(Bloomberg) -- In a year defined by cooling values and economic uncertainty, collectors remained resolute in their willingness to pay top dollar for the rarest cars in the world. 

On Nov. 13, a 1962 Ferrari 330 LM/250 GTO by Scaglietti  sold for $51.7 million at an RM Sotheby’s sale in New York City. The antique racer was the most expensive Ferrari ever to sell at auction, and it’s been the most expensive car sold publicly in 2023. 

It walloped returns in the three next-priciest sales: a $30.2 million 1967 Ferrari 412P Berlinetta sold by Bonhams on Aug. 17; an $18.8 million Formula 1 Mercedes sold via RM Sotheby’s on Nov. 17; and a $18 million 1962 Ferrari 250 GT SWB California Spider sold by Gooding & Co. on March 2. A 1964 Ferrari 250 LM that sold for €15.7 million ($17 million) at an Artcurial auction on July 5 was the fifth most expensive car to sell in 2023.

Still, several soft results in the latter part of the year, plus such ongoing macroeconomic factors as wars in Ukraine and Israel, indicate that collectors’ appetites may cool in the coming months.

“We are talking about non-essential items, and people are starting to be more careful about what they buy,” says Juan Diego Calle, the founder and chief executive officer of Classic.com, which compiles data on classic cars. “I don't think the top of the market is impacted by interest rates, but [top collectors] are impacted by macroeconomic events. They start thinking: ‘OK, wait, are we going into a war? Where is the world headed?’”

Subtle Cooling

The top of the classic car industry this year can be described in just three words: nothing new here. Of the 10 cars sold publicly at the highest prices, seven bore the badge of the dancing stallion from Modena, Italy, including a 1972 Ferrari 312 PB that sold for €12 million at RM Sotheby’s on May 19. The other marques on the list will be familiar to any blue-chip collector: A 1957 Jaguar XKSS sold for $13.2 million at RM Sotheby’s on Aug. 18 and a 2022 Bugatti Chiron Profilée sold for €9.7 million at RM Sotheby’s on Jan. 31.

The Bugatti—the only modern road car in the top sellers of the year—is notable because it is among the last Bugattis expected to be powered solely by combustion. Bugatti is expected to debut a new hybrid vehicle next year. The move will make existing models even more valuable, says Craig Jackson, the chairman and CEO of Barrett-Jackson Auction Co.

“You can force consumers to [go electric], but that's going to make the last of the petroleum cars more valuable,” says Jackson, who counts a number of Bugattis in his own collection. “I've been buying them up myself.” 

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The eye-watering prices belie a challenging year. The whopping $51.7 million paid for that 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO was $10 million less than RM Sotheby’s had expected; initial internal estimates had valued it “in excess of $60 million.” (The lower price didn’t seem to put a damper on the festive mood during the elaborate sale, which was hosted by comic James Cordon amid much cheering and shouting in the Awakening theater at the Wynn Las Vegas. In an auction recap, Steve Weitman, hotel president, described it as “the perfect complement” to the F1 race weekend.)

October, the first month of the year to record a dip in dollar volumes of public sales relative to those in 2022, experienced a 23.4% drop from the previous year, according to data from Classic.com. As of Nov. 27, this year has brought a 3.7% decrease relative to the same period in 2022: some $3.9 billion in sales versus $4 billion last year.

At the recent RM Sotheby’s auction in Las Vegas, 80% of the lots sold went for less than their low estimate, according to K500, a consumer guide for the classic car market. A pair of Ferrari LaFerraris, hybrid supercars generally valued at more than $4 million, and a 1990 Ferrari F40 GT, failed to sell at all.

“It was a typical late-2023 auction,” Steve Wakefield wrote in K500’s end-of-sale analysis. 

The auctions at Monterey Car Week in August, a bellwether for the collector car market, had already revealed vulnerabilities. That 1967 Ferrari 412 P that took $30.2 million at Bonhams had been estimated to sell for as much as $40 million. A 1964 Ferrari 250 LM reached a high bid of $17 million at RM Sotheby’s but still missed its reserve and failed to sell during the auction.

By the end of that week, total sales reached roughly $400 million across five auction houses, down from $473 million in 2022. The average sale price was $477,981, down from $591,768 last year.

Familiar Faces 

Still, such brands as Bugatti, Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz are close to market resistant. A 2002 Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR Roadster that RM Sotheby’s sold for $10.2 million on Nov. 17 and a 1962 Ferrari 250 GT SWB Berlinetta that Gooding & Co. sold for $9.5 million on Aug. 18 round out the top 10 car sales for 2023.

“At the very top, what I see is simply a very healthy market,” says Calle. 

The message is clear: Collectors this year have spoken with their wallets to say they’re buying fewer cars—and for the time being, they’ll stick with the brands they know. 

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.