Classic car auctions focus on ‘barn finds’

he barn-find 1954 Jaguar Xk 120SE will be presented at Auctions America just as it was found | Auctions America
The barn-find 1954 Jaguar Xk 120SE will be presented at Auctions America just as found | Auctions America

Everybody dreams of making a “barn find,” discovering a dirt-encrusted classic car forgotten for decades in some musty outbuilding. That’s become a powerful draw in the classic car community, where the debate rages over restoration vs. preservation.

Auctions America’s sale next month in Auburn, Ind., features a 1954 Jaguar XK 120SE convertible that actually was found in a Georgia barn, where it was stored since the 1970s. The “drophead coupe,” highly desirable because of the SE performance enhancements, will be offered just as it was found – covered in crud, rotted top, decimated interior – although supposedly it has been repaired enough so that it runs and drives, according to the catalog description.

The Jaguar basically needs everything, yet because of its originality and the powerful lure of its barn-find status, the XK is expected to sell for somewhere between $60,000 and $80,000, the auction house estimates. In perfect restored condition, the XK 120SE would be valued at around $100,000, according to the current Sports Car Market price guide.

Under the Jaguar’s bonnet | Auctions America
Under the Jaguar’s bonnet | Auctions America

So at the price estimate, full restoration of this Jag would quickly put its new owner under water. And the question being raised increasingly these days is whether it’s right to restore such a relic, thus removing all traces of patina and originality.

Original dirt has become a selling point. Seven-figure sales for two tarnished gems at Gooding & Company’s Scottsdale auction got everybody’s attention in January. Just out of longtime storage, an as-found 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing roared to $1.88 million and a 1967 Ferrari 330 GTS Spider sold for more than $2 million, despite being fire-damaged and suffering from many years of neglect. Generally, those prices should bring impeccably restored versions of those models.

Meanwhile in England, Silverstone Auctions stages its inaugural Restoration Show Sale on Saturday with a selection of vintage cars all in barn-find or restoration-project condition, including Jaguars, MGs, Lancias, Bentleys, Aston Martins and such oddities as a 1968 Austin Mini Wildgoose camper.

But Silverstone’s signature barn-find car, a rare 1939 Lagonda V12 with coachwork by Hooper, won’t make the auction. That’s because someone with very deep pockets has already swooped in and bought it.

Apparently, the auction company received an offer it couldn’t refuse.

Hooper-bodied 1939 Lagonda headed to Restoration Show Sale | Silverstone Auctions photos
The 1939 Lagonda was sold before auction | Silverstone Auctions

“The auction house (does) not usually accept pre-auction sales but due to the gravitas and strength of the offer, and in full consultation with the vendor, it was impossible to ignore,” Silverstone said in a news release.

The Lagonda had been valued in the catalog at 75,000 to 100,000 British pounds ($125,000 to $168,000), so the sale offer was likely way north of that, although Silverstone is not reporting the final amount.

Preservation vs. restoration was a major topic of discussion for expert-panel forums during Arizona collector-car week, when six major auctions hold sales every January. The talk hinged on how the emphasis among collectors in the U.S. has switched in recent years to preserving original cars and away from full restoration, even if the vehicle is in a somewhat distressed state.

That’s part of the picture, the impetus to keep a barn-find car just as it was. But for those who do want to restore, a dirty barn-find car can represent a clean slate. The starting point would be a car that hasn’t been messed with, and that still has its original parts. For a truly rare car, that takes much of the guesswork out of the restoration.

We’ll see what happens with the Jaguar XK 120SE at the Auctions America sale, which takes place May 8-10, and at  Silverstone auction Saturday.

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