Is the $100 Million Car the New $100 Million Artwork?

On May 5, Oliver Barker arrived in Stuttgart, Germany, to oversee an auction. Barker’s been with the contemporary art department at Sotheby’s since 2001, and since 2016 he’s been the chairman of all European operations. Which means Barker sells a lot of art. Last month he oversaw Sotheby’s $408 million modern art sale in New York, where a Monet landscape of the Grand Canal in Venice sold for nearly $57 million with fees.

But Barker wasn’t in Stuttgart to sell art. He was there to sell a car—not just any car, but an ultra-rare Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR Uhlenhaut, enshrined in the Mercedes-Benz Museum after being used as the personal coach of the automaker’s legendary chief, Rudolf Uhlenhaut. After holding it for half a century, the company decided to part ways with the car in order to create a Mercedes-Benz fund for youth charities.

For car collectors, this was the holy grail of roadsters. When the groundbreaking auto was first unveiled in 1955, it was the fastest street-legal speed machine ever created, capable of clocking a pace of a staggering 180 miles per hour. That kind of velocity comes in handy sometimes. Once, Uhlenhaut was in Munich when he realized he was late for a meeting at the H.Q. in Stuttgart. He made the two-and-a-half-hour trip in under an hour.

Barker arrived in Stuttgart from London, and immediately got down to business. The auction was conducted in secret, only revealed to the public after it went down, and all collectors who wanted a paddle had to be thoroughly vetted by Mercedes-Benz. With the bidders at the ready, Barker began the proceedings at an astounding figure.

“I’d like to open this evening’s auction at 50 million euros,” he said in a video later released by RM Sotheby’s, the auction house’s car arm.

The opening gambit was already nearly as high as the last most expensive car ever sold, a $70 million 1963 Ferrari GTO that won the Tour de France, bought by mega-rich WeatherTech CEO David MacNeil.

Suddenly, one of the Sotheby’s reps lifted a paddle number to bid.

“It’s in a new place at 85 million euros,” Barker said, shifting his eyes to the natty men in a row on the rostrum.

“People, this is it, your final chance,” Barker said, gavel held high in the air.

Then, another bid, this time a historic one.

“The first man to bid 100 million euros for a car!” Barker exclaimed.

And then, after several more bidders from the rostrum, it was a man in the room who lifted a paddle at 135 million euros, beating off the underbidder and securing the car for a client.

Not only was this the most expensive car ever sold at auction—at $143 million when converted to dollars, it became the sixth-most-expensive anything ever sold at auction, edging out the Francis Bacon triptych portrait of Lucian Freud that Elaine Wynn bought at Christie’s in November 2013 for $142 million. (Apart from the $168 million gigayacht rumored to have been bought by now disgraced Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich on eBay in 2006, every other item in the top 10 have all been artworks.)

And it could prove to be a turning point in the car market, establishing automobiles as a legit place to park funds.

The auction could not have taken place if it weren’t for the efforts of the car dealer, adviser, and enthusiast Simon Kidston, who got the ball rolling on the sale. A swashbuckling rare-auto aficionado, Kidston comes from a long line of English car lovers, and set up his business outside of Geneva, giving him quick access to the autobahn, the stretch of asphalt freedom that forbids speed limits. He’ll often hit 220 miles per hour in his McLaren F1.

And he thinks the Mercedes sold for right around the right number.

“I’m not surprised at the price,” he said during a phone call Thursday. “As somebody commented to me, it’s just a number when there are no benchmarks—there are no Mercedes SLRs that have come to auction. With this car, there was no last sale; the client took the view that he would pay whatever it is.”

There’s perhaps no better person to ask about rare cars than Kidston. (He’s also a Vanity Fair contributor, another sign of his general erudition, though we haven’t met.) His clients at one point included the designer Marc Newson and the fashion mogul Ralph Lauren. On his website, there’s a stacked list of testimonials from various bigwigs from around the world, including a former president of Microsoft, industrialists from Japan and Spain, and Hartmut Ibing, the Düsseldorf-based car collector who showed up in the Paradise Papers due to his status as the president of the Malta-based Robinson Yachts Limited.

Kidston—whose father, uncle, and grandfather were all part of the pioneering English racing team called the Bentley Boys—isn’t afraid to fight for material if he believes it can sell for a big price. Once, he drove across the desert near Dubai to make a deal to buy 10 cars previously from the collection of the shah of Iran, and had to ship them home on a rented 747. But it was all worth it once one of the cars, a rare 1971 Lamborghini Miura SVJ, sold at auction to an American buyer for $497,500, almost twice its estimate. The buyer, it turned out, was Nicolas Cage.

As for the record-breaking Mercedes, he thinks it will go a long way to legitimizing the idea that billionaires should be buying nine-figure cars alongside their nine-figure artworks.

“I’m not sure if it completely changes the market, but I think it opens collectors’ eyes that cars can be mentioned in the same sentence as art in terms of the value for collectors and their perception by the general public,” he said.


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