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Golden Rules Of The Motorcycle Auction House

Scoring A Bargain On The Auction Block Isn’t As Complicated As You’d Think

Motorcycle Auctions - 1951 Vincent Black Lightning

Buying a bike from a motorcycle auction might not be the most obvious way to get some new wheels, but with careful planning and research you could land yourself a tasty bargain or unearth a rare gem. However, auction houses are daunting places for the uninitiated, so how do you get involved? Here, we’re going to give you an overview about motorcycle auctions: what types exist, what they have on offer, what you need to know, what you need to bring, and how to scout out a good buy. Even if you’re not interested in attending one right this moment, it’s all good information for later.

Online Auctions Vs. Offline Auctions

Mecum LV

Buying a ride through online motorcycle auction sites like eBay is fairly straightforward. You scroll through the listings, find something that you like, communicate with the seller, type your maximum bid in, and when the virtual hammer falls you may have won yourself a motorcycle. The fees and payment methods are clearly noted, and the collection or delivery is outlined. Simple, right? It’s not always so simple: being an online platform, you may not have the chance to view what you’re buying, and unscrupulous sellers do exist. “Needs some TLC,” is a favorite selling tactic along with “ideal project” or “custom builders dream” et cetera, et cetera.

Fortunately, most buyers are wise to that lingo, and dishonest sellers are few and far between. We’ve bought loads of bikes from eBay before, and we’ve never been burned or had to call customer support to report a shady seller. However, we still prefer the good old-fashioned used motorcycle auctions, with real hammers, and fast talking auctioneers. If you’ve never experienced one, we heartily recommend going to the next one in your area. But should you attend a live event at all? Are you likely to find what you’re looking for? Or are you best off buying from a tried and tested dealership instead?

Should You Attend A Public Motorcycle Auction?

Mecum Auction

Even if you have no intention to buy, you should attend an auto auction for the experience – at least once just so you know what it’s all about. But if you’re in the market for a motorcycle, is an auction the right buying platform? It all depends on what you want to buy and what kind of budget you’ve got. Auto auctions attract a wide range of lots, from vintage classics to modern examples, all with interesting histories, and potentially low selling prices. So if you’re hunting for an unusual model, or need to save some money, you can benefit from going to a real life event.

The money saving aspect is probably the biggest draw for most bidders, however, auctions offer such a diverse selection of motorcycles that you’re likely to find something at an auction that you certainly won’t find in any dealership. Older models, rarer models, discontinued bikes, salvage motorcycles, they’re all there just waiting to be snapped up. As long as you’re attending the right event, you’ll hopefully find something to command your attention. But which kind should you attend?

What Kind Of Auction To Attend?

There are plenty of different event types located all over the United States, but which one suits you? It all depends on what you’re looking to buy. If you’re specifically in the market for a highly sought after rare model then you’ll want to seek out some of the more prestigious, high-end affairs that are usually hosted by Bonhams and other prominent names. However, if you’re in the market for something a little more down-to-Earth, such as a bargain sport bike or an ex-service vehicle, then you’ll have better luck at a commercial event.

#01) The Prestigious Auction Houses

Prestigious Auction

For the rare and unusual, your best bet is to attend an event hosted by Bonhams or Mecum. Bonhams typically host a couple of prestigious auctions a year with lots that command incredibly high price tags, with exotic and uncommon motorcycles and memorabilia going under the hammer. Similarly, the Mecum Motorcycle Auction offers some of the most amazing lots in the industry, and have been recognized as the world’s top auction house for vintage and antique motorcycles.

Typically, these high-end establishments sell items from luxurious private collections, restoration works from motorcycling enthusiasts, and the occasional celebrity owned machine too. Since they specialize in the rare and exotic, you can expect high selling prices and very competitive bidding. In fact, it’s not even free to attend these auctions and serious bidders and spectators will have to buy an entrance ticket which can either be bought by registering in advance with an email address online, or at the door. This vetting process helps separate the serious buyers from the time wasters. It sounds harsh but it’s a necessary evil, especially when you’re dealing with some of the most expensive motorcycles in the world, that can fetch upwards of half a million dollars each…

#02) Commercial Auctions

Commercial Auction

Commercial auctions focus on a different kind of selling, and these commercial motorcycle auctions are more popular, more regular, and less exclusive. You see, they deal with less with the rare and exotic, and focus on selling whatever else needs to be sold. This can include a variety of vehicle type categories: old stock from dealerships, old display bikes, salvage motorcycles – anything that needs to be sold off in a hurry to the highest bidder. Of course, that doesn’t mean that private sellers with interesting lots don’t turn up but you’re more likely to find a modern motorcycle on the block rather than a rare vintage model most of the time. Motorcycle salvage auctions can turn up some unlikely gems.

Since they don’t deal with collectibles, these auctions sell with a no-nonsense “sold as seen,” usually without warranty or any type of guarantee – and that’s what makes these auctions interesting. With the right mindset and a bit of research you could land yourself a bargain motorcycle in tip top condition, with next to no mileage…or you could find yourself paying over the odds for a piece of junk. That’s the nature of the game.

#03) Police Motorcycle Auctions

Police Auction

There’s a third option open to you: police auctions. Police motorcycle auctions are interesting marketplaces that specialize in selling off repossessed and seized vehicles. It’s a real pot-luck and you never know what you’re going to get, in what state it’s in, and many bikes on offer might not even come with a functioning key – but if you’re looking for a real bargain, you might find exactly what you’re looking for at a police sale. “Buyer beware” is the keyword here though, and you might end up bidding on something that doesn’t even run or sold with a salvage title only, and you’ll probably have to get it inspected, registered, and licensed if you have plans to get it on the road. Interestingly, many police departments have decided to take their sales online, so you can bid from the comfort of your own home…and they don’t just auction motorcycles either, you can pick up some cheap diamonds, a laptop computer, gold bullion, and a collectible comic book at the same time. Handy, huh? Anyway, police auction rules vary by location, so we’re not going to go into too much detail about them here.

No matter what auction type you choose to attend, check your local calendar for the upcoming auctions, set the date, and prepare yourself well in advance.

Preparing For A Live Auction


When that hammer falls the final result is legally binding. That means that if you’re currently sitting with the highest bid when the hammer drops, you’ve got to pay what you promised, pay the auction house fees, and transport your new purchase – only in very odd circumstances will it be possible to reverse a bid, so before you commit to a bid, make sure you do your research. And that doesn’t just mean researching the motorcycle model that you want to buy either, because some auction houses have strict rules.

Some auction houses require you to provide proof that you have the funds to back up your bidding power before you’re allowed to register. Others require different forms of identification to prove that you are who you say you are – at the very least, expect to show some ID and submit a valid email address! Check out the rules of the auction you plan to attend well in advance – getting turned away at the door won’t be a fun experience for anyone involved.

Of course, the most important thing to research is what’s being sold. Different venues have different rules, but most will have a preview allowing potential bidders to see what will be sold and at what time, with a little bit of a backstory about the model’s history. If you see something you like that looks like it might land within your budget, register your interest and head down to the auction house to see it in the flesh. Some places allow bidders to get up close and personal with the lots, but very few allow them to be started up. This is the time to inspect the motorcycle as closely as possible, and potentially ask auction staff deeper questions. What’s the history? Does it have a clean title? Keep your questions sensible and to the point, but don’t be afraid to make reasonable inquiries. No tire kicking allowed, because this is for serious buyers only.

The Auction Process

The Bidding Process

After you’ve taken a closer look at the lot that has interested you most – it has the right history, it’s in the right condition, and if all goes to plan, should sell for a reasonable price – all you have to do is wait until the auction begins and attract the auctioneers attention with your bidding number, and repeating until you win the bid or until the auction price gets too hot for your wallet. Bidding isn’t hard, but knowing when to stop is. For that reason, we always recommend two things: a strict budget and a trusted friend.

Your budget is the most important of the two, and you have to be strict with yourself. Let’s say that you’ve got your heart set on a beautiful 1992 Honda CBR900RR. For the sake of this hypothetical analogy, let’s say that in previous auctions, ’92 CBR900RRs have sold for around $5,000. You’ve done your research and think that the one on the auction block is also worth around $5,000, but no more than $5,500. And then you have to factor in auction fees, transportation fees, and other assorted costs – once you’ve done the math, if that CBR doesn’t look like a bargain, then don’t bid. Maybe that pre-loved Moto Guzzi is a more appealing prospect instead? Auctions are about scoring bargains, not paying over the odds. So all in, you should draw up a realistic and strict budget, and stick to it. There should be no excuse for you to bid higher than what you’ve agreed on, simple right?

Not quite. Auctions are exciting places and it’s very easy to go over your budget when you’ve got the ol’ adrenaline in your system. Bidding has the same kind of thrill as gambling, and it can be hard to stop once you’re on a roll…so that’s why we highly recommend that you attend the event with a trusted friend, who can keep you on budget and won’t be afraid to tell you that enough is enough. You know that buddy who convinces you to stay for one more drink, which escalates into a brutal all-nighter? Yeah, don’t bring that guy.

When The Hammer Falls…

Auctioneers Hammer

The hammer has fallen, and it appears that you have won the auction – what next? It’s time for you to pay for your new motorcycle and get it back home. Paying is one thing, and storage and transportation are another, but having an action plan to deal with these issues will make your auction experience much more enjoyable. First up, let’s look at payment methods.

Unlike eBay, it’s not a simple matter of hitting the PayPal button, but it’s not exactly complicated either. Most auction houses accept debit and credit cards, bank transfers, personal checks, and cash. Cards are the preferred method of payment. Cash is also great but be warned because there’s usually a limit to how much cash can be accepted in one transaction. Bank transfers and checks are generally ok, but you might have to wait for the transaction to clear, and auction houses generally charge a pretty penny for storage costs while you wait.

Talking of hidden costs, don’t forget that auction houses also charge buyer’s fees which can amount to around 15% of the final sale price – so take that into account. Storage fees can be arranged, and most auction houses can arrange delivery for you if you need it. These extras generally aren’t cheap, so they’re best avoided if possible. There you have it, winning anauction is as simple as that. But if you still need some convincing, here are some classic stories from the auctions…

Amazing Auction Examples

The Most Expensive?

1951 Vincent Black Lightning

Early in 2018, we saw the world’s most expensive motorcycle to ever sell at auction go under the hammer. It was a 1951 Vincent Black Lightning and it managed to unseat a Cyclone Board Track Racer as the most expensive motorcycle sold at auction when the hammer came down at a record breaking $929,000. It was sold at the Bonhams show in Las Vegas to a telephone bidder from Australia, and to bring the Aussie tale full-circle, it was originally an Australian import that was brought Down Under to race against other Vincent models. Legend says that this very model reached speeds of up to and over 130 mph and managed to outpace other well-known motorcycles in its class. While the likes of this Vincent Black Lightning might be a little out of the average buyer’s price range, it gives a nice snapshot of just how interesting the auction industry is.

Incredible Unsold Lots?

Unsold Lamborghini Design 90

This rather interesting Lamborghini motorcycle recently failed to sell at auction in the UK. This is one of 6 official Lamborghini motorcycles designed and built in the 1980s, and goes by the name “Design 90.” Featuring a Kawasaki engine rather than a conventional Lambo V12, an aluminum frame, and a fiberglass body that weighs in at 400 lbs, the Lamborghini Design 90 is one hell of an unusual motorcycle. In terms of performance the 997cc inline-four engine could produce around 130 horses of peak power but that’s about all we know, since only six were made and this particular model has only clocked around 4,200 miles in its lifetime. The auction’s starting bid was $58,800 and the auctioneer’s estimate was for somewhere between $117,700 and $124,600…but nobody bought it. This is the sort of weird thing that you could only find at an auction.

Coolest Lots To Go To Auction?

Choosing the coolest bike to ever go under the hammer is a tough one, since so many iconic machines have ended up in the nation’s auction houses. From limited edition Ducati Panigale models to highly prized Vincent Rapide or Harley Davidson collector’s pieces, there’s a lot to choose from. And while we like a rare Honda RC30 and can appreciate a svelte Triumph cafe racer, we think that Steve McQueen’s 1970 Husqvarna 400 that played a starring role in his iconic documentary film On Any Sunday is our favorite. It went under the hammer at the Barber Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, Alabama in mid-2018, where it sold for an impressive $230,500. That’s not a bad price for a world famous motorcycle owned by Steve McQueen himself!

World’s Largest Motorcycle Auction?

Every year in January, Las Vegas plays host to thousands of motorcycle collectors and fanatics who make the annual pilgrimage to the legendary Mecum and Bonhams auctions. The Mecum auction is a mammoth four day event, with the Bonhams auction a more refined one-day show – but combined, they draw in the biggest collections of collectible motorcycles on the planet, all in one place. If you’re hunting for rare and antique motorcycles, then the Las Vegas Mecum auctions and Bonhams auctions, held in January of every year, are the places to be. You won’t find a better auction in the United States for rare and antique motorcycle lots. That’s a fact.

A Whole Motorcycle Brand?

Excelsior Henderson

While the Vincent Black Lightning might be the 2018 auction headline, another interesting lot went under the hammer at the 2018 Las Vegas motorcycle auction. Rather than being a rare or unusual model, it was in fact a whole motorcycle brand. That’s right, the Excelsior-Henderson brand, one of the “Big 3” American motorcycle manufacturers was put up for sale, and the lot included 10 federally registered trademarks, web domains, frame and engine designs, expired but exploitable patents, and much, much more. Thought the bidding reached a heady 1.9 million US dollars, the marque failed to sell. While owning an entire motorcycle brand might be more “motorcycle” than you ever wanted to buy, there are always odd things for sale at auctions, and that’s why it’s always worth taking a look. You never know what gems might be uncovered.

Excelsior Henderson 2

What Else Turns Up At Auto Auctions?

While we’re focusing on motorcycles, you never know what might turn up on the block while you’re at one of these events. Of course, bikes are what you’re there for but auctioneers usually bolster up the lots with other niche products. Farm equipment, trucks, trailers, jet skis, ATV models, golf carts, and other sport recreation vehicles can usually be found for good prices. While two wheels might be the goal, if something with a few more wheels or a few less grabs your attention, why restrict yourself?!

Hopefully that’s given you enough inspiration to take part in the next auction in your town. But before you go and blow your life savings on a Lamborghini motorcycle, a rusty piece of junk, or an entire motorcycle trade name, here are a few final words of auction wisdom:

Final Tips For Ultimate Auction Success:


Budget Accordingly

Give yourself a reasonable budget that takes a number of extra factors into consideration. While you might be eyeing up a bargain, ask yourself if it will still be a bargain after the auction and transportation fees, or if the motorcycle in question requires extensive repairs and needs to be re-registered. What’s cheap at auction could incur higher costs from the moment you’ve brought it home. Always keep the future in mind!

Have A Critical Eye

When you’re inspecting the lot, take a closer look at everything. Do the VIN numbers match? Is the paintwork original, and if not, why not? Take care to look for any signs of repaired crash damage or anything out of the ordinary. Whilst under examination, keep an eye out for any parts that will need replacing and factor those into the costs. Leaking seals, rusted cables, worn perishables – keep an eye out and then assess whether your bargain is still worth your money.

If It’s Too Good To Be True…

Of course, while you’re taking a closer look at the lot in question, ask yourself (and ideally the auction staff or current owner) why the lot is going under the hammer at all. The vast majority of bikes sold at auction are on the block because their owners want to cash in on their value or just need to get rid of them, but there are a few unscrupulous sellers out there, so be alert! If a deal looks too good to be true…there’s a good chance that it is too good to be true. Unless that so-called Steve McQueen ride has a verifiable history, stay well away from it.

Research Current Values

We’re living in a connected world, so there’s no excuse for not knowing the current value of something you’re looking at. If you’re wondering if that 2003 Yamaha YZF-R1 has an accurate estimate, look up the average re-sale value of the model in question using websites like the Kelly Blue Book or the NADA guides. Everywhere has Wi-Fi these days, so you can even make a last minute check at the auction house if you forgot to do it in advance. It takes a minute and it could save you from paying way over the odds for something fairly average and by no means rare or uncommon. On the other hand, it could give you the justification for investing in the sale of the century. If you’re looking at buying a motorcycle, even if it’s not at an auction, these tools are invaluable.

When It Says “As Is” It Means “As Is”

At the end of the day, you’re responsible for whatever it is that you’ve bought. There’s no refund if you’ve misinterpreted what “sold as is” means, or didn’t beware when the listing clearly said “buyer beware.” You need to tread carefully around auctions and make sure you fully understand what you’re signing up for when you raise that bidding card. If you can’t live with the consequences (and legal ramifications) don’t bid at all. Pay close attention to the terms, conditions, and wording of any sale. It’s a risky business but it can be incredibly rewarding if you do your homework and know exactly what you’re looking for.

Bid Sensibly

When the auction heats up and the object of your desire has surpassed your budget, resist the urge to dig deeper into your pockets and bid again. When the object is in front of you and within arm’s reach, it’s easy to throw caution (and reason) to the wind, even when you know that you’re making a huge mistake anyway. Remember to have some restraint. Auctions are all about scoring bargains, not about bankrupting yourself for some old junk. A sensible buyer knows that you make your financial gains in the buying, not in the selling that comes later. Always keep that in mind. Similarly, keep your eyes out for bidders who are in the crowd trying to inflate selling prices – it doesn’t just happen on eBay, you know…Always be ready to walk away from a bad deal.


Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How to buy motorcycles at auction?

A: Always know what you’re bidding on before you place a bid, and stick to your budget. Follow those two golden rules and you’ll have a pleasant and enjoyable auction house experience. Buying unknown products and overspending are the two biggest pitfalls newbie bidders fall in to.

Q: How to buy an auction motorcycle?

A: Do your research – that’s the most important thing. Research the lot, make sure you have the money, and make sure you know what you’re buying. Keep those three things in mind and follow our “How To Place A Bid” guide, and you should have a successful experience.

Q: Where to buy auction motorcycles?

A: The best places to pick up a motorcycle in a bid are at the big prestigious events like the Mecum Las Vegas one, or at a Bonham’s seasonal event. Failing that, you can visit local commercial events, salvage auctions, or online using a platform like eBay.

Q: Can I auction my motorcycle?

A: Of course. Auctions have become a very popular way of buying and selling in the last decade. Selling online is easier, and you simply follow the instructions to get your goods listed. In real life, it takes a little more work, but it’s easily done. Be warned though, you will incur fees for using these platforms.

Joe Appleton
About Joe Appleton

Joe is a motorcycle industry veteran who has not only been paid for his words on the industry but also to throw a leg over a bike on the track. Besides riding, and occasionally crashing motorcycles, he also likes to build up older bikes in his garage in Germany. He says; "I like what I like but that certainly doesn’t make my opinion any more valid than yours…" We like Joe's educated opinion and hope you do too.