The preened feathers of the inscrutable collector car community were perceptibly ruffled yesterday when Pulitzer Prize winning automotive writer and Wall Street Journal columnist Dan Neil reported on the private sale of one of the most desirable collector cars of all time, a Bugatti Atlantic. Over the past few weeks, Santa Monica-based auction house Gooding & Company carefully endeavored to engineer a sale that would publicly offer little in the way of concrete details, tiptoeing a typically sensitive tightrope of client confidentiality. Given the fact that the Bugatti Atlantic (pronounced ott-lonn-TEEK) has perennially been regarded among the world’s most valuable cars, maintaining such secrecy proved to be no small task. Unfortunately, the delicate discretion that Gooding strove to maintain was ultimately undone, in all likelihood by the close knit and social nature of the wealthiest car collectors, one of whom probably leaked the information to Neil.
The car in question is a Pebble Beach-winning 1936 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic that was the crown jewel of the esteemed collection of Dr. Peter Williamson. Since Williamson’s death in 2008, his estate has pared the collection, notably consigning twelve of his Bugattis for sale at Gooding’s 2008 Pebble Beach auction. In addition to bearing the Bugatti nameplate and its requisite excellence in engineering, and being built on the celebrated Type 57 chassis, the most popular of Bugatti models, the Atlantic is prized for its rarity and unusual aerodynamic design. Only three production versions were ever manufactured (the other two are today owned by Ralph Lauren and Jay Leno). Atlantic examples change hands so infrequently that it is next to impossible to gauge their true market value. Williamson reportedly bought his in 1971 for $59,000. Neil and other experts estimate that last week’s sale of the same car garnered $30 to $40 million, a figure that could easily be accurate, though it’s unlikely that a source with firsthand knowledge would ever confirm it. To offer a quick point of comparison, the most expensive car ever purchased at public auction was a 1957 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa that sold for $12,156,252 in May 2009. Private sales, though perhaps significantly higher, are not a matter of public record.
Beyond bruised egos and spoiled confidentiality, however, the real gaffe of Neil’s blog lay in his assertion that the Atlantic was purchased by the Mullin Automotive Museum, a recently opened, Art Deco-themed facility in Oxnard, California that specializes in prewar French cars, and was the subject of this blog last week. Mullin Museum curator Andrew Reilly denies that his institution has acquired the Williamson Atlantic, but clarified in a damage-control letter to the museum’s pr representative that the car’s new owner did approach the museum about the possibility of offering the Bugatti for temporary exhibition. Reilly theorizes that somehow this conversation was relayed and misconstrued to lead Neil to conclude that the Mullin Museum is the Atlantic’s actual owner. Regardless of how Neil came to his erroneous conclusion, one thing is almost certain. If the new owner is not museum founder Peter Mullin, it’s likely to be someone on his speed dial, as the list of car collecting millionaires willing to drop such a figure on a prewar French car could be counted on one hand.