In the age of online shopping and next-day delivery, auction houses offer something retail giants like Amazon can’t: the thrill of the sale. Sure, we’ve all experienced the rush that comes with an impulse buy, but nothing compares to the competition brought on by an all-out bidding war. So, while many of the auction houses featured here have increasingly added to their digital presence — even prior to this year — for the most part, they remain primarily brick and mortar establishments. As they should, for auctioneering has a lengthy history that dates back as early as 1674, when Sweden’s Stockholms Auktionsverk became the world’s very first auction house.
And even though many of us will never have the funds to raise a paddle during some of these top-dollar deals, they still make for exciting experiences filled with their fair share of eye candy. Whether you’re an automotive authority or a trading card connoisseur, there’s plenty of opportunities to get your fix. So sit back and have a read to see what we’ve picked for the best auction houses — just make sure your wallet isn’t within reach.
Automobile auctions regularly feature some of the highest final hammer prices on the market. From rare and race-winning to luxe and limited-edition, you can find many a breed of unicorn at these sales.
For nearly five decades, Barrett-Jackson has hosted “The World’s Greatest Collector Car Auction” in Scottsdale, Arizona. Since 2003, the automotive auction house has added further annual events in Palm Beach, Florida; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Uncasville, Connecticut. With celebrity appearances, test ride opportunities, and expert symposiums, these auctions are among some of the most exciting experiences an auto enthusiast can attend. So even though you can watch live online via the Barrett-Jackson website, it’s worth making the trip in person.
Gooding & Company
Although Gooding & Company features fewer lots than some of these other auto specialists, each one is carefully curated to ensure that only the most choice cut cars hit the block. It holds three annual events — in Scottsdale, Arizona; Amelia Island, Florida; and Pebble Beach, California — where everything from antique automobiles to classic racecars is presented for sale. Typically sourced from private collections and estate sales, these cars fetch consistently high sums. In addition to holding automotive auctions, Gooding & Co. offers a wide range of other services including appraisals, private sales, and collection management assistance.
The Mecum Auction Company
Founded in 1988, The Mecum Auction Company leads the market by the very fact that it deals in enormous volumes. With some 20,000-plus vehicles up for auction each year, the family-run operation has ranked first in the number of collector cars offered, the number of collector cars sold, the number of U.S. auction venues, and the total dollar volume of sales since 2011. But that’s not all — Mecum is also host to the world’s largest collector car auction, a sprawling 10-day 3,500-vehicle event held in Kissimmee, Florida. All that is to say — Mecum deserves a feature for its scale, but the auction house also sees its fair share of gems.
In 2015, RM Auctions formally partnered with Sotheby’s to become RM Sotheby’s, an elite auction house specializing in classic and collector car auctions. Since that time, the venture has become one of the most famous automotive auction houses in the world. Offering exclusively investment-quality vehicles, RM Sotheby’s is home to some of the rarest and most expensive vehicles to ever hit the auction block. What’s more, it’s now the official collector car auction house for a number of high-end marques, including Aston Martin, Ferrari, and Porsche, among others. Frequently grossing sales in excess of $400 million, RM Sotheby’s set a record for the most valuable car sold at auction in 2018: a $48.4 million 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO.
Art & Antiques
Art, antiques, and other items of historic significance were among some of the first items to ever be sold at auction. Backed by rich tradition and cultural significance, these items typically command pretty hefty sums.
Headquartered at the historic Hôtel Marcel Dassault in Paris, France, Artcurial has quickly become the leading French auctioneer since its founding in 2002. That being said, the firm has a strong international presence, with offices in Austria, Belgium, Germany, and Italy, as well as subsidiaries in Monte-Carlo, Morocco, Beijing, and Tel Aviv. Equal parts cultural venue and auction house, it regularly features appearances by big names and sales of prestigious pieces. As such, even though Artcurial sells collector’s cars, jewelry, and other valuable items, it’s first and foremost an auction house for art and cultural artifacts. In recent years, it’s expanded to include specialties such as street art and design work.
Founded in London in 1793, Bonhams has a rich history of handling all kinds of art and antiques. With more than 400 specialist sales per year across 60 different categories taking place at its flagship salesrooms in London, New York, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong, Bonhams has a nearly unmatched reach. As such, the British auction house is an expert in the art of matching the item to the sale. And with charismatic auctioneers that can dum up strong interest and competitive bidding, Bonhams is as good as they come if you’re looking for an exciting auction block experience.
Founded in 1976, Heritage Auctions is something of a newcomer when compared to the likes of Sotheby’s or Christie’s. Nevertheless, the American establishment has quickly distinguished itself as the largest collectibles auctioneer and the third largest auction house in the world. What’s more, HA is the only auction house founded on American soil without expanding overseas. So while there are a number of satellite offices located worldwide, they’re exclusively responsible for e-commerce — some 50% of the auction house’s sales. Dealing in everything from rare and vintage coins to nature and science specimens to URL domain names and other intellectual property, Heritage Auctions is home to an incredible variety of specialized collections.
Sotheby’s is not only the fourth oldest auction house in the world but also the oldest company registered on the New York Stock Exchange. And if that wasn’t enough, it became the first auction house to go international when it expanded from New York to London in 1955. Although Sotheby’s doesn’t traffic a high volume of art pieces (less than 10% of the global turnover), it accounts for some 32.9% of the market share. To put it another way — what Sotheby’s does sell is very valuable. For instance, some of its more notable sales include Andy Warhol’s Orange Marilyn for $17,327,500 in 1998 and Edvard Munch’s The Scream for a then-record breaking $119,922,500 in 2012. What’s more, Sotheby’s has featured collections from the likes of Gianni Versace and David Bowie.
Specializing in modern and contemporary art and design, the Wright auction house looks considerably different compared to the likes of Christie’s and Sotheby’s. For instance, on the first floor of the space, there’s a storage warehouse where all design objects and furniture are available for preview. With just a couple of exceptions, this means that interested parties are free to touch the pieces (and even sit on them where appropriate). In addition to leading the market in the sale of architecture as design, Wright deals with frequency in high-dollar Italian glasswork. One of the more notable collections to cross the auction block at Wright’s was none other than Dieter Rams’ career-spanning work, including his turntables, couches and so much more.
Although motorcycles don’t command quite the attention of their automotive equivalents, they’re always increasing in both value and acclaim. For instance, even the most casual of enthusiasts will have heard of a Vincent Black Lightning.
Iconic Motorbike Auctions
Having built a reputation for their work building, restoring, and selling classic sportbikes, Iconic Motorbikes partnered with Bike-urious in 2019 to create an online auction site exclusively dedicated to flipping such gems. Featuring rare and vintage pieces as well as custom builds, Iconic Motorbike Auctions is your best bet if you’re looking for all things two-wheeled. What’s more, Iconic offers a comprehensive list of services, including on-the-bike maintenance, part sourcing, transportation, storage, documentation, appraisal, and even putting together a listing. And if you’re a prospective buyer, there’s even a confirmation service so that you don’t have to buy sight unseen.
Watches are something of a newcomer to the auction house scene, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less impressive when it comes to their sales records. On the contrary, the market has shown that there is an ever-growing demand for rare and vintage timepieces.
With its headquarters located in the watch capital of the world, it’s only fitting that Antiquorum would have been among the first to offer the sale of wristwatches at auction. What’s more, the Swiss-based auctioneer was the first auction house to sell fine timepieces over the internet, as well as the first to offer full online services. Since that time, Antiquorum has cultivated a thriving market for collector’s timepieces, with record-setting sales becoming the expectation rather than the exception. For instance, the “Tour de l’Ile” set a world record for a contemporary wristwatch at $1,564,000, and the “King Fouad I” sold for the highest price ever paid for a Vacheron Constantin watch at $2,755,000.
Since its founding in 1766, Christie’s has conducted some of the most celebrated auctions in history. Offering around 350 sales annually across 80 different categories, prices range from as low as $200 to well over $100 million at the final hammer. In recent years, Christie’s has poured resources into its dedicated Watches & Wristwatches department, and the results speak for themselves. With rare and vintage pieces from Patek Philippe, Rolex, Breguet, and Vacheron Constantin frequently fetching in excess of $1 million, this is one auction house where luxury timepieces command both significant interest and competitive bidding.
Celebritization has a powerful effect on otherwise commonplace items. Whether you’re a fanatic sports fan or an obsessed music groupie, there’s no price that’s too great to pay for authenticity.
Based in Beverly Hills, Julien’s Auctions specializes in the famous and the exclusive, frequently producing record-breaking results across the film, music, sports, and art markets. From Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra to Jimi Hendrix and Hugh Hefner, this auction house features collections from the highest-profile people you can imagine. In 2016, Julien’s sold Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday Mr. President” dress for $4.8 million, earning it a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most expensive dress ever sold at auction. Just this year, the California auctioneer landed another world record, this time for the $6 million sale of Kurt Cobain’s “MTV Unplugged” 1959 Martin D-18E acoustic-electric guitar — the most expensive guitar ever sold at auction.
Upon its founding in 1985, Lelands became the first sports auction house in existence and one of the premier appraisers dealing in collectibles. Now in its fourth decade, the New Jersey-based auction house has conducted some seriously impressive sports memorabilia sales, including the Mickey Mantle Auction of the Greer Johnson Collection at $1.3 million and the Harry M. Stevens Auction at $1.8 million. Lelands regularly hosts two auctions: an exclusive Invitational reserved for notable historic collections and a semi-annual Classic for the broader public.
Robert Edward Auctions
For over 30 years, Robert Edward Auctions has been one of the leading names in all things baseball collectibles. From game-used gear to unicorn-quality cards, there’s no shortage of sports memorabilia coming through its doors. Run by collectors for collectors, Robert Edward Auctions appreciates the value of these items like no one else can. In 2015, the auction house delivered a historic $7.54 million baseball auction. Among the more notable pieces was a 1909-1911 T206 Honus Wagner card, selling for an unprecedented $1,320,000 at the final hammer.
The 25 Most Expensive Cars Ever Sold At Auction
Curious to see just how much an elite automotive piece can go for? Head on over to our guide to the most expensive cars ever sold at auction — you’ll want to be sitting down for this one.
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