The Volkswagen Bug becomes an unlikely auction hero
The Volkswagen Beetle (Bug in the US, Käfer in Germany, Garbus in Poland, Coccinelle in France) has done more to commoditize personal transportation than any other automobile in history. With 21.5 million produced between 1938 and 2003, it holds the world record for production of an automobile.
For those people, and the people they sold it to, and the people they sold it to, it presented quite authentically as honest, hard-working, frugal (35 mpg), ultra-reliable transport for four. Those brand values are cherished by those that experience them, and if you have owned or known a Beetle, chances are you remember it very fondly. On the surface, the world's most plentiful car should not soar in value at auction as a collectible. Nevertheless, the value of vintage Beetles is climbing rapidly, with two now having sold for more than $100,000, and $50,000 Beetles are now commonplace.
If those prices surprise, consider the Beetles that didn't sell at auction last year. The 1949 Volkswagen Hebmuller Type 14A Beetle Cabriolet above received a bid of $250,000 in Monterey last August, but failed to sell because the bid was below the reserve price of $300,000.
Last June (2016), a 1943 KDF Type 60 Beetle also failed to meet reserve during The Finest's Elegance at Hershey auction, against an official estimate of $275,000 to $350,000. The reserve price is believed to have been $275,000.
Which brings us to the main subject of this story: the 1952 Volkswagen Type 1 Beetle pictured above will be one of the stars of RM Sotheby's showcase Paris auction at Place Vauban this week (February 8), and we expect it will further highlight the transformation of the definitive "people's car" into a family heirloom.
With just one owner since new, the car is completely original and as can be seen from the image above, it is also unmolested, having been untouched in storage (complete with pre-historic wooden skis strapped to the back) for four decades.
The car is another of those miraculous barnfinds which continue to surface regularly at auction, where a new rule is emerging: original and authentic beats perfect and restored. The Beetle has authenticity plus just 77,000 kilometers on the odometer.
RM-Sotheby's is quoting €55,000 to €80,000 ($60,000 to $85,000) and it's safe to say that more people will be watching the price fetched by this car than the 1934 Alfa Romeo Tipo B P3 and Porsche 917/10 Prototype that headline the bill.
The three most valuable Volkswagen Beetles ever to sell have done so largely because of exceptional provenance – the car was either owned by someone important, or featured in an important event.
The first and third most valuable Beetles ever sold both made screen appearances as Herbie in the Walt Disney "Love Bug" film franchise, selling for $126,500 (above) and $86,250 respectively. Links to the official auction pages of all these cars appear in the captions in the image gallery.
Cars that appear in movies generally fetch far more than identical cars that don't. The 1960 Beetle above was entirely original in every respect and fetched $121,000 at Gooding & Co's Amelia Island auction in March 2016. As authentic as it may have been, the car was sold from the collection of comedian Jerry Seinfeld and the price was almost certainly inflated by its celebrity ownership. Seinfeld's collection of predominantly Porsches was curated with the eye of an expert and went a long way to establishing him as a prominent enthusiast with a keen knowledge of automotive history, accounting for why he sold just 17 cars for $22.24 million in total on the day.
The Seinfeld car added 50 percent to the best price previously achieved for a Beetle sans provenance, which was the $82,500 price fetched by RM-Sotheby's at Amelia Island in 2014 for the 1955 Volkswagen Beetle Cabriolet above. Immaculately restored, this car represents the current high point of the non-celebrity market for Beetles.
The auction winner's curse
Auctions are often considered to be a model of economic efficiency and the ideal way of uniting buyers and sellers at the fairest price. Beware though – when an item has a unique provenance, and may be valued quite differently by different factions in the universe of buyers, an auction is also the perfect way of invoking the "auction winner's curse." The winner's curse theory posits that you will always pay too much at auction, as there is an inevitability at least one person will add irrationality in bidding for the lot, making the winning bid too high … and the larger the universe of bidders, the greater the probability of irrationality ... and the higher the price.
So taking out the top three Beetle sales as outliers where the price was influenced by movie and celebrity provenance, the $82,500 price for the aforementioned 1955 Volkswagen Beetle Cabriolet represents the top of the "real market" for Beetles.
Below $80,000 is where the meaty part of the Beetle market begins. The image of the Black 1950 Beetle for sale for €55,000 above was taken at Techno-Classica in Essen, Germany, in April, 2016. The show floor at Techno-Classica contained dozens of vintage Volkswagen Beetles (Type 1 for the aficionados) in the $40,000 to $80,000 range and Volkswagen Kombis/Transporter, Kombi or Microbus, (Type 2) in the $70,000 to $130,000 range.
Volkswagen as a collectible growth marketplace
For those unaware of the trends of the marketplace, the price of Beetles might have been growing like Topsy in the last few years, but that growth pales in comparison to the prices achieved by Type 2 Volkswagens. Last month we covered the sale of a number of expensive Type 2 Volkswagens in a story entitled "How the Volkswagen Kombi became the family heirloom," including a new world record of $302,500 for a Kombi at auction.
Okay, so Volkswagen has defied gravity on the auction block twice, but there are other spawn of the Volkswagen brand and the Beetle itself doing exceptionally well on the auction block too. The Volkswagen Schwimmwagen above was expected to fetch $150,000 to $175,000 last September (it failed to make reserve but three recent sales in line with that valuation validate it). The Schwimmwagen is not exactly a Beetle, though it shares its engine and layout in a watertight monocoque shell with 4WD. Then there's the military version of the Beetle, the Kübelwagen and its descendent, the Volkswagen Thing (Type 181), which have also attracted high prices at auction.
It all stemmed from those sketches above, made by Adolf Hitler. The man on the right is Ferdinand Porsche who designed the Beetle for Hitler, borrowing heavily from prior art, not all of it his own. But that's another story.
The aim of this story, like the Kombi becoming the family heirloom, is to raise awareness of the rise in value of a car that has undoubtedly touched the lives of a lot of our readership in some way.
The current auction record for a Volkswagen Type 1 Beetle "Split-Window" Standard Sedan is $66,000 which was achieved for the 1952 model below by RM-Sothebys.
The 1952 model that fetched that price was exquisitely restored. The car which will go to auction in Paris next week is authentic in every respect. We can't wait to see how it fares. Remember the rule – authenticity trumps exquisitely restored. Let's see how it holds up on the playing field.
Finally, if you've read this far, you are obviously interested in Volkswagens. Our feature article on how the Volkswagen Kombi became a family heirloom plots the rise of the Kombi as a collectible car, and there's a 1964 21-window Kombi going to auction in Paris later this week at Artcurial's Retromobile auction that might surprise us all, too.