Auctions And The Classic Boat Hobby – What Do You Think?


As we make our way around the country attending boat shows and classic boating related events, the subject of auctions and how the classic boat hobby reacts to auctions is always a hot topic for discussion. And everyone seems to have an opinion on the subject. I can say that these days there are many boat owners who (for a number of reasons) are interested in selling their classic boats, but are unsure what method will bring the best (and quickest) results.

This year there were a few antique boat related auctions in the north east, including the annual Clayton Auction presented by Antique Boat America, an auction in Hew Hampshire presented by in May, and the New England Vintage Boat Auction in July at the New England Boat Museum.

A few weeks ago we reported that Dave Bortner from Freedom Boat Service had arranged to present two antique boats for auction at the huge RM Auction in Hershey, Pennsylvania on October 11–12. As we reported on Saturday, Dave presented a 1931 Dodge 21.5′ Split Cockpit Runabout and a 1925 Hackercraft 26′ Dolphin Runabout at Hershey. The Dodge hammered for 130,000.00 (plus fees) and bidding on the Hackercraft stalled at 95,000.00 and did not sell.

1931 21.5′ Dodge Interior.

We caught up with Dave Bortner late yesterday, and asked him how he felt about his experience at the RM Auction and he sent us his thoughts…

Matt & Texx – I was very impressed with the professionalism and friendly demeanor of the RM crew. From the security folks to Rob Myers himself, everyone was just as nice and accommodating as they could have been.

There was significant interest in both the boats, but the direct connection to the automobile history of the Dodge was especially interesting to the “car guys”. There were a number of significant automobiles sold, including two Duesenbergs and several Packards, so the audience was certainly a quality group of capable people, many of whom were younger. There was also an eclectic selection of items in the auction, including motorcycles, a couple of immaculately restored farm tractors, and an 1894 horse-drawn steam fire engine, so boats were certainly not out of place.

I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor to expose more potential buyers to the beauty and history of vintage boats we appreciate and know so well, and I think a near-endemic venue like a vintage auto auction is a great place to do so. I do think boats at an auto auction require a knowledgeable representative on-site to answer the many questions that come up when offering boats to an audience not expert in the field.

Regardless of selling boats or not, it’s a worthwhile venue to expose and educate potential buyers.

Dave Bortner – Freedom Boat Service

The highly anticipated 1931 Duesenberg Model J garners lively bidding, selling for a strong $1,175,000 hammer price! – Photo courtesy RM Auctions


Then last week we recieved an e-mail from fellow Woody Boater David Lott asking what we thought about the idea of a mid-western boat auction in Branson, Missouri. With David’s permission, here’s what he said in his e-mail…

Dear Woody Boater – After the ACBS International show on Table Rock, Missouri where I live, a local classic auto auction person contacted me. I have a business relatioinship with him. He is also a addict of classic and antique boats. He owns five.

His auction as been ongoing twice per year for almost 20 years in the area and is widely followed and considered one of the best in the nation. But is all centrally located here.

He and I have been talking about another offering specifically related to the antique and classic boats on an annual basis here on Table Rock. It is understood that Clayton holds an annual auction.

Do you feel that Mid-America could be served by a centrally located annual auction specifically devoted to our love of these craft?

To get a feel of the professionalism brought to the table for this effort look at

How would we reach the folks to get their opinion of this offering?

Branson Auction feels there is a market for a mid region auction but of course there has to be interest. That is what I am trying to find out. Thank you for your efforts. If nothing else we can learn the appetite for using auctions to buy/sell antique & classic boats.

Thank you for all you do,

David Lott
Branson Collector Car Auction

So with the fresh results of last weekends annual RM Hershey Auction from Dave Bortner, we thought it would fun to reach out to the Woody Boater Community to ask “What you think of auctions as a method of selling antique & classic boats and if an all-boat Mid-America auction would of interest?”

– Would you buy an antique or classic boat from an auction?

– Would you sell an antique or classic boat at an auction?

– Is there any benefit to offering antique boats at classic car auctions and will this help to reach out beyond the boat hobby to sell your boat, and also bring awareness or attract people to the hobby?

You can post your comment in the box below, or if you prefer you can e-mail your comments to and we will publish your comments on today’s story.

So LET er RIP – and don’t hold back! We would love to hear what you have to say.

Matt & Texx

24 replies
  1. Jeff p
    Jeff p says:

    About the survey: i would probably not buy at an auction but i might consider selling at auction 2. Selling at an auto aution might be a good idea but the seller might not get the price they were anticipating but they could always put on a reserve. 2b. Having an aution in a central location sounds like a really good idea especially if there are lakes nearby that a buyer might be able to try a boat out first.

  2. Jim Staib
    Jim Staib says:

    I attend a lot of auctions. I feel the wood boat community is a bit small to support a large annual auction like the RM at Hershey on it’s own. Branson might be the answer. It is not real close to a major airport however. Hershey brings in an International audience for the flea market and that would overflow to the auction. Several years ago there were auctions in Holland, MI. Don’t know why they faded. I think Algonac would be a better venue.

  3. Noel E. Trueworthy
    Noel E. Trueworthy says:

    Haveing summered on Wellsley Island, on the St. Lawrence river. the Clayton auction has been a yearly event for friends and family. Lodgeing for others is a big problem unless reservations are made a year in advance. Branson, however is a nother story for sure. With all thier timeshares, hotels and resorts. Lodgeing is no problem. This brings into play a great time factor for potential buyers and sellers to support this type of venue.

  4. Paul H.
    Paul H. says:

    After the expopsure of the scams at Mecum one would suppose that boat owners and buyers are reticent. I personally don’t necessarily feel that way and auctions have been used forever to sell just about anything. As in most transactions, the success of a boat auction would be dependant upon the ethics and credibility of all participants. The “by auction” manner of selling itself was not the problem at Warner/Mecum – it was allegedly the behavior and conduct of Mecum itself, along with some of their friends. I understand that Mecum had a financial interest in the boats and this changed their fundamental relationship to the buyers.

    By all accounts I have read, the Mikkelson auction was well managed and all involved were satisfied. I believe that a PROPERLY MANAGED auction, operated by a major auction company and asssited by well known, credible hobbyists and classic boat authorities in a transparent fashion should function as well as the car auctions do, alebit on a smaller scale. Auction buying and selling may not be for everyone and it will never replace the brokers or those selling by owner, but there is no inherent reason it can’t work for our hobby.

    The auctions have helped elevate prices in the classic car world (not everyone likes that) so on a smaller scale, I think they can work for us. I personally like auctions and have bought all kinds of things at many auctions over about a 25 year period. Don’t write the whole concept off because of the bad actors at the Warner/Mecum event.

  5. Carl Garmhaus
    Carl Garmhaus says:

    I really appreciate the Algonac recommendation for an auction site however lodging would be a huge issue. It always is for our annual show. As mentioned above, auctions have been held to sell just about anything and if conducted in an honest and professional manner I can see no negatives.

  6. Jim Frechette
    Jim Frechette says:

    I like the auction format but I see a major difference in cars and boats. At a car auction, you see the car drive up on the stage so you know it runs and at least appears roadworthy. A boat is another story. It may look perfect but I think we all know that may not be the case. Many people have asked me for advice about buying a boat and one of the things I always say is, if you don’t see it run and float, assume it doesn’t and let that be reflected in the price. If you are buying an obvious project, it doesn’t matter but if you are spending the big bucks on a “totally restored” boat that is just towed across the stage, I would be hesitant.

  7. Greg Lewandowski
    Greg Lewandowski says:

    One of the primary reasons I will probably never buy a boat at an auction is the one stated by Jim Frechette. This could be at least greatly improved if the boat seller/consigner was responsible for providing a recent certified survey of the boat. I don’t understand why this has never been part of the auction process.

  8. cobourg Kid
    cobourg Kid says:

    Matt I have to ask, is the header pic” (real woody deal) from a model boat harbour you have constructed in your spare time? Now thats dedication!

    • Dale S
      Dale S says:

      I thinks auctions have a place in any collectors hobby. Granted, as Paul H stated, auctions need to be well managed and ethical or they will have no following.

      There are a number of problems inherent in the sale/purchase of collectible boats. Auctions can to a certain extent help overcome at least two of those issues:

      * Many of the boats are bought, sold and traded without anyone knowing what the actual selling price was. This makes it extremely difficult to establish reasonable market value. We all see what a boat might list for on a brokerage site, or classifieds, but those prices are generally unrealistic. We seldom learn what the boat actually sold for. Both buyers and sellers suffer. Sellers may over price and ultimately lose because the listing sits so long. People assume there is something wrong with the boat. Conversely, a ready/willing buyer will pass up a great boat just because the price is to high.

      Auctions allow open market dynamics resulting in a better representation of true market value. The establishment of the market value is also transparent. Everyone has an opportunity to know what was bid and the final price. Granted, the market is restricted to those participating in the auction, but if a good auction company is used and reasonable marketing efforts are employed, the participants represent a reasonable share of the current market.

      * Our hobby/life style represent a very small group and as such, market value is somewhat stymied by internal trading. How many times have you talked to someone about a boat only to find out it has been bought and sold among friends two, three or more times. This creates a stale market. How many of us that have bought a number of boats are willing to admit the one we probably overpaid the most for was the first one we bought. I know I did. Over time however, we begin to become more patient and knowledgeable buyers. Overly knowledgeable and patient buyers tend to result in price stagnation. Collectibles (of any sort) are typically emotional buys. When you start to take the emotion out of the equation, pricing suffers.

      Auctions afford the opportunity to expand that market. Especially, if boats are offered as consignments in the nationally recognized auctions like the recent RM Auction. This is particularly true of boats in auto actions. Many of the car collectors who have never considered boats, are drawn to them when they see a mahogany beauty first hand. Car collectors are generally willing to spend big $$$ if something suits their fancy. I remember a Herters Duo Flying Fish painted like its tow vehicle ( a collectors car) going for what I considered well over market value at an auto auction. These guy’s are used to higher value autos and may be willing to pay more than we in our little closed boating circle are willing to. They probably think they actually got a great deal!

      Sales to people at auto auctions benefits the hobby two fold; emotional buys help boat values appreciate, and showing boats at auctions exposes more people to the hobby. Auction purchases are dynamic and emotional. This can lead to a seller maximizing his return.

      As a seller, I think auctions are a benefit. As a buyer… not so much. To be a successful auction buyer you need to be real lucky… or come well informed, disciplined, and have an established ceiling for an particular purchase you are considering. If a favorable price isn’t there, walk away.

      That said, I think our hobby is still too small for dedicated “Collector Boat Auctions ” to be much of a success. There are exceptions, however, like special collection along the lines of the Warner or Mikkelson auctions.

      Since those collections rarely hit the market, I say lets work the reputable auto auctions and then grow from there.

      • cobourg Kid
        cobourg Kid says:

        I’m used to seeing trees growing through derilict boats in Muskoka but they are’t anywhere as pristine as that little runabout . Must admit you fooled me I was totally convinced that it was a diorama!

    • Texx
      Texx says:

      Kid – We were driving around Harsons Island after the Algonac show in June and spotted the boat with the tree growing through it on some guys front lawn.

      • Art
        Art says:

        Texx, it’s HARSENS Island and that boat is just down the street from me. It is a tribute to the owners father and was “configured” around the tree. Did you note the “gater” on the ground?

        BTW it’s NOT for sale.

        • Texx
          Texx says:

          Thanks Art – We always enjoy visiting Harsens Island, and discovering the local treasures & history.

  9. John Kadimik
    John Kadimik says:

    “Elgin” was at the Lake Hopatcong boat show in 1995. It was fresh out of Phillip Ballantyne’s shop and won best of show. I had the opportunity to spend a few hours doing some minor repairs for the owner and marveled at the restoration. Well it was time for a test ride,so I grabbed Kim and off we went. Ten minutes later we were back,soaked from not a great riding boat with not nice docking manners. That ride took the shine off for me. Moral of the story is drive it before you buy it, and you can’t do that at an auction.
    P.S. “Elgin” was Horace Dodge’s middle name.

  10. Texx
    Texx says:

    That’s a great story about the Dodge Johnny…Thanks for sharing it with us.

    I personally find it difficult to compare classic car auctions with classic boats auctions. I have been attending classic car auctions for many years and have learned how to spot originality, bad paint, poor workmanship or a questionable cosmetic / mechanical makeover for the auction. And using that knowledge I have had the privilege of successfully representing potential buyers at classic car auctions over the years. And you can also hear the car running and see it drive at a classic car auction which provides some evidence as to it’s mechanical condition.

    Boats however are different story. I am the first to admit that I don’t have the same comfort level when viewing a wooden boat presented at auction (or anywhere else for that matter), but for me it’s often hard to see whats lurking below the decks or under the floorboards of a wooden boat sitting on a trailer. Realistically, you can’t even hear the engine run at auction.

    The Warner Auction aside, Mecum did have some success selling wooden boats at their classic car auctions in Kissimmee, Florida and Monterey, California. At those auctions, either the owners were there providing support for the potential bidders or they arranged to have well qualified experts on hand to answer questions from potential bidders.

    In my opinion (not representing Woody Boater, just my opinion) the antique & classic boat hobby is too small to support a major “boat only auction” similar to an RM, Mecum, Barrett-Jackson type of event. The other issue is timing of such an event. I do agree that it would make sense to hold a classic boat auction during the boating season or in conjunction with a boat show, but there are so many shows these days compressed into a short period of time, some advance planning and marketing would be important. Again, unlike the multitude of classic car auctions around the country that are staged indoors year round.

    Also logistical issues such as venue location, airport access, a range in accommodations, areas for event sponsors and vendors are also important.

    For me, two things need to be addressed for a successful classic boat auction.

    1. The auction houses always seem to spend a great deal of time and money on pre-event marketing, advertising, catalogues, etc. Some consideration should be given to bringing on a qualified “Antique Boat Survey Company” and have each boat inspected and surveyed independently prior to the auction, with the survey results made available to prospective bidders. Representative’s from the survey company should also be on hand during the auction to address questions.

    2. Prior to attending antique boat auctions I never had any serious concerns about off site “Internet or Phone Bidding” at auctions. Now I have second thoughts about that type of bidding, and this issue needs to be addressed.

    Those two areas may improve buyer confidence.

  11. RiverRat
    RiverRat says:

    Wood boats may only sell at auction with no reserve. My experience is that there is too much emotion on behalf of the seller. They always think that their boat is worth more than anybody is willing to pay for it. You can only lose money with a wood boat unless it is one of the one percent that are rare and produce a great woody for the prospective buyer. Face it, it is a wood hole in the water into which you throw money. They were not meant to last a hundred years so they need alot.

  12. steve bunda
    steve bunda says:

    It seems to me that Ebay does a good job for project boats and parts. Completed boats take a little more time to sell because history of restoration and maintance are so important to support the selling price.

  13. Gene Porter
    Gene Porter says:

    Having bought and sold and donated vintage boats at the east coast auctions you mentioned, my sense is that most buyers at such events are “bottom feeders” looking for an inexpensive restoration project. I have no personal basis for my belief that those few boats that sell at auction for top dollar were targeted before the auction by the prospective buyer/collector. It would be enlightening to know if the buyer of the 31′ Dodge did so after learning of the boat at the auction for the first time, or if he/she had been in touch with Bortner before the auction and perhaps made an offer that Bortner thought could be bettered, perhaps by another known fan of the boat and so used the auction to sort it out. Just a thought.

    On the other hand; offering high end boats at car auctions is clearly an interesting and logical way to expand interest. Many vintage boaters started out as collectors/restorers of vintage cars. I hope that someone was passing out ACBS membership applications at the RM auction!

    With regard to Branson, the foregoing paragraph applies – offering/showing some vintage boats at car shows/auctions can only help the hobby. But the Clayton and NH boat auctions take place in locales where vintage boating is extensive and goes back generations. I wasn’t able to get a similar feeling in my brief visit to Table Rock Lake

    Gene Porter

  14. brian t
    brian t says:

    Frankly, I would never buy or sell anything at an auction.

    The primary rason d-etre is to extract the most money possible from the buyer’s wallet. The main idea is that you as a buyer are pitted against your fellow bidders to bid on one item which may or may not be rare – but because there is one object and many buyers, the illusion is that everyone is going to go into battle to win the coveted prize. The bidder’s heart rates escalate and logic and reason fly out the door.

    Sure, prices are escalated which is great for the house and the seller, but really it does little for the buyer. More often than not, regardless of how well the item was presented, the buyer is a bit disappointed – but due to pride will not let on about it.

    Often is the case too that an item is purchased with the idea that it will be fixed up and then resold to make a buck. In the boat world, this could mean shoddy repairs and an overall unsafe craft. It may also mean that the buyer wins the boat but realizes that once at home there is not the time and money to restore the boat properly and then you get another Perlita Too stashed into storage etc etc.

    When I purchased our boat, it was a very long, slow and calculated process. The seller and buyer had the time to really think it thru. I knew exactly what I was getting into.

    Imagine someone new to the hobby. They buy a boat at an auction and realize that they have bitten off much more than they could ever chew which then sours them on the whole wood boat idea. I don’t think that helps anyone.

    So, if you like auctions then by all means, knock yourself out. I won’t be there to witness the carnage though.

  15. Jimmuh
    Jimmuh says:

    Thanks much to both Texx and Dale for well expressed points of view on the pros and cons of auctions. I never expected to be the one arguing in favor of auctions, but……(and my points apply equally to ‘real-life’ as well as auctions…)

    As to the point of “not knowing what you’re getting….”; I don’t believe cars at auction are particularly different than boats at auction; yes you can hear & see the car as it’s driven up the ramp (by far not always the case, btw), but unless you have done extensive prior due diligence, you really still have at best a superficial understanding of what you are bidding on. Is it really a polished restoration; or is it just shiny? Is the provenance airtight? Really, how different is shiny varnish over proud bungs, than ‘resale red’ over poor metalwork?

    And please, just who bids on a 5 or 6 (or 7) -figure item without having done their due diligence? Excluding those new to the Forbes 400, the rest of us think fairly carefully before we wave that paddle. Pretty rare that someone in the audience simply says “hey looka thar, I’ll bid on that” (ignoring over consumption of the free cocktails at BJ).

    Well before the event, you view the catalog; isolate your target, do as much research as possible (go see car/boat, or ‘send your man’ to inspect it, ask questions, hire a surveyor, etc.). By the time you’re on site, following the pace of the auction, you should already know enough to be confident in your bid. If you wait until you’re in the preview tent to make your bid decision, then you’re way more risk-tolerant than me!

    Of course, if you and just one other guy really really must have it; those all those well laid plans just disappear, and everyone wins!

    All of the foregoing assumes of course that you are confident in the venue, and have some degree of risk tolerance. Remember: life is a gamble….

    And on a more personal note; Brian T: your choice of Perlita Too to support your argument re: lack of forethought., was wrong, by the proverbial ‘country mile’. You probably didn’t know Alan….;-)

  16. brian t
    brian t says:

    The Perllita Too comment was not intended to disrespect Alan in any way. I did not know him nor do I know why the decision was made to stash the craft where it was.

    My comment was to point out that even the best plans and intentions sometimes do not come together.

  17. Jimmuh
    Jimmuh says:

    Not to worry Brian; I understood your intent, thus the 😉

    Most likely Alan put Perlita into the container barn because he had other, more useable boats (over 80 at one time!!); she was a non-runner when purchased. In fact, I believe that her carburetors were ‘borrowed’ to put onto the Gar Wood triple that he & Buzz Gibb shared.

    I agree with your “best laid plans” thought with regard to buying unrestored/incomplete boats at auction; but that’s probably not the case when buyers purchase fully restored boats at auction.

  18. Scott Young
    Scott Young says:

    I’ve had some experience with car and motorcycle auctions as both buyer and seller and, for me at least, it’s been a mixed bag.

    As a buyer, you are getting the proverbial “pig in a poke.” There is no test drive (or sea trial.) You don’t know the seller and he/she is often not available to even talk to (especially when the vehicle has “stories.”) So you are, in essence, buying a paint job and a dream.

    Not an issue when you are bidding on a fine restoration from a quality seller, but most lots in most auctions have more sellers who don’t fit that description than do. I know several bike and car shops that make good to great money making beautiful auction vehicles run or drive for their new owners.

    Plus, if you don’t know the market for whatever has caught your eye, how do you know the price you shouted out in the excitement of the auction is a fair one?

    Nothing against the auction companies who in my experience have been helpful, hard working and certainly as honest as most of us. But often you are not making the carefully considered purchase you otherwise might.

    The upside? For the seller, as Dave Bortner points out, a large number of financially qualified buyers all in one room at one time. For the buyer, a chance to see a variety of cool things you might want to own with prices decided by who’s in the room with you (reserves aside.) And you just might get a smokin’ deal on a really great whatever.

    Bottom line? Auctions are, for many reasons, lots of fun. They’ll get your vehicle exposure it’s tough to get otherwise. But if you’re a buyer, you might want to do some homework before you put your hand in the air.

    Scott Young
    ’52 Chris Craft Riviera ’18

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