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Even when a car is viewed as a classic, built forty years ago, and as such is obviously not changing in itself – the context can: Now, RM Sotheby’s put a Ferrari 512 BB up for sale – at an art auction.

The car first, of course: BB is almost a sacred acronym for me personally, as the Berlinetta Boxer was one of the first cars that truly mesmerized me with its elegant curves, treading a fine line between sensuality, masculinity and pure aggression. I know that shape very, very well as it was my first detailed model car, and I studied the design – albeit in 1:24 scale – in great detail and for multiple hours.

A very early Pininfarina sketch of the car that would later become the Ferrari 365 GT4 BB.

When I several years later was privileged enough to actually drive a BB in its earliest 365-incarnation, that was truly a dream opportunity and also one of my first drives in anything quite that exotic. They say you should never meet your childhood heroes in person, yet it was a thoroughly great experience, as the car was actually rather fabulous to drive: Surprisingly comfortable, entertainingly musical, stupendously fast and not least as beautiful in real life as it is in photos. A truly magnificent car, one of the all-time greats in the automobile history and in many ways a real piece of automotive art.

Or maybe, simply art in itself?

Now that is a very good question and it seems the esteemed auction house RM Sotheby’s think so too. They are today, Wednesday October 17th, conducting an auction in London under the name “The Midas Touch”. The theme is possibly best described by themselves. The following is from their auction catalogue:

Gold – the single metal that has seduced mankind for over six millennia – has compelled explorers, built empires and destroyed dynasties from Rome to the Amazon. (…) Taking collectors on a journey through the great civilisations of the world, The Midas Touch puts artists next to artisans, sculptures next to sacred objects, contemporary painting next to ancient jewellery, to present an unrivalled history of nature’s most bewitching creation.

Interesting in itself, as gold is indeed something anyone in the world from poor to rich can understand and in some way relate to across any border and culture. As such the catalogue of only 63 lot numbers spans very wide in the showcasing of gold, from traditional pieces of “real art” to jewelry and furniture, and should be expected to all be sold to collectors of – well, art.

Excerpt from “The Midas Touch” catalogue: Click the photo to go to the online version.

But the last lot in the catalogue is different: It is namely a car. Not any car, of course, but a spectacular example of a Ferrari 512 BB from 1977, but still – it’s only connection to the theme of the auction is its colour, “Oro Chiaro Metallizzato” – or simply gold to you and me.

Or is it really the only connection? Is a car like this, of which less than one thousand were built, and which is truly magnificent as an automobile, also qualified to enter the world of true art objects? Of course the fabulous BB has long been a collector’s item for car enthusiasts, and I must say that this particular example takes the collectability of the 512 BB to the very highest level: According to the catalogue, the car is fully restored over a period of two years to the highest standards and not least to the tune of £ 100,000 expense. It also comes with a fully known and documented history, and is the only one in this colour combination – which I might add is one of the best I have ever seen on the BB.

Of course, I’d choose the BB over a Fabergé egg any day of the week. But I’m a car guy, not an art collector. Will they really take this seriously?

They very well might: It is actually not the first time RM Sotheby’s have included a car in one of their art auctions, as the November 2017 contemporary art auction in New York featured the ex-Schumacher Ferrari F2001 Formula One car presented as “an artful combination of beauty, design, and balance”. The car sold for a record sum of 7,5 million dollars, almost doubling the previous highest paid auction price for a Formula One car. According to RM Sotheby’s, the car sold not to a car collector, though – but indeed to a collector from the art world.

While it takes some pretty abstract line of thought to comprehend where and why an ugly apparatus as a 2001 Formula One car (my opinion…) would fit into an art portfolio or collection, I can much more easily see the current Ferrari 512 BB enter the realm of art: It truly is a magnificent piece of machinery, cutting-edge Pininfarina design, top-of-the-line model from the grandest marque in motoring history, tastefully specced back in 1977 and beautifully presented today. In fact have a look for yourselves in the online catalogue: Lot 63 – 1977 Ferrari 512 BB.

But is it art? And if it is – is that a good thing? What say our ViaRETRO readers?

All photos: RM Sotheby’s

6 Responses

  1. Tony Wawryk

    Very interesting – I’ve had discussions in the past with people who profess to be baffled by the interest in, and prices of (some) classic cars, and I often make the comparison with art.
    For me – and I would imagine to most ViaRETRO readers, so I’m preaching to the choir here – there are any number of cars, especially at the more exotic scale, that in my view are no less than mobile sculptures.
    Leave aside for the moment the sound, smells, performance, handling (not easy!), just look at a 246 Ferrari Dino, an E-Type Jag, a BMW 507, a Mercedes 190SL…I could go on, as I’m sure many of you could – surely these are as beautiful and artistic as any Henry Moore or Hockney? OK, hard to hang on a wall – though not impossible – but not only is such a car as wonderful to behold as any sculpture or painting, you can sit in it, immerse yourself in the smells and sounds, drive it, control it, even race it if you’re brave (and wealthy) enough, as some are. Try that with a painting or sculpture…
    It’ll be interesting to see how the auction of the BB in this context goes – if a success, as it probably will be, I can see it happening more often. It might take some classics even further out of reach than they already are, but since I’m currently somewhat short of the $48m to buy a 250 GTO, it’ll be just as out of reach at $80m, the price a Hockney is expected to go for next month at Christie’s.

  2. Anders Bilidt

    Hmmmm… it’s an interesting question which leaves me somewhat confused as to how I actually feel about it myself.

    On the one side, I can’t help but agree with everything @tony-wawryk has just said. Much as I of course appreciate art, I will always feel more passionate about classic cars. Even leaving out the whole aspect of driving them, and instead purely looking at classic cars for their design, I could easily come up with a mile-long list of classics which I find immensely more beautiful than any conventionally art piece. As such, of course classic cars are sculptural pieces of art.

    But the thing is, I don’t want to disregard the whole aspect of driving them! They are in fact cars. And calling them art is robbing them of their identity. Classic cars should not just be displayed and looked at. They should be driven and enjoyed out of the open road as they were always intended to be by the people who originally created them. That is their purpose. As such, I feel that looking at something as fabulous as a 512BB as merely a piece of art is in some way degrading for such an astonishing classic car – it is so much more than just art…

  3. yrhmblhst

    Yes, a car can indeed be art, and many are. No question to anyone with a brain or a sense of aesthetic. The bigger question is to define ‘art’.
    I love both – cars and art, as well as cars AS art. BUT… I am very quick to advise the emperor that he has no clothes, especially when it comes to 99% of the garbage passed off as “art”. Makes me REAL popular with self styled ‘artists’ and ‘connoisseurs’ in my acquaintance … dont get me started…


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