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Exclusive Interview with Max Girardo: Less is More

Above photo courtesy of RM Sotheby’s.

“Dealing with less cars means you can deal with more important cars and do a better job of them.” -Max Girardo

Turtle Garage recently sat down with Max Girardo for an exclusive interview. Max is a passionate car expert who has achieved iconic status in the collector car universe. Much has already been written about his background, childhood, multi-lingual capabilities, and his auctioneering career at RM Sotheby’s. Instead, we chose to focus on Max’s viewpoints on industry trends in the burgeoning and global collector car world. Because of Max’s growing industry influence, the interview that follows attempts to give Turtle Garage readers an insider perspective into the origins and future of Girardo & Co.

My first personal experience with Max was when I was involved with the estate sale of Malcolm Pray’s car collection. Following his death in 2013, we sold Mr. Pray’s 1937 Figoni et Falaschi 135M Delahaye at Amelia Island in 2014. The auction stalled out at $4 million and Max’s tone kept an element of suspense in the room. He created an indescribable aura that bought time for other bidders (both inside and outside of the room) to contemplate the seriousness and rarity of the Delahaye. The auction slowly but surely came to life and ultimately topped $6M. Max created momentum and you could cut the air with a knife. Other auctioneers would have left $1 million (or more) on the table. That night I told Rob Myers that the Pray estate owed Max a debt of gratitude for the extra $1.5 million that was realized. Max has a rare  gift, talent, and feel that enables him to communicate and create rapport with the audience. His deep knowledge and passion for cars also helps. Through the auction world he has created a sterling reputation as well as an enviable network of relationships. This is the video of Max auctioning off Malcolm Pray’s “French Mistress” at Amelia Island in 2014:

My second personal experience with Max was last year at the New York City RM Sotheby’s Driven By Disruption auction. I sat across from him for an hour at Sotheby’s New York headquarters. Prior to viewing the auction lots for sale, I had to take a short conference call. Rob Myers offered me use of the private RM office on the third floor at Sotheby’s. I found an empty desk and Max happened to be next to me studying and absorbing every detail of each car that was going to auction. The kinetic energy coming from him was palpable. My conference call continued while Max absorbed the menu of upcoming cars for sale. His energy and enthusiasm is formidable and it becomes so contagious that the audience feels it.

TG: The fashion world has Calvin Klein. The music world has Bruce Springsteen. The collector car world has Max Girardo. You have risen to iconic status. You have the ability to move and influence markets. Do you ever think of yourself of a member of an exclusive club?

MG: I never thought this would happen. You don’t really think about it. I think what we want to do is give the right advice to our clients and build some great relationships. People become friends. Clients become friends. I’ve been lucky enough to grow up all over the world. I grew up until the age of twelve in Southeast Asia. We were moving every couple of years. One of the things I really enjoy is meeting all these different people and building unique relationships. Less is more. Dealing with less cars means you can deal with more important cars and do a better job of them. By doing that you have the opportunity to try and give guidance. We can all learn from each other.

TG: Your departure from RM was the equivalent of Robert Plant leaving Led Zeppelin. Do you think the auction process is the best way to sell a car? Is your new firm a repudiation of the current high profile auction process?

MG: RM became a big machine with an auction every month and it all became a numbers game. There are two very different ways of going about the same challenge of selling a collector car—the auction or the private sale. I think that there is not a right or a wrong way to do it. Auctions are great, but it would be nice if there were a few less of them. It’s now all about hitting targets and numbers. I’d rather do less but do it better. I prefer quality over quantity. I want to have the time to choose the car I want to sell. I want to select it and make sure that it is something we can stand behind. I want to know the car and have the time to do my due diligence. For me it’s not about the next sale. But there is no right or wrong way to sell a car. Auction or private sale, the great thing is that we are all very passionate about the cars we have or lust after.

TG: Can you explain the origins of your attractive personality, deep passion, and intricate knowledge of cars? Where does this powerful troika come from?

 MG: It started right from the beginning. My father was so passionate about cars. We didn’t have cars when I was growing up in Thailand. We’d occasionally go back to Italy and he would have his little sports car there. It was always such a treat to go for a ride in the car with him. I would listen to him tell stories and I’d see photographs of him rallying. This had a great influence on me. This is what got my passion going. It sounds silly but washing the car and going to events with my father is what really started it all.

TG: What prompted you to start Girardo & Co.?

MG: My father’s very sudden death made me stop and think. It was time to do something different with my life. He always regretted a missed opportunity. I wanted to get on with it and strike out on my own. I didn’t know if it was the right thing to do at the time. At my father’s funeral somebody said to me “you will find that he looks after you and influences even more now that he is gone.” Even in death his ongoing influence has helped me pursue my dreams and start Girardo & Co.

TG: Tell me about your new company. What do you do and what you hope to achieve with Girarado & Co.?  What are your short, medium and long-term goals? Will you eventually have an auction business?

MG: We are very passionate about cars and very passionate about getting to know people and clients. One of the things that was important to us was to build those relationships. It makes a huge difference. This is a business but people do it for passion. It should be something you enjoy doing. Its not just a business transaction I think its more than that. We really want to build a business where we are known for quality, knowledge and service. I think there a lot of people who don’t do it as well as they could. We don’t want to be a high volume off-the-rack department store with instant satisfaction. We want to be a bespoke tailor that is more expensive but higher quality. We only have five cars in the showroom at a given time because that is all we can fit. We do, however, have several exquisite cars on consignment at all times. We will sell pre-war cars and post-war cars with an emphsis on European names—but we will sell anything as long as it has rarity and quality. European cars are what I know and what I grew up with—that is where my passion resides. I don’t plan to do auctions right now. I occasionally do some charity auctions for fun because I love auctioneering. But we don’t have any car auction plans right now. However, if it was something really special I might be interested. I don’t want to get back into the auction rat race.  If I came back I’d want to do it properly. But never say never….

TG: How has your lifestyle changed since leaving RM Auctions?

MG: My life has changed for the better. I have small children at home and now I can spend a lot more time with them. I have a one-year-old and three-and-half year-old and my wife has a fourteen-year-old. I was on the way back form the Arizona sale and I missed my sons third birthday. I thought to myself, my son’s birthday has to be more important. Its just about finding a balance that you can be happy with. My father regretted not being around more when I was younger. Its funny what you learn when someone is gone.

TG: Let’s talk about the future of the collector car business. Will cars from the brass era and 30’s become less desirable as that era passes on?   What is happening to modern classics? I’ve never heard anyone say “come for a ride in my Countach it’s a great car to drive!”  Yet Countach’s are on fire after being virtually dead money for decades. Late model supercars and certain 80’s cars like the BMW E30 M3 have gone parabolic. Is this all simply demographics? What is really happening to the market for modern classics and even cars that have high production stats?

MG: You have to have the best example with the right mileage. The difference between the best and the rest will continue to widen. The spread between a Piccadilly roadster and a Hooper bodied Rolls Royce Phantom II saloon will grow. Demographics and fashion are driving the modern classic movement. There are a lot of younger people who can afford to buy these cars. As long as people are making money they will want to spend money on cars. As people get older many tend to gravitate towards the pre-war cars or the older cars and many begin to like them for different reasons. They grow on you because of their history and design—they are not just about performance.

TG: Is the collector car market simply catching up after 1989/90 doldrums? Or is central bank behavior playing a role in creating rising prices? Some feel QE and low rates are inflating hard asset prices like modern art and vintage cars.  Are higher prices moving us into a market where buyers are far more discerning about quality?

MG: Quantitative easing and low rates helps. Its not the determining factor, but it helps. Somebody who likes cars may buy more cars, but there are many other assets to choose from. Somebody who has two cars may buy a third and that can make a huge difference in the market. But increasingly buyers are discerning and quality counts.

TG: The driverless car may be here sooner than we (or the markets) think. Tesla just announced they are equipping all cars with technology that could provide 100% driverless capabilities in the future. In America, almost 40,000 people a year are killed in automobile accidents. The consequences of autonomous driving for DWI and mobility for the elderly are profound. Moore’s law makes you wonder if 10 years could be a reality for a major social change in the way we think about cars?

MG: Yes. It’s going to happen. I don’t know the timetable but the elements are in place for major changes in the way we use modern automobiles. 

TG: Can you imagine a day when we are relegated to driving our antique cars in a closed environment?  Between driverless cars and increasing pressure to reduce carbon emissions, could fossil fuel burning classic cars be outlawed in our lifetime?

MG: It may happen, but I don’t think cars will ever be banned entirely. There may become more difficult to use, however, I don’t think it will ever be completely outlawed. I can’t imagine they would just turn them off forever. There is too much history.

TG: Do you think curated business models like Bring-a-Trailer and auction sites like eBay pose a threat to big high-end location based auctions? Barrett-Jackson has made a lifestyle event of car auctions, both in person and on TV. But the costs and logistics of these types of events are staggering and it adds mightily to the frictional cost of a transaction. There also seem to be just too many auctions today. How do you see the nature of the way business is conducted changing as this industry becomes more mature and more sophisticated? Will these major auctions go the way of the Dodo bird save for Pebble Beach and big prestigious venues like Amelia Island? What impact will the modern Internet and mobile applications have on collector car auctions and sales looking out five or ten years?

MG: I think the modern internet will make a huge difference to the market—especially for the lower end of the market. But I think for our market it’s a completely different level of knowledge and the numbers are so much bigger. Its really almost two different markets.

 TG: Do you think the current collector car market trends are sustainable?  Obviously, very serious rare cars of the likes you deal with will always have a solid bid, however, we have recently had a pullback or at least a leveling off of many values. Recently 1980’s Ferrari Testarossa’s that only a few years ago were $50,000 are now catching a solid six-figure bid. Dino’s went parabolic after a long deep slumber. It seems even mass produced Ferraris are riding the rising tide of the Prancing Horse Craze. I recently looked at old 1975 issue of Road and Track magazine and browsed the classifieds. Certain rare Ferrari’s were listed for $15,500 back then. Now these same cars trade for multiple millions, some in the tens of millions or more. Are special Ferraris becoming timeless art like a Van Gogh or a Warhol?

MG: Vintage Ferraris are more than simply cars. People collect them because they are works of art. It’s also the race history and the intrigue around Enzo. The best of the best will always get an increasing bid over time. The Ferrari trend is vindication that rare automobiles are increasingly becoming investment-grade assets.

 TG: Will you become a subscriber to Turtle Garage?

 MG: You bet, I look forward to joining. 

TG: Thank you!

Max Girardo

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