The Dorotheum: A Vehicle of Legend

While the Dorotheum is known for furniture and fine art, the Classic Car Department’s auction on 2 June shines with Bill Gates’ 1979 Porsche 911 and Norman Foster’s 1964 Ferrari

On The Town | Tav Falco | June 2012

Wolfgang Humer heads the Classic Car and Motorcycle Department of the Dorotheum (Photo: Tav Falco)

Vintage Ferrari, Rolls Royce, Mercedes, Porsche, AC Bristol, Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin: going once – going twice – going thrice – it’s yours! Known for over 300 years as the largest auction house in continental Europe, the Dorotheum in Vienna’s inner city specialises in modern and contemporary art, 19th century art, silver, glass and porcelain, jewellery, clocks, art nouveau, furniture, sculpture, master drawings, and old master paintings. Beyond these collectables, today you can also find your classic dream car on the Dorotheum auction block.

The Palais Dorotheum was founded in 1707 by Imperial decree of Joseph I. Far more recent was the establishment in 2005 of a Classic Car and Motorcycle Department, now headed by its dashing and fashionable young Herr Director Wolfgang Humer. Of its 600 annual auctions in over 40 categories, two formidable auctions of these venerable automobile are held at the Dorotheum’s Fahrzeugzentrum garage complex in Vösendorf.

At the upcoming Spring Auction on 2 June, 50 collectable vehicles go under the hammer, or rather, the bell (the Dorotheum marks a winning bid by ringing an antique bell). The selected Objets d’art on wheels include a Porsche 911 Turbo bought new in 1979 by Microsoft entrepreneur Bill Gates, plus an exquisite gold metallic 1964 Ferrari 330 GT originally owned by Norman Foster, the renowned British architect who designed 30 St Mary Axe, the skyscraper that Londoners call "the Gherkin". Enthusiasts come from all over the world to bid on that special rolling apple of their eye.

Auctioneers’ pride

Prices are expected to be high, but Humer and his colleagues may have some competition in Tobias Meyer, a University of Vienna art history graduate and the auctioneer at Sotheby’s, who just conducted the $119.9 million (€95.3 million) sale of Edvard Munch’s 1895 iconic painting The Scream, on 2 May. That 12-minute dogfight resulted in the most expensive work ever sold at auction. Overshadowed somewhat too by Christies and Bonhams, auction highlights from the Dorotheum are still no slouch: Frans Francken II (1581-1642), Man between Virtue and Vice, price €7.02 million; Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666), il Guercino, €1.04 million; Friedrich von Amerling, Girl with Straw Hat, €1.5 million; Piero Manzoni, Achrome (1958/59), €1.11 million.

Quality over notoriety

Still, Humer remains undaunted, stressing how the Dorotheum places emphasis on quality, especially in regard to items connected with the nobility. "You really have to be careful that the quality you offer, fits the prices." For example, he discloses, "we auctioned a pair of Emperor Franz Josef’s underwear for €7,000."

What makes a car or motorcycle a desirable classic depends on a number of factors. Age, rarity, historical significance, popular interest, and personal impulse all play into the mystique surrounding the value of an object. "Volkswagen Beetles were made in the millions," he observes, "yet today it is a sought after classic." At auction, value is expressed and redefined before an array of bidders who are representative of open market parameters.

Creating classic cars

And in fact, the concept of classic cars at all is a recent one. "After the war, our records show the Dorotheum auctioned two Bugattis from the 1930s, that were categorically offered as everyday used cars."  The idea of classic automobiles came long after the dark chapter of the Third Reich. "The Nazis stole a lot of art and forced people to sell their works for ridiculous prices," Humer says. "They used the Dorotheum as a convenient platform to broker their loot." As an issue of primary concern to the management, in 2006 the auction house deposited payment of $32 million (€25.4 million) to the General Restitution Fund for Victims of National Socialism.

With no possibility to test-drive, buying a car at auction is a risk beyond the investment. It’s the proverbial pig in a poke sale, Humer says – "die Katze im Sack kaufen". The attraction, he contends, is the chance to acquire a design icon for a price below inflated those at vintage dealers.

In practice, there are three ways to bid, says Humer, who also acts in the role of auctioneer: You can stand in the room and raise your hand, telephone your bid, or bid in absentia by forwarding your maximum by letter, telegram, fax, or e-mail. Once Humer had a bid on the telephone for two million euros. "It’s a tough business," he admits. "You become a little nervous when you raise your hand for two million. [But] that’s when it gets interesting."

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