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Classic Car Auctions Upended by Coronavirus

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As for the immediate future, Mr. Hagerty said, “the real question is what happens this fall.” He foresees the probable temporary shift of some auctions to online and to smaller settings, perhaps in less populated areas and with audiences limited to registered bidders and sellers. In fact, early this month, the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles announced it would produce a “Virtual Car Week” in August to “maintain the global enthusiasm for Monterey Car Week in spite of Concours and event cancellations.”

Some traditional land-based auction houses have already tested those waters. Shortly after the Amelia Island event, RM Sotheby’s shifted its scheduled auction in Palm Beach, Fla., to online. In place of a printed catalog, the firm posted detailed descriptions and high-resolution images to the internet. Rather than crossing the block every few minutes, cars were available for bidding from March 25 to 28.

Despite the hasty changeover, the auctioneer racked up a respectable $13.5 million in sales, with nearly a dozen cars topping six figures and two-thirds of them selling through. Compared to Hagerty Price Guide values published in January, the median discount was only 2 percent.

“We’re not seeing any fire sales,” said Michael Caimano, a senior motorcar sales specialist for the international auction house Bonhams. “We still have clients with wants, needs and interests.” Though the firm canceled its regularly scheduled Car Week auction in Carmel — typically the largest on its yearly calendar — it plans to stage an online auction on Aug. 14. The sale will take place over a single day with a live auctioneer in Los Angeles gaveling down the cars, displayed on video, in real time.

“Any market has ups and downs,” said Mr. Caimano, noting his firm’s strong showing at Amelia Island, where it sold some $22 million in cars, including an ultrarare Type 55 Bugatti, once owned by the Rothschild family, which fetched $7.1 million.

Mr. Hagerty said, “This isn’t a goodbye,” expressing the feelings of most who put off Car Week participation until 2021. “It’s a see-you-next-year.”

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