Silver auction goes for more muscle than money

FOUNTAIN HILLS, Ariz. — At the recent Gooding & Company classic car auction in Scottsdale, a 1957 Maserati 150 GT Spider sold for slightly more than $3 million. Here, just a few miles to the northeast, Mitch Silver sold 209 vehicles for a total of $2.8 million.

“I look at the sales that grab the headlines, but I don’t see myself ever collecting those cars, and that’s the case for a lot of people,” Silver said. “They’re fun to see and to talk about, but what I’m looking for is to buy a 1950s convertible or muscle car.”

Such people are the primary customers for Silver Auctions, which stages between eight and a dozen classic car sales a year in the western U.S. and Canada, plus the occasional sales of a private car collection — or an entire automotive salvage yard. Last October, Silver cleared a wrecking yard in Quartzite, Ariz., of 800 cars and assorted cranes and other equipment in a single day (that’s cleared as in sold; by its very nature, the vehicles in a salvage yard are not in running order so it took a week to truck everything off the property, Silver said).

The average price of a car sold at that recent Gooding & Co. sale was more than $520,000. The average at Barrett-Jackson was nearly $77,000. It was nearly $38,000 at Russo and Steele. And at Silver’s sale? The average transaction was $13,628, and those transactions ranged from a mere $1,350 for a mid-’90s BMW 5 Series sedan to $62,640 (hammer price) for a 1967 Chevrolet Corvette convertible.

In fact, the 10 most-expensive purchases during the course of the two-day Silver sale didn’t total as much as the average sale at Gooding. Combined, the top-10 at Silver fell nearly $150,000 less than Gooding’s average.

But that’s part of the charm of the Silver sale, and why people were waiting in line to get onto the grounds and then up to the bidder’s registration table at this, the 16th Silver Auction on the grounds of the Radisson Fort McDowell resort and casino.

Mitch Silver has been in the classic car auction business for 34 years. A professor at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, “I loved old cars and bought and sold a couple, and I’d chase them in backyards and out in farms,” Silver said. “I saw an ad for an auction in Seattle. I went and it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen.”

Silver went home to Spokane, thought it might be ripe for a classic car auction, and six months later he staged one. And another. And another. And 1o years later, he quit teaching, though in many ways he’s still very much in the education business.

Where else, he said, can you sit down and have a classic car come past you every three minutes and have someone who knows about those cars tell you the vehicles’s history and technical information?

“It’s a very efficient way of shopping,” he said, adding that all the while, “you’re learning.”

In addition to teaching and selling, Silver collects classic cars, some he likes so much he’s bought and sold them as many as three times (among them a Rambler Marlin, that he says he’d buy again should it’s current owner be willing to sell it). He also collects other stuff, from juke boxes to antique guns, toys, maps and even entire countries.

“One of my goals is to visit every country or autonomous region on the planet,” Silver said, adding that he likes to see things first hand. “I’ve been to 127 different ones but still have about 100 more to go.”

On the road, Silver takes in the local culture and such, but also keeps his eyes out for classic cars. He has been impressed by what he’s seen in on roads or tucked away in such remote and distant places at Uruguay, Poland and Estonia.

Silver’s next sale is April 12-13 in Portland, Ore. He’s Big Sky Collector Car Auction in Spokane is May 8.

And he’ll be back in Fountain Hills in January 2014, and he already knows at least one item that will be a lot more expensive than it was this year. Oh, and it’s not a car.

The 2013 Silver Auction drew the largest crowd in the event’s long history. Many of those coming through the gate told Silver they were there for the first time — and that they’d be back next year.

So what will be more expensive next year will be Silver’s need to rent a larger tent and a lot more chairs to stage the auction and host the bidders. Actually, though, that’s not really such a bad problem for an auction to have.

Larry Edsall
Larry Edsall is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. You can reach him at ledsall@cox.net.