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He was not on the rostrum, nor did he hold the gavel. Yet, his appearance was the highlight of the auctions held during the 2003 Monterey week and he contributed to achieve a figure that would probably not have been reached without him. Indeed, a bid of US$ 500,000 for a new car with a list price of 135,000 is quite an achievement, isn’t it? The venue was the Christie’s tent on the Pebble Beach grounds, and the car, the first production Ford GT. His name? Leno, Jay Leno.

Jay Leno drove the car up on the ramp, jumped out of it, grabbed a microphone and, with a perfect timing, whilst the regular auctioneer scrutinized the audience to spot raised hands, interjected a few fitting words as he does so well. Suddenly, everyone in the room was in the right mood and the bidding went up. When it was about to close, he grabbed a few flowers from a vase on the floor and rushed them to the buyer’s wife. Perfect, and worth a significant amount of money to the beneficiary – and to the auction house!

Whilst I was a consultant with Christie’s (from 1989 until the end of 2002), I asked several times: “Is there any good reason why we should not develop the ‘show’ aspect of our business?”. The rise of the internet challenges the established way of doing things and there is no doubt in my mind that the way live auctions are conducted will need to be reviewed, with the entertainment value and the socializing aspect gaining more importance.

With an entry price of up to US$ 90 (the cost of a catalogue), a vendor’s commission of 10% and a buyer’s premium of up to 17,5%, the auction houses cannot simply ‘knock down’ lots. Not only does the attendance expect more, but the clients are owed more. Christie’s did it right, at least for that one lot.

Flavio Briatore is reputedly repeating that Formula One is a show business. I am convinced that such is the auction scene and Jay Leno’s performance underlines it.

September 2003

Photograph © Ford Motor Cy / Christie’s


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