Dueling Gavels: Experiencing the Big Las Vegas Motorcycle Auctions

Bonhams and Mecum Motorcycle Auction
Hundreds of motorcycles were lined up by their auction day at the four-day Mecum event in Las Vegas.

Sin City is the logical venue for the celebrations of beauty, excess and conspicuous consumption that are the Bonhams and Mecum motorcycle auctions. Held concurrently in casinos just 8 miles apart, the world’s motorcycle collecting elite amass their rolling historical artifacts and commence the bidding in either or both locations.

Bonhams and Mecum Motorcycle Auction
The Bonhams Auction was held in a carefully staged ballroom of the Rio Hotel and Casino.

Going Once: The Bonhams Auction

The Bonhams Motorcycle Auction is a segment of the large, British auction company that deals in everything from fine art to antiquities. Many of the motorcycles rolled onto the bidding platform at the Rio Hotel and Casino were certainly a melding of both history and art. The Bonhams experience was a two-day event at which nearly 200 bikes were ultimately sold.

Bonhams and Mecum Motorcycle Auction
The preview day of the Bonhams Auction afforded attendees a chance to get up close and personal with all of the bikes.

The first day afforded the masses a chance to leisurely view and study the fine examples. The actual auction day was much more heavily attended and became electric the moment the British-accented auctioneer in a suit and tie started the bidding with a relaxed cadence.

Among the first few motorcycles auctioned off was one of the bikes I lusted after in my youth—a Yamaha Mini Enduro. This unrestored but intact 1971 incarnation of the little dirt bike went for an auction bid of $345. Heck, if I had been holding a buyer’s number instead of a media credential, I would have hyper-extended my shoulder bidding on that little Yami. Of course the Mini Enduro was one extreme of the bidding spectrum. The other extreme was the 1914 Feilbach Limited that fetched—wait for it—$195,000.

Bonhams and Mecum Motorcycle Auction
The British auctioneer masterfully touted the value of rarities like this Flying Merkel.

There were the requisite celebrity rides offered at the Bonhams Auction. Steve McQueen’s 1912 Harley X8E fetched a tidy $82,000. Actor Ewan McGregor’s 2012 Indian Larry Panhead was auctioned for $25,000, and the 1974 Honda CB750 chopper that appeared in the movie “Joe Dirt 2” went for $3,500.

Bonhams and Mecum Motorcycle Auction
This pristine Crocker did not meet the reserve price at the Bonhams Auction.

My personal favorite moment of the Bonhams Auction came when I happened upon a guy I had interviewed years before for an article on motorcycle safety training. It turns out that the humble motorcycle safety trainer had bought $20 worth of tickets for the annual AMA Hall of Fame benefit raffle 10 years earlier. Proving that sometimes nice guys finish first, he won a 1952 Vincent Black Shadow with one of those tickets. After enjoying the Vincent for a decade, he decided to put it up for auction this year. He now has 135,000 reasons to be happy.

Bonhams and Mecum Motorcycle Auction
The well-attended Mecum Auction occupied thousands of square feet of the South Point Casino’s multi-level entertainment facility.

Going Twice: The Mecum Auction

I should have known the Mecum Auction would be different when I walked into the South Point Casino Arena to the blaring Emerson, Lake and Palmer lyrics, “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends. We’re so glad you could attend. Come inside! Come inside!”

Bonhams and Mecum Motorcycle Auction
An Indian and a Reading Standard wait their turn on the auction block.

If the Bonhams Auction is a sedate, metered, British-style event, the Mecum Auction is an American three-ring circus. Various vendors lined the venue and motorcycle shipping company reps manned tables. While the actual auction was staged in the South Point’s multi-level entertainment facility, a staggering number of motorcycles waited their turn in a separate room the size of a massive warehouse. The Mecum Auction is a four-day event and the bikes were grouped in the warehouse by their specified auction day. Each day of the Mecum Auction offered as many bikes as the Bonhams event did in total.

Bonhams and Mecum Motorcycle Auction
A German buyer carefully measured every component on an unrestored Henderson.

The frenetic pace of the Mecum auction was a sharp contrast to the comparatively relaxed pace of its British counterpart held across town. The Mecum auctioneers barked in the rapid-fire locution typical of a livestock auction. Roving “bid catchers” roamed the crowd and artfully stroked the bidders’ egos to elicit higher numbers.

The Mecum auction also featured a number of Steve McQueen’s motorcycles (how many bikes did the King of Cool have, for goodness sake?), as well as bikes that were used in various movies. However, as the auctioneer said, “It’s the unrestored originals that seem to be the winners this year.” The bikes that were in complete, original condition pulled the highest numbers.

Bonhams and Mecum Motorcycle Auction
This 1928 Excelsior Big Bertha Hillclimber was a star of the Mecum event.

While the auction’s stage antics continued, I watched a guy carefully measuring and noting every conceivable component on an unrestored Henderson that would be auctioned later. When I asked him what he was looking for, he stated with a thickly-accented preamble, “I’m German.” Not giving up, I asked him what he was looking for. He answered with a Bavarian smile, “I check for correct everything…even every spoke.”

Bonhams and Mecum Motorcycle Auction
A Flying Merkel flanked by two pristine Vincents welcomed the masses to the Bonhams Auction.

The Final Gavel

So there you have it. If you know the difference between a Flying Merkel and a Brough Superior—or want to learn—the Vegas auctions are must-witness events. Talk about sensory overload for motorcycle lovers. Sold!

Bonhams and Mecum Motorcycle Auction
Classic bikes were clustered artfully at the Bonhams Auction.


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