King of Collectible Cars
Sandra Ann Harris
San Francisco Examiner
Blackhawk’s broker is world’s No. 1 matchmaker of rare autos, wealthy buyers
Sam was on the telephone form New Jersey. A longtime friend and client of Don Williams, he was looking for a car. A very particular car: The 1929 Duesenberg J Graber Convertible Victoria.
Only one was ever made, and Williams, a high roller in the international collector car market, had sold if for an undisclosed millions about d decade before to his friend Erik in Switzerland. Before that, casino magnate Bill Harrah had owned it.
‘(Sam) said he would be interested in buying that car if it ever became available,” Williams recalled, describing the classic coach as a chestnut brown, soft-top, convertible sedan with burnt orange trim.
It was just after 6 a.m. Williams’ showroom, the Blackhawk Collection, was still closed. The morning light had just started to dance among a dozen or so luminous antique collectibles parked inside.
Williams, 50, a gregarious man who has been selling one-of-kind cars for 20 years, has made Blackhawk a global center for the multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry.
Arab kings, Hollywood celebrities, European royalty ands wealthy business people from Tokyo, Mexico City, Paris, London, and even Jersey City – all turn to Williams when a hard-to-find collectible car strikes their fancy. Every year, he makes at least a few hundred such deals, linking up far-flung buyers and sellers.
While there are perhaps 10 other such brokers around the world, “Don is probably the premier international collector broker,” says automotive historian and Pennsylvania-based author Dennis Adler. “In every country where they collect cars, they Know Don Williams.”
Williams, an early riser, was wasting no time working the phone this morning to forge international connections. In this case, Williams knew well the car his friend wanted. Hanging up with Sam in New Jersey, Williams immediately dialed the owner, Erik, in Bern, Switzerland. (William’s won’t reveal his high-rolling customers’ full names.)
“So, I asked Erik, ‘Would you be interested in selling the Graber Duesenberg?’ He says yes.
“His building was the original Graber factory (a renowned Swiss coach builder). I thought he was going to keep it. But he’d had it long enough, I guess, the nostalgia was gone.”
Williams promised Erik he’d try to seal the deal by day’s end. Immediately, he was back on the phone with Sam.
“He tried to negotiate,” Williams recalled, ruefully, shrugging. “I said no. I said, ‘If you know Erik, that’s the price. He doesn’t care if he sells it. He doesn’t need the money.’ Well, Sam doesn’t either. But it was a fair price. Sam knew how much Erik had paid for it in 1987, so he wasn’t asking for a large profit or anything.”
So the deal was done. The price tag? That’s a private matter, Williams says, smiling broadly.
At least for the moment, that is. The tiny fraternity of the world’s richest people who fuel the trading of collectible cars guard sales prices and other information closely, but inevitably the word makes its way along the grapevine.
“It’s like a little old sewing circle,” Williams says.
This year alone, Williams has reportedly sold more than a dozen Duesenbergs, each worth more than a $1 million, industry sources said. One sale, of a Bugatti Royale, went for $10 million.
“He’s into the real big bucks cars,” says Jonathan Stein, editor of Automobile Quarterly, considered the bible of the industry. “Mere mortals don’t buy cars like this.”
Williams, who describes himself as “addicted” to rare and classic cars (he drives a 1990 Mercedes himself), has been in the business for two decades. He made his name in Los Angeles selling rare cars to Hollywood stars, then moved to Contra Costa County in the early 1980’s to help Ken Behring establish the Behring Automobile Museum. The Museum in Blackhawk, showcases developer and sports team owner Behring’s personal car collection.
“That was really the start of his career in this industry,” said Adler. “I’d say over the last 15 years, he has become one of the rare people in the world that you can call up any day and say, ‘Hey, Don, what’s this worth?’ and he’ll know within 10 seconds or he’ll find out within 10 minutes,” Adler says.
These days Williams still works with Behring on special projects but his Blackhawk Collection operates independently of the museum. Each year, he sells more than 200 collectible automobiles, personally buying and selling about 50 percent of the cars and brokering the rest of the deals. Prices range from tens of thousands of dollars into the millions.
In Williams’ office, a shelf of Automobile Quarterly bound issues dating back a quarter-century are testimony to his long history in the business. A row of silver paper clips marking their pages, each clip representing a classic car that Williams has sold.
Among them: the 1924 Hispano-Suiza Torpedo by Nieuport; the 1926 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A S. Roadster by Fleetwood commissioned by Rudolph Valentino; the 1920 Packard twin-Six Town Car commissioned by the Atwater Kent family.
“All the great cars of the world have been featured in there at some time or another,” Williams says, his startling blue eyes lighting up as he flips through the glossy pages.
While Williams’ cars may look pretentious and their price tags are certainly standoffish, the trim, chain-smoking man behind the shiny carriages and immaculate interiors is anything but pompous. The elementary questions of a novice car aficionado visiting his marble and mirrored showroom are answered patiently, his near-manic enthusiasm for his cars coming through.
Like a detective, Williams has tracked down rare automobiles hidden away in places as varied as a run-down underground garage in London, a small village on the French Riviera and a ranch in Plainview, Texas.
“I love the cars, I love to chase them, I love getting them back,” Williams said. “It’s like having an old girlfriend come back. It’s exciting. I don’t know of anyone who has ever retired from my business. They fade away and they die. But they never retire.”
“When I look back someday and I can say I’ve touched every great car, then I will feel that I’ve accomplished what my goal was when I was real young,” he says.
But always tempering his enthusiasm is discretion. He will talk at length about the cars he has sold, but when it comes to his clients, his lips are sealed.
‘My customers don’t want their names used,” he explains. It’s very high financing.”
For instance, he says, the businessman who’s “shrinking” his company doesn’t want the word to leak out about his newest toy as he hands out pink slips.
“So, you just went out and bought a car for a million dollars and you’re telling a person I can’t afford you?” Williams said. “It wouldn’t look good.”