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Could This Company Shake Up the Collector-Car Business?

The collector-car market is thriving—record sales inch higher, the number of auctions grows, and the range of models starting to noticeably appreciate broadens. Canada’s RM Auctions is partnering with Sotheby’s to sell 30 “iconic vehicles.” Now, a brand-new player is entering the field: Keno Brothers Fine Automobile Auctions will hold its first-ever sale, “Rolling Sculpture,” on November 19th in Manhattan.

Leslie and Leigh Keno are not new to the auction world. The twin brothers have owned their own art and antiques business and often starred on PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow.” For as long as they can remember, they have also had a genuine passion for cars—thanks in part to their father, who owned many and let them learn to work on them at an early age—and eventually began racing and collecting themselves.

Collector cars are a natural extension of the high-end arts and antiques worlds, as Sotheby’s involvement with RM Auctions demonstrates. But unlike many other houses, which follow an old-school way of auctioning cars (think hefty printed catalogues, hundreds of cars and ever-bloating estimates and reserves), the Keno Brothers realized that to enter an already crowded space they’d have to innovate.

And so they say they will. Leigh Keno recently rattled off a list when I interviewed him at the Kenos’ garage in Bedford, NY. A few examples: The auction will feature only 40 carefully curated cars, each of which has a clear and well-documented provenance. There are a few real star cars and several that are excellent but not iconic. The estimates for each car are low, given recent comparable sales. “We are firm believers in conservative estimates on each and every lot,” says Keno. “We find that a conservative estimate brings people in to look at the car, examine it and have the confidence to bid… a high estimate does just the opposite.”

The company also argues that transparency has long been long missing from the collector-car auction world. “When I read a description on a car I want to buy, I immediately say to myself, ‘What are they not telling me?’ If a car has been repainted and not taken down to the bare metal, I would want to know that. It would make me trust the company even more to know that they are being as transparent as possible,” says Bradley Farrell, COO.

One of the other danger zones in the traditional world of car auctions is online/phone bidders defaulting on a purchase. The Keno Brothers will use proprietary software, called MarketGuard, from Proxibid, a company whose leadership team hails from PayPal, where they innovated in risk mitigation. MarketGuard instantly prescreens potential bidders on more than 3,000 parameters, measuring their ability to pay, likelihood to buy and real interest in transacting. How accurate is the system? “On average, a 17-20% non-pay range is normal in the collector-car space,” says Jason Nielsen, SVP of operations. “With our software, we get .15% non-payment.”

I had the pleasure of driving two of the stars of the Keno auction, first the 1969 Lamborghini Miura P400 S, one of only 338 “S’s” ever built—and one of only two ever constructed with wild boar hide upholstery.

The car’s provocative stance, the scream of its V12 engine, the precise click-click of its metal-gated shifter all combined to throw me back in time. A better, more visceral time, in my opinion, where sports cars had audacious personalities, but the best of them, like this Miura S, also had prowess. “It makes your blood boiling!” says Lamborghini’s extremely Italian former chief test driver, Valentino Balboni, in a video interview about the car, the first he ever tested.

The Kenos have put an estimate of $800,000 to $1.6 million on the Muira; a similarly original Muira S sold earlier this year at Mecum Auctions’ Monterey sale in August for $2.3 million and in 2014 RM sold one for $1,265,000—data that the Kenos share openly under the “Market Trends” section for the car on the website. (Neither Muira S had the rare boar-hide interior that the Keno car has, nor Balboni’s blessing on authenticity, mileage and condition.)

The second “rolling sculpture” that I drove was the slinky, charismatic 1967 Bizzarrini Strada 5300—a rare Corvette-engine-powered bombshell that attracted stares, whistles and thumbs-up from locals. Bizzarrini was a star engineer behind three of Ferrari’s greatest cars—the 250 Testarossa, the 250 SWB and the 250 GTO. As many great automotive talents do, Bizzarrini yearned to build his own car and power it with reliable American muscle under its curvaceous aluminum Bertone coachwork. The result is a smooth-riding, easy-shifting sports car that feels more like a grand tourer. The estimate for the car is $750,000—$1.3 million.

The Keno brothers are determined to innovate, from cars and pricing to services and technology. Each onsite bidder and consignor will receive a tablet for a full virtual tour of each car and its specs as well as real-time tracking of the live event.

Another standout feature: high-level seller and buyer hand-holding. In advance, all consignors and several key bidders will have received a call from the Kenos’ official concierge, who will book travel, transportation, hotel and assist with reservations on the ground. “I hear often that consignors feel like they give a car and then are forgotten about,” says Farrell. “If it wasn’t for the consignors we wouldn’t have this auction—they are going to hopefully sell a car that night, but they might also buy one.”

As with any auction, the results will be telling, an indicator of how the Kenos’ strategy will fare in today’s market. Whether or not it is as successful as the company hopes, it will most surely force the competition to rethink the rules of the game—and the playing field.

“Rolling Sculpture”

Skylight Clarkson Sq.

New York, NY 10014

Wednesday, November 18: previews (9 am to 9 pm) and symposium, “At the Crossroads of Art, Engineering and Technology, the Many Facets of Historic Automobiles” (4 pm to 6 pm)

Thursday, November 19: previews from 9 am; memorabilia auction (3 pm), car auction (5 pm)