Dents Begin to Show at Top End of Classic Car Market

Both Mr. Ingram and Michael Sheehan, a dealer-broker of vintage Ferraris in Southern California, acknowledged the perception among top collectors that now might be the time to hold the best of the best. When those cars do sell, they often do so off the radar and at still very robust prices, they said. Private sales have always taken place among elite collectors, but now comparatively few big private sales are the exception to the general rule that the top of the market is cooling off.

Demographics, too, are influencing this market.

“Every day, I get the same calls: Guy dies, his kids don’t want the cars, and they want me to sell them. Or it’s knee surgery, hip surgery or prostate cancer and the owner simply can’t enjoy the car anymore,” Mr. Sheehan said.

What Mr. Sheehan describes is most likely the vanguard of a wave of baby boomers getting out of the market, and nobody seems to have a clear idea of what comes next.

When the classic-car market rebounded after the recession, it was still boomer-driven, and the very top end came back first, in 2011, according to Hagerty data.

“The stock market was still in a slump, and cars were being talked about as one of the few asset classes where good returns could be had,” Mr. Ingram said. “By the next year, the middle of the market (cars costing between $250,000 and $1 million) returned to health, and the year after that, the entry level got active again.”

If there is a shift now, it’s still in its early days, and the market may be mirroring its resurgence from 2011 to 2013. The broad entry level continues to be robust, according to Mr. Ingram and Mr. Rabold, while the top end is sluggish, a possible leading indicator of a general slump.

The United States economy is in its longest period of growth on record, and most observers predict a downturn reasonably soon. That would certainly affect the classic-car market. But it’s the demographic shift, combined with the potential for another 2008-like crash, that seems to worry the keenest market-watchers the most.