Inside the Art Market: Dream Machines

“There’s magic in the air tonight.  Fleecy clouds sail high above . . .and your road is a ribbon of glistening moonlight.”

Nash magazine advertisement of 1940 entitled
“Night Flight”

The florid prose crafted by Madison Avenue in the 1930s and 40s to convey the sterling qualities of American automobiles, especially luxury models, was often delivered in hushed, reverent tones, like a private prayer reserved only for people of wealth, privilege and power.  It was all about romance, not transportation.  The dreamy settings of the illustrations and the orgasmic poetry accompanying them captured moods of affluence and style above all.

One glamorous and painterly ad shows a sleek convertible on a country road, the top down and autumn leaves flying. The driver is dressed in suit and smart hat, his lady equally elegant; perhaps they are speeding along to a football game at Hotchkiss or Yale on a Saturday afternoon, gliding through a rustic paradise made all the more perfect by the roaring presence of their brand new car: an eye-popping 1937 V-12 Pierce-Arrow.  There is no one else on the road; it is theirs alone.

In case one missed the point, the tag line of the ad made clear these weren’t just any sort of people.  They were “The Pierce-Arrow Sort of People.”

The stirring title for this colorful ad was “Pride of Craftsmanship Builds America’s Finest Motor Car.” And it is easy to see why the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company of Buffalo, New York (active 1901-1938), was proudly presenting to its well-heeled and discerning clientele more of a magnificent work of art than a factory-produced machine.  It was, after all, an important symbol of the owner’s lifestyle, taste and stature.  Thus it was meant to be housed in a garage and carefully protected, like other family valuables.

And on the road it was engineered to seize attention.  Indeed, seeing a mighty Pierce-Arrow, Bugatti or Hispano-Suiza being driven about, perhaps by a chauffeur, amidst the harrowing social upheaval of the Depression must have been a mesmerizing vision to behold.  The car would loom like one of those grand 18th-century British paintings of an aristocratic family posed in silk finery on the lawn of their country estate, a conversation piece if ever there was one.

It is hard to say when exactly the automobile became a part of the art market.  What probably aided this phenomenon was failure.  Most of the great luxury automobile makers of the Depression-era went bankrupt, leaving behind a glorious if short-lived history of artistry and design the likes of which have never been seen again.  Rarity has also helped, as relatively few of the greatest cars survive.

For sheer spectacle and grandeur one thinks of the fashion business of the same era as having a similar rise and fall. Lavish ball gowns and evening wear of the most exquisite and sublime designs from the 30s and 40s were created for high society figures in places like Newport, Palm Beach and the French Riviera.  One thinks of the great English couturier Charles Worth and his magnificent salon in Paris that catered to such a princely, and predominately American, clientele. In the wake of the Depression and the changing tastes of the 1950s, the mighty “House of Worth” eventually closed its doors forever and is now all but forgotten.

It is thus fascinating how diverse and vibrant the vintage car market is today.  Even the most obscure marques from many decades ago have been embraced as part of a growing global fascination for cars, automobilia and motorcycles from the 1900s to the present day.  And while both Sotheby’s and Christie’s continue to dominate the art world and prevail as market-makers, in the field of classic automobiles they have showed a curiously limited attention span, with mixed results.

On the other hand, a host of regional and boutique firms have flourished and brought new collectors into this market, notably new-money buyers eager to acquire the most expensive and exotic cars on offer.  And the diversity of the field is intoxicating: buyers avidly seek supercharged Chrysler and Plymouth muscle cars from the 1950s; historic cars that once raced on the fabled European tracks of Le Mans, Monaco and Nürburgring; ravishing Ferrari Testarossa, Daytona and Superamerica coupes; steam-powered cars from the earliest days of motoring; hot rods and Model Ts and futuristic prototypes; and of course the great luxury cars from the Depression era.  It is a collecting field that truly has something for every taste.

From an investment point of view it is also a money pit. However, one finds amongst the serious collectors in this field a passion that seems curiously to outstrip the sheer desire for financial gain so thoroughly associated, say, with the Post-War and Contemporary art market.  One area of great expense, for example, is restoration, which is practically a religion with car collectors and one with few budgetary boundaries.

I saw this firsthand back in 1990 with the sale at Sotheby’s of the historic Rick Carroll Collection. In keeping with the 1930s aura of the collection, the exhibition and auction took place on the grounds of the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach.  Arrayed in the arcades and on the croquet lawn of the hotel was a dazzling line-up of drop-dead Duesenbergs, Packards, Rolls-Royces, Bentleys and other cars restored to perfection by Mr. Carroll’s full-time staff.

As I wrote in the introduction to the sale catalogue, over the years Rick Carroll had acquired many hundreds of cars: “Obscure Mercers, Jewetts, Wintons and Thomas Flyers, as well as the more fabled Auburns, Cords, Packards and Stutz Bearcats, V16 Cadillacs from the 1930s, and even a 1926 Isotta Fraschini built for Rudolph Valentino.” The one constant in this long odyssey was a burning passion for authenticity: Mr. Carroll immersed himself in the technical and romantic lore of every car he ever owned.  Sadly, he died in an automobile accident in 1989, occasioning the sale the following spring, which brought an impressive total of $21 million. The highest prices were achieved for seven astonishing Duesenbergs.

I hadn’t thought much about the antique automobile market until a recent visit to San Francisco.  Entering the concourse at International Terminal Three I came upon one of those charming pop-up art exhibitions that are mounted regularly there by the San Francisco Airport Museum.  I have been admiring these exhibitions for years, which present a staggering diversity of collecting interests. This one was entitled “Life and Style in the Age of Art Deco,” and I followed the rows of glass vitrines, filled with dazzling and chic objects, right through the terminal.

Until I was stopped in my tracks.  

For there before me was the most magnificent automobile I had seen in years: a 1931 Model 41 Pierce-Arrow Club Sedan in deep burgundy. Other travelers were standing around with me, gawking at the car and taking selfies with it.  We were all under the hypnotic spell of a grand and gloriously-crafted automobile, a work of art indeed. Amidst the drab and generic modernism of the airport, the car seemed otherworldly.

Reluctantly I moved on to Hertz and my dreary, midsize, vanilla-flavored rental car thinking: “Oh to have a ‘Night Flight’ in a dream machine such as this!”

-Ronald Varney

(Credit: Tom Gidden © 2015 Courtesy RM Sotheby’s. 1963 Facel Vega Facel II)