2017 Bonhams Motorcycle Auction-Las Vegas

Bonham and Butterfield's is the oldest auction house in the world, having started in 1793. They've been coming to Vegas with their one-day classic motorcycle auction since 2011 with success running around 100 to 150 bikes or so. This year, they moved to a new venue for them at the Rio Hotel & Casino. They had a wonderful selection of classic motorcycles, and with the 4-day Mecum Auction with almost 1,000 bikes just down the road at the South Point drawing big crowds to Vegas, it should have gone off without a hitch.

But this year, and at this new venue, Bonhams had hired a new security company that seemed to have their own agenda that had nothing whatsoever to do with the success of the auction. I showed up, as I always do, to take pictures and video of the event, and pictures of all the British bikes. But security wasn't having it. A black-jacketed young man with a very stern demeanor informed me that no one was allowed to "touch" the bikes. I informed them that I never touch bikes, that I've taken pictures of thousands of bikes over the years, including every year of this Bonhams Auction, and that I don't touch bikes. I know better than that. And I guaranteed him that I wouldn't touch a single bike during my picture-taking. Did that work? No, he then changed his tune to say no one was allowed to "approach" the bikes. Approach them, I asked? He changed gears again, to "Fire Marshal's orders". What? At an auction? "You do understand that they're trying to sell these bikes, and that the buyers need to see them, right?" After much ado, I finally got a supervisor who authorized me to take pictures of the bikes in one section of the room. I was followed by black-jacketed security people who watched me closely and it felt like they were just waiting for me to accidentally brush up against a bike I was either photographing, or photographing around, so that they could urgently eject me from the premises.

So, I went about my business, taking hundreds of pictures of every British bike in the place, being even more careful than usual not to touch anything. I must had done it too, because despite the dirty looks they kept shooting me, they never saw me do anything that justified a smackdown. But, as soon as I left that part of the building, and went to the other sections where bikes were parked, the whole thing started again. Same crazy rules, but a much nicer fellow this time who wasn't rude, and didn't seem to be enjoying the authority, like the other guy. But I still couldn't get near the bikes, Fire Marshal again. I told this new guy that I'd already spoken to his supervisor, over there, who said it was okay. He deferred and said that unless his boss told him to, he could not allow anyone anywhere near those bikes. I looked around, couldn't spot the guy, so I just shrugged my shoulders in wonderment.

As in "I wonder if Bonhams realizes that these black-jacketed security guys they hired are killing their sale?" I'm not sure yet what the results were, but from what I saw, they were having a hard time keeping the enthusiasm up, as the bidding looked soft to me. And I wasn't the only one who felt this way. I spoke to several other people I know who were there, and they all noticed the same thing. All had been rudely pushed away from looking at bikes, which is, after all, one of the main reasons why bike nuts like us go to these events. It's not just buying and selling, it's looking at all these bikes, referencing subtle changes made on from one model year to another, seeing what one restorer did about this or that, and what a truly authentic this-and-that is supposed to look like. And on top of it all, it's eye-candy for people like me, like us. The black-jacket security folks didn't know and didn't care. The other people I spoke to were just as put off by it as I was. Hopefully, Bonhams will get the message, and next year they won't hire that same security bunch, and if there really is a Fire Marshal-problem, they'd better talk some sense into the guy or move to another venue. A few miles away, the big Mecum Auction had five times as many bikes, and way more people, and they didn't seem to have any issues with the Fire Marshall, or overzealous security people who get their kicks out of flaunting their power. In a free market society, we vote with our dollars. My prediction is that Bonhams will see that this move cost them, and hopefully they'll do it right, next year.

So, let's see some bikes already!

ABOVE: They clustered a bunch of Italian bikes together, all from one collection. Very cool. Too bad no one could get close enough to look at them.
BELOW: The funny thing is that the bikes seemed to be jammed in together, way to close to one another, and not in nice neat rows. And again, you see no people near these bikes. If you look closely at the people in the upper-right, you'll see the rope that is blocking them out of the bike area.
ABOVE: As you would expect, there was a wide array of bikes and types of bikes. From antiques, to old military bikes, to modern bikes, to classics, Harleys, Brit bikes, you name it. And again, the people were kept away. Funny way to run an auction.
BELOW: The really old antique bikes seem to be the stars, these days, bringing the big money. The black bike in the middle, #205, is a 1949 Vincent Black Shadow and it sold for an eye-watering $112,125. Yikes! Phil Vincent would be proud!
ABOVE & BELOW: A whole slew of Japanese bikes and other stuff, looking more like they're being stored than displayed for sale at an auction. I think the big problem was that this venue, at the Rio Hotel & Casino, is simply too small for an auction of this size. The bikes were crammed in so tight that they must have thought it wouldn't be safe letting people walk through. I agree. The answer is a bigger place next time.
ABOVE: Bike, bikes and more bikes. This front one (Lot #193) is a 1966 BSA A65 Spitfire Mk II and sold for $9,200. You can also see in the background some of the artwork that was auctioned off. Tons of cool items were sold.
BELOW: This is a prime example. Below is a factory-built engine cutaway of a Ducati 750 Sport L-twin. It sold for $9,375.
The people that work at Bonhams, not the security company, but the actual people who work for the auction company are great folks, professional and very passionate about what they do. Bonham and Butterfield is the oldest auction house in the world, having started in 1793, for crying out loud. What's really interesting to note, which is easy to do at Las Vegas Auction Week, is the stark difference between the tone of the Bonhams auction and the Mecum auction across town. Mecum's is the classic fast-paced, high-energy American auction with the auctioneer rattling off bids at a machine gun-like staccato. Bonhams is more like the traditional British auction you've seen in the movies, slower paced, refined, and above all...calm. Instead of Mecum's "twenty-twenty-twenty-I-have-twenty, do I have twenty-one?", Bonhams is more like "I have a bid for twenty thousand dollars. Twenty-thousand dollars. Do I have a bid for twenty-one thousand? Twenty-one anyone?" It's almost comical, but it seems to work. This is traditionally a wonderful auction. This particular edition was somewhat tarnished by the overzealous security hacks, but a fine classic motorcycle auction nonetheless. I'm hopeful that the word will get back to Bonham that their choice in security details is really costing them. And hopefully they'll find a better, larger venue by next year that will allow them to spread the bikes out more, and appease the Fire Marshal. If they do that, I think they'll have another hit on their hands.

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Last updated 2/6/17

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