Ben Walker, Bonhams interview: 'Motorcycle values are rising since the recession'

Part One  |  Part Two

Since he joined Bonhams in 2000, Ben Walker's career progressed rapidly in the international auctioneer's Motorcycles department. He was appointed Head of Motorcycles in 2002, and has been instrumental in bringing rare motorbikes to the forefront of the global collectibles markets.

Successful auctions overseen by Ben include Bonhams' recent sale of a restored c.1894 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller, the first ever production motorcycle. It sold for £86,200. In other words, if you want to know what's happening in high-end motorcycle markets, then Ben is the man to speak to.

All the better, then, that Ben kindly took time out from his busy schedule - such as organising Bonhams recent Munich sale (October 1) - to chat to Paul Fraser Collectibles about his hobby, the future of the motorbike markets, and how two wheels are beating the economic recession...

Paul Fraser Collectibles: You originally studied Fine Art Valuation. How did your background lead to you becoming Head of Motorcycles at Bonhams?

Ben Walker: My fascination with all forms of vintage transport started at a very early age. I grew up very close to the shop of the legendary vintage motorcycle dealer Brian Verrall and, as a child, would press my nose up against the window.

(Brian later became a client and friend and when he passed away in 2008 Bonhams was asked to sell his personal collection of motorcycles. It was a 100% sold 'white gloves' sale, with many of the record prices achieved for individual marques, still standing today.)

I was also brought up stories of the vehicles my grandfather owned and used. I guess there is something 'genetic' that has been passed down. At the age of 16 I did work experience at Brooks Auctioneers where I got bitten by the bug and, a week after finishing my degree, I started working full time for the firm.

Ben Walker: 'I get a great deal of satisfaction from exceeding expectations'

The degree in Fine Art Valuation was really a means to an end, although it has stood me in very good stead given motorcycle collecting extends to all areas - including decorative objects, accessories and memorabilia.

PFC: You've successfully expanded the success of Bonhams' motorcycles department over the years. Did you face any obstacles? And are motorcycles 'in the shadow' of classic cars?

BW: Motorcycles have historically been viewed as the 'poorer' cousin to the motor cars. This can be seen if you go right back to the pioneering days of motorised transport. However, we are a separate concern that the classic car fraternity happen to be taking a greater interest in.

The Bonhams Motorcycle Department has always been an important part of the Motoring Department as a whole. We have always recognised the value of two wheeled transport. Not only from a financial perspective but also from a historical and social perspective.

This is why we write a detailed contextual background to every motorcycle that is entered in one of our sales.  But we stand alone when it comes to publicity. We run an international publicity campaign and advertise is every major classic motorcycle periodical.

It never ceases to amaze me where the interest in motorcycles comes from. Thailand to India, the West Indies to Australia... And, of course, across the whole of Europe and America.

PFC: What is your most memorable highlight from your years in the business?

BW: I have many. One of the most exciting was getting a phone call from a family on Staten Island, New York, about an 'old motorcycle' that turned out to be a c.1894 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller. It was a an example of the first ever production motorcycle and untouched since the 1920s.

It sold for £86,200 - not bad for a total restoration project.

But some of the most thrilling highlights haven't been with the motorcycles that have sold for hundreds of thousands, but rather those machines where there is a story to be told, or that have come out of hiding after years, even decades, of careful ownership.

The Hildebrand & Wolfmüller - the first-ever production motorcycle

I get a great deal of satisfaction from exceeding expectations on value, especially when, as is so often the case, there is personal and emotional value for the vendor as well. Also knowing that we've found a good home for a 'member of the family' means a lot to all parties involved.

PFC: Your motorcycle sales have included some unusual motorcycles, like the Czech three-seater 1937 Böhmerland 603cc Langtouren. What's the most unique bike you've encountered?

BW: I think it has to be the Hildebrand & Wolfmüller mentioned above.

However, like a London bus (you don't see one for ages and two come along at once), we found another example less a few hours from where the first was found. This was sold at our Las Vegas sale earlier this year for $161,000.

PFC: Has there been an item that sold unexpectedly well and took you by surprise?

BW: At every sale. There is always a 'sleeper' - a machine which sells for well in excess of its top estimate. But that is also part of the art and skill of the auctioneer. Part of our job is to maximise the price the machine sells for.

And often the best way of achieving this is to estimate at a level which is tempting. Less can sometimes be more.

PFC: Is the number of motorcycle collectors increasing, and are you seeing them emerge from any particular countries or regions?

BW: At the moment we are seeing the first generation of motorcycle collectors' property coming back onto the market, as people sadly pass away.

However there are always new areas of collecting emerging. Demographics play an important role. We hanker after those machines we couldn't afford when we were young, but now can. This can be demonstrated by the increasing interest in Japanese classics of the 1970s and '80s.

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