When it comes to buying and selling high-value collector cars at auction, Mecum is a name that most of us quickly recognize, and immediately associate with televised auctions that present rare and extremely expensive cars. Although the broadcasts make it look like something that only the well-off could participate in, that couldn’t be further from the truth. We spoke with John Kraman, consignment director at Mecum Auctions, and got a more detailed look at what they are all about. If you are someone that has never been to one of the live auctions, and have only seen them on TV, one of the first comments he made to us may come as a surprise to you: “We are an auction company first, and a television show second.”
Mecum is arguably the world’s largest collector auction house, and this year alone, they will host 13 automotive auctions, and a variety of other hobby-specific events such as those for motorcyclists and tractor collectors. What sets them apart from most other auction companies is that they are open to all cars of any value and condition. “A $5,000 car and a $5 million car will sell at the same auction,” John says. “That’s really what makes Mecum so special.”
The other great aspect about Mecum is that they do not solicit people for car sales, but rather all sellers contact Mecum, and everyone working with them has a genuine interest in selling their car. Not only that, but a seller can put a reserve price on their vehicle, and they are in no way obligated to sell it. If the reserve price is not met, and the seller doesn’t take the highest bid, only the prepaid entry fee is retained.
When we started asking questions about the process of listing with Mecum, and what it really takes to sell at one of its auctions, John stopped us and said “Listing with Mecum is actually a lot simpler than you might think.” He explained that it really is a matter of talking to the Mecum consignment staff, paying the entry fee in the category where your car fits, and selling your car. One of the most important things to keep in mind is that it’s important to Mecum that they never sell a car with a “checkered past.” To guarantee that all cars they sell are legitimate, Mecum has a thorough vetting process that every car must pass before it’s sold. The company also requires that sellers have things like “factory paint” certified, and must sign off on its authenticity before they can advertise it.
The seller is also required to attend the auction. For us, that seems like a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t want to be there to see their car sell? But, there are rare exceptions allowed if for whatever reason the seller cannot attend. One exception to this requirement can be granted if the seller appoints someone to show up in their place and answer questions about the car and reserve price. The only other time an “orphan” car will be allowed to go through the Mecum auction block is if it has no reserve. Sometimes these sales even bring in extra interest, because it’s such a unique situation.
The auctions are designed a specific way, in order to optimize its value to both the seller and the buyer. The staff at Mecum wants the right buyer to be at the auction, at the right time for every seller, and they want every buyer to get the car that they really want. To that end, the auction is organized by vehicle value, and separates the price tiers over different days.
A typical Mecum auction lasts three days: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Exceptions are the Kissimmee, Florida, auction, which is 10 days, and the Austin, Texas, auction that spans only two. With every auction, cars with an estimated lower value start on the first day, and price ranges go up from there. At a typical auction, Friday features entry-level cars, Saturday is mid-range, and Sunday is a steady parade of million-dollar cars crossing the auction block.
The organization of a Mecum auction is part of the big draw for many. The price scale assures anyone can sell their car with Mecum, as its system is not exclusive to solely high-value cars. Part of the organizational system they use gives each car a lot number when it is entered. That lot number signifies when it will come up for auction. For example, a car assigned lot number 100 will sell three or four hours into the day, where a car with lot number 200 will be available after six or seven hours. All of this information is documented, and made available to both buyers and sellers prior to the auction. This way, buyers can shop in advance and know roughly when the car they want to buy, will cross the auction block.
Let’s look at what it means to be a low-value car at a Mecum auction. The first day entry fee for selling a car is between $350 and $500, depending on the auction. Mecum characterizes a day-one car as one with a estimated value of less than $10,000. An example Kraman used was an all-original 1969 Nova with a six-cylinder engine and a Powerglide transmission that might be worth $5,000 to $7,000. This represents a type of car an average person could save up for and afford, and typical of what might be available on a Friday auction by Mecum.
The second day entry fee is $1,000. A car that is put into the medium-value category would be something along the lines of a nicely restored RS 1970 Camaro, think along the lines of a stock engine and a three-speed manual transmission. The estimated value of this car would be roughly $20,000, and would appear near the beginning of the second day of the auction, on Saturday.
The listing fee for the third day is $1,500, but includes some “extras” that are not part of the previous packages. A car in this category will be photographed by the Mecum staff for guaranteed photo quality and consistency. Examples in this category include high-end vehicles like this 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS that sold for $140,000 in 2011. We spoke with the seller of this car, Joe Cheeks, and got some first hand information from him about what it is like to be on the selling side of the auction block.
Joe owns Automania, a company out of Three Way, Tennessee that specializes in the sale of classic musclecars. Joe estimates that he sells around 35 cars a year through the Mecum auctions, most of which sell for more than $100,000. He told us about a few cars that stand out for him as he thinks of what he has sold over the years. “In 2012 at the Kissimmee auction, I sold a 1965 Corvette for $125,000, and in 2014, I sold a 1966 Biscayne sedan with a 427 cubic-inch engine and four-speed manual transmission for $140,000,” Joe said.
Joe sells cars at auction as a career, but by no means considers it just a job. During our interview, he referred to Dana Mecum, founder and owner of Mecum auctions, simply by Dana. He used his first name casually, as though they are close friends that go back decades, and that’s because this is exactly what they are … old friends.
Since I’ve been doing this, I’ve made lifelong friends that I otherwise never would have known. – Joe Cheeks
“Auctions are really moody,” he says. “Things can be going really well, and all of a sudden a car comes through that takes the air out of the room, and you never know what you are going to get. Sometimes a car will get a lot more attention than you expect, and other times a lot less.” He also talked about how important timing is. If everyone is out to lunch or away for dinner, the car won’t sell as well. If the two people that would have bid on the car are out of the room for those minutes your car is up for auction, you’ll miss out.
Joe feels a passion in automotive sales that drives him to keep doing it. He knows that when he sells a car, the person buying it has the exact same passion that he does. He gets his passion from the way he was raised. “Dana and I were both raised the same way, with car dealership owners’ as fathers,” he says. “When I was in high school in the late ’60s, you were cool if you had a musclecar. Some people just never grow up, and the ones that learn how to embrace that and be proud of it, are the ones that do really well. If you can find a way to develop and follow a lifelong passion, you can do anything.”
Develop a real friendship with them, and really be honest – Joe Cheeks
We asked Joe what advice he would give to someone just getting into the auction game. He explained that it’s as simple as calling Mecum, and making an appointment with the consignment team. “Develop a real friendship with them, and really be honest,” he says. “They will guide you through the entire process. It’s their job over at Mecum to make sure that buyers and sellers alike are happy. Take advantage of their willingness to help, and don’t miss out on an opportunity like that.” Even John told us something similar, “The folks at Mecum don’t mind calls,” he says. “We are always willing to talk.”
We were lucky enough to get a view into Mecum from the inside, from the perspectives of the seller and a repeat seller. Leave a comment with us and let us know what you think about Mecum. What would you take to the auction? Does reading this inspire you to give Mecum a try? We can’t wait to hear your thoughts!