-founder Randy Nonnenberg, who says he gets submissions for sale under the project division every day. “But everybody loves a story. A lot of people want the journey. They want the before-and-after photos and all that sort of stuff to do. It’s still romantic.”
Read more: How’d You Get That Car? Stories Behind Classic Car Collecting
In 2018, a 300SL Gullwing project sold for $1.1 million; it had been driven for fewer than 1,000 miles after 1977—and had not been started since 1984. Last year, a 1950 Jaguar XK120 listing noted “flaking paint, corrosion, and fading” among the car’s attributes, along with a torn soft top, a deflated seat and a dented, rusted-out trunk. The Jag hadn’t been started since the late 1960s. It sold for $121,900.
“If the car is super incomplete, [a barn find] can be a nightmare,” Nonnenberg says, noting the time, expense and logistical difficulty associated with procuring parts and labor for obscure old cars. “But if you get a combination of the right car from back in the day, the abandonment story and then the resurrection story—when those three check boxes are ticked—then it can become one of these blockbuster deals.”
Ferraris From Florida
The Ferraris set for Monterey aren’t the only dusty old cars on sale in the days leading up to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
Gooding & Co. is selling an unrestored 1936 Bugatti Type 57 Ventoux—with its blue-gray paint flaking off its rusted metal body—for $500,000 to $700,000. It had been owned by the same family for 50 years. A 1957 Porsche 356 A Speedster, still dusty from its five decades of storage, carries a price tag of $300,000 to $400,000 at the same sale.
But the RM Ferraris offer the biggest price potential. They’re part of a larger collection owned by Medlin, the eccentric Floridian who became notorious in the 1970s for a number of reasons including tax evasion, drug charges and prison time, along with his proclivity to buy exotic animals. After the hurricane destroyed his barn and briefly exposed the vehicles to the public eye, the cars hadn’t been seen since.
Read more: Million-Dollar Ferraris, Lambos Defy Bear Market at Pebble Beach
“It’s no secret there were plenty more cars in that barn—there were probably 40 cars in there,” says Ethan Gibson, a spokesperson for RM Sotheby’s. “We just picked the best.”
Among them are a 1954 Ferrari 500 Mondial Spider Series I by Pininfarina with an estimate of $1.2 million to $1.6 million. The race car placed fourth in class (14th overall) at the 1954 Mille Miglia and had a total rebody by Scaglietti before it disappeared from history until now. A 1978 Ferrari 512 BB Competizione priced at $1.8 million to $2.8 million is one of three factory-specified examples prepared for the 1978 24 Hours of Le Mans. It boasts a short ownership chain of just two private caretakers.
And a 1956 Ferrari 250 GT Coupe Speciale by Pininfarina was sold brand-new by the factory to its first owner, King Mohamed V of Morocco, and contains traces of its original color combination of Celeste with a Nero roof over a Naturale Connoly leather interior. It carries a pricing estimate of $1.7 million to $2.3 million.
Each of them, and the 17 other Ferraris, will be offered separately. The sale starts on Aug. 17.
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