Las Vegas Auction Action

MidAmerica Las Vegas
The circus at MidAmerica Las Vegas. Its huge stage flanked by big screens, runners in the aisles and the non-stop chant of the auctioneer make the Bonhams auction seem like an English tea party by comparison. Both had good crowds and sold millions of dollars worth of motorcycles in early January 2014. (Photos by Rich Cox)

You know you’ve been to Las Vegas—Sin City, Nevada—too many times when you and your best friend are going for three days, and a few days before, one of you voluntarily makes a serious weight-loss bet with a neighbor. Worse, that caloric abstinence in booze and buffet land turns out to be no big deal, even for two guys who—at one time—the movie The Hangover could have been about. Gambling? Food? Nightlife? Been there, done that.

Or maybe we’re just getting old….

auction catalogs at Bonhams
Potential bidders examine auction catalogs at Bonhams.

Turns out there’s still some pretty exciting action in Vegas for motorcycle enthusiasts, even older ones watching their weight—the motorcycle auctions! Heck, you don’t even have to buy anything. Every year Bonhams and MidAmerica hold motorcycle auctions all over the country and around the world, but Las Vegas in January is the only place they run back-to-back events.

Bonhams, one of the world’s largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques, is based in London, England, so the personality of its motorcycle auction at Bally’s Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip is lively, professional, and served with typical English politesse, not to mention the accent. Its representatives are in suits and ties, and I swear the sound of clinking teaspoons is audible over the auctioneer’s steady and often humorous acknowledgment of each bid. When the gavel hits the block there’s no doubt the bike has been SOLD!, but there’s no rapid-fire, Porky-Piglike “…$2,500, hey bidda bidda, $3,000…” spiel in between and no one running back-and-forth among the polite crowd of bidders egging them on. It’s all very proper, without being stuffy or formal in the least.

1923 Indian Big Chief
That 1923 Indian Big Chief with Princess sidecar, formerly owned by Steve McQueen and restored by Von Dutch in 1969, sold for $126,000 including premium. The BMW is one of three 1971 F750 factory racers in existence; it did not meet its reserve.

This year in Las Vegas, in addition to dozens of nice, affordable bikes, Bonhams was offering motorcycles owned by Steve McQueen and restored by Von Dutch; a huge collection of vintage Harleys from the estate of Wayne “Pappy” Pierce, a dealer in Illinois; and two dozen racing, sport and road Ducatis from Silverman Museum Racing. After some spirited bidding, a 1978 Ducati NCR in untouched condition sold for $175,500, quite possibly a new record.

Bonhams’ upscale approach tends to attract high-caliber sellers and buyers, but they and the spectators are still typical enthusiasts, so for the most part you can’t tell them apart from the crowd at the MidAmerica auction 10 miles south at the South Point Hotel and Casino. For us low rollers, it offers a nice auction room rate and a cheap shuttle to the Strip.

Compared to Bonhams, MidAmerica is the country fair of motorcycle auctions, with frantic runners spinning and dashing about in the huge crowd looking for bidders to whom to draw the attention of the crew on the brightly lit stage. Up there, the auctioneer is chanting his spiel so fast and so loud they have to change him out every hour or so, like an exhausted runner in relay race. And no wonder—this year MidAmerica auctioned nearly 600 motorcycles in front of a huge crowd in the South Point arena, most of them nicely collectible machines in the $5,000-$15,000 range. With one bike going, going, GONE every 2-3 minutes—heck, they start pushing another bike on the stage before the bidding is finished on the one before—they sold 85 on Thursday night, and more than 250 each on Friday and Saturday. This was my first MidAmerica auction, so some of the mayhem may be due to the fact that the huge as-seen-on-TV Mecum Auctions group has recently taken a financial and marketing stake in MidAmerica, retaining its founder Ron Christensen as president.

A scene at the MidAmerica auction.

Make no mistake, the best way to buy a used motorcycle is from a dealer or private party. You generally get to know the seller a little, can start the bike and maybe even get a test ride. You’ve got a better shot at getting some kind of warranty, can easily get the whole scoop on the bike’s title and registration, and maybe even financing if desired.

Silverman Museum Racing collection
Several Ducatis from the Silverman Museum Racing collection at Bonhams brought more than $100,000.

In my experience, auctions are a whole ’nuther story. Though these auction companies have good reputations and would probably make good on a serious misrepresentation by the seller, you have to assume the sale is “as-is,” with no warranty. Unless you can find the seller—who may not even be there—well before the auction and talk them into it, you can’t start the bike, and it may have been drained of gas and oil. Some have been thoroughly restored by reputable craftsman with impressive credentials, others have been sitting in a barn for 20 years gathering dust, still others look great but may be completely clapped-out. You raise your hand, you pays your money and you takes your chances.

Automobilia at auction
Automobilia (motomobilia?) is big at both auctions; Bonhams auctioned these colorful prints by motorsports artist Robert Carter as well as many partial bikes, parts and books.

The good news is that if you’re looking for a collectible or simply a fun older bike, you won’t find a better selection in one place. Beats the heck out of buying something you’ve only seen photos of from across the country, especially if you’re close enough to an auction—in Vegas or elsewhere—to drive there in a truck, van or towing a trailer. If you do your homework on the bike(s) you’re looking for (a laptop is a vital tool) and keep your hand in your lap if the price goes too high, you just might go home with a great deal on your dream machine. Or you could get home and find out the bike needs some serious work. Overall, it’s generally not for the feint of heart or light of wallet, but it can be darn good entertainment…especially if you’re on a diet. And if you’re not…hey, it’s Vegas, baby!

Playing the Game

Wayne “Pappy” Pierce
The estate of Wayne “Pappy” Pierce and the Barb City Motorcycle Museum in Dekalb, Illinois, sold more than 40 Harleys at Bonhams, including a 1940 EL for $159,000.

The bidding process is generally well explained in the auction catalog, but there are many things to learn that aren’t.

For example:

  • The opening bid offer by the auctioneer is usually way high to set the bar, and in the hope some sucker will take the bait. Don’t. Unless you’re well-known and intimidatingly wealthy, there’s no reason to bid early.
  • There’s a big difference in bidding strategy between a bike being sold with a secret “Reserve”—the minimum amount the seller will accept—and one offered at “No Reserve.” In the latter case, the seller really doesn’t want to take the bike home, so do your homework carefully. Reserves are an indication the seller is confident the bike is worth it, but if you don’t agree and it doesn’t sell to someone else, you can often make a private offer after the auction.
  • If the actual bids stall out before reaching the bike’s reserve, some auction houses will keep right on calling out higher and higher “house” bids, perhaps even pointing to imaginary bidders in the back of the room, in the hope that a real bidder will get excited and jump in. Don’t be that person; make a private offer instead.
  • Are there folks in the room, on the phone or online helping the seller by bidding up or “schilling” the bike when they have no intention of buying? Hard to know. Every bidder is registered though, so this is only likely to happen in the middling stages to get things going, if at all. Decide what you’ll pay and stick to it.
  • Be sure to know the license and registration ramifications in your state if buying a bike that only has a bill of sale, or is titled in another state or country.
  • Don’t forget that in addition to your winning bid or “hammer price,” you have to pay the auction house a commission of anywhere from 6 to 15 percent, taxes in your state and registration. Caveat emptor…or empty your wallet!

(This article Auction Action was published in the April 2014 issue of Rider magazine.)

’79 Triumph Bonneville bobber
Rick Jackson’s ’79 Triumph Bonneville bobber was built by Morrow Vintage Customs in Ventura, California. They started with an original bike and kept tweaking it over a three-year period. “I think (the builder) made about $2 an hour by the time it was finished,” said Jackson.
1960 Matchless G12 CSR
Canadian Bob Baldwin reluctantly brought his 1960 Matchless G12 CSR to MidAmerica, because at age 77, he said, “I need to get rid of some of my bikes before the good Lord gets rid of me.”
Rob Ianucci BSA A50R
Don Emde, winner of the 1972 Daytona 200 on a Yamaha, poses with a BSA A50R factory racer restored by Rob Ianucci, the last BSA to win an AMA road race. Emde once rode for the BSA factory team and was asked to ride the A50R in a parade lap at Mid-Ohio Vintage Motorcycle Days in 2009.
1989 Honda GB500
Yours Truly ogles a 1989 Honda GB500 still in the crate; it sold for $13,800…but not to me. Sniff.
1923 Harley factory hillclimber
Dale Walksler, curator of the Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, introduces a special 1923 Harley factory hillclimber at MidAmerica.
Rocket Gold Star
A lovely pair of BSAs at Bonhams, the left a ’63 Rocket Gold Star and right a ’58 Gold Star. Good BSAs are beginning to demand the same kinds of prices the more popular vintage Triumphs were a few years ago.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here