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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.”
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!