Just when I thought Duesenberg prices were simmering down, the one-of-a-kind Murphy coupe built for George Whittell fetched a record auction price for a domestic automobile at Gooding Co.’s Monterey sale last weekend. That record price — $9.4 million, before the buyer’s premium elevated the price to $10.34 million — was about three times what I expected the beautiful and elegant Duesenberg to reach at auction.
The top prices attained by Duesenbergs in the last 12 months as recorded in the Old Cars Weekly auction database show a one-off Rollston torpedo victoria for $890,000; $875,000 for a Murphy convertible coupe; and $1.125 million for the Derham phaeton used by Elvis in the movie “Spinout.” Going back another 12-month period, into 2010 and late 2009, the same one-off Rollston torpedo victoria sold for $1.3 million; a supercharged Brunn Riviera (convertible sedan) for $1.3 million; a Murphy convertible coupe for $1.07 million and a long-wheelbase LaGrande dual-cowl phaeton for $1.5 million. All of these prices reflect the sum before buyer’s commission and, as you’ll notice, all highlight “open” models where the top drops and the price goes up. These examples also reflect cars with original coachwork, engines, chassis and firewalls — all important when factoring the price/value of a Duesenberg.
For perspective on the recent record sale, let’s not for get the same auction company sold the world-famous, record-setting supercharged “Mormon Meteor” (originally and again known as the "Duesenberg Special") at the same venue in 2004 for $4 million, before buyer’s premium. That $4 million was a record price for a Duesenberg at that time, and a record that stood until the sale of the Murphy coupe.
So, why did the Murphy coupe — a closed Duesengerg — sell for more than twice the Duesenberg Special, and more than 3 times the amount than any other Duesenberg has sold for in the 10 years I have been counting? It sure beats me. Taking the other trends into consideration, I expected the car to sell for around $3 million, give or take a “mill.”
I wouldn’t go so far as to call the amount recently paid for the Murphy coupe “crazy money,” as there really is no set value for the art in a Duesenberg, just as there is no set value on a similarly irreplaceable work of art such as a Rembrandt. However, the Murphy coupe is essentially an example of the most common Duesenberg body style — the Murphy convertible coupe — with the addition of a shiny aluminum roof. This particular Duesenberg also has relatively low miles and an original owner with some fame in Nevada state and car-collecting history, and it’s also a rare representative of a Duesenberg coupe, of which only six of assorted designs by various coachbuilders are known to have been built.
Conversely, the Murphy coupe is no longer an extremely fine original, as it was not too far back in history, which could attribute for the excellent price. Nor did the eccentric George Whittell, the car’s original owner and the only man to buy six new Duesenbergs and also have a pet lion as a frequent passenger, care much for this particular Duesenberg after he burned out the rare freewheeling device early in the car’s life (see Automobile Quarterly, Vol. 26 No. 1). While this car has one of the 12 freewheeling devices installed on a Duesenberg, it is not a factory-supercharged car, which greatly increases the value of a Duesenberg.
What this price most likely boils down to is two Duesenberg enthusiasts knew a unique and beautiful car when they saw it, and were very determined to add it to their collections. Only one enthusiast was able to do so, and he had to pay for the privilege.
And are other sporty, well-restored one-off Duesenbergs now worth $10 million? If so, how much more is a supercharged Duesenberg now worth? $15, $20 or $30 million? I’d say it depends on the car, although probably not that much. But clearly, I’ve been wrong before.