It is said that there are, now, more GTOs and split window Corvettes than ever left the factory new. Many have been fabricated from modified versions of less expensive but very similar models. This fact matters to a lesser degree when looking for a good driver and paying a good driver price. However, when authenticity and factual accuracy factor in as concerns for rarity, desirability and price, then, “provenance” becomes a major issue. Provenance describes the documentation of the history of ownership and authenticity of a valued object such as an automobile. Needless to say provenance determines in large part both the asking and selling price of a premium collectible automobile. It goes without saying the higher the price the more provenance becomes a factor.
To understand the many challenges in establishing provenance and the significance of making an accurate determination of provenance, Drivin’ News spoke with provenance expert Mr. Jeff Murray of Vintage Car Research, LLC.
Provenance – Uncovering your car’s backstory
What to do upon retirement often poses a significant challenge if facing 6-hours of golf a day for the rest of your life does not set your heart aflutter. When retiring as an attorney and college professor, Jeff Murray looked around his office and faced a library of vintage car books that he had started collecting in 1959. The bulb lit in his classic car filled brain and illuminated the idea for a company that would research classic car provenance. Thus was born Vintage Car Research, LLC. Its purpose would be to research the history of a rare vintage automobile for a client considering purchasing that automobile. In the subsequent 18-years Jeff’s idea has blossomed into both a profitable enterprise and a pursuit that affords him great satisfaction from working in a field built around a personal passion.
Jeff’s research sends him far and wide to pursue the many facets of his provenance research. His research covers identifying original production specifications, title searching, identifying true ownership, determining clear and clean title, possibility of a car being stolen, tracking down a previous owner and finding research material.
Jeff prefaces all his comments on the value of provenance research with this mantra for when buying a vintage car: Ready – Set – Aim – Fire. He bemoans that he has many customers who follow a different sequence. He says, “Ready, set, fire.” He references one gentleman who spent $200,000 on a Mid-sixties Corvette. Jeff says, “Never checked the provenance. He shows up at a Corvette show to have it judged. They showed him proof of its inauthenticity.”
Jeff points out another example. He says, A fellow brought me a Porsche supposedly worth $500,000. Car was a fake.” It had been entirely assembled from parts. It looked good but failed scrutiny. From this experience Jeff points out a very interesting feature about Serial numbers. He notes that whoever stamped the engine number used a proper number but used the wrong type font.
While on the subject of inauthentic serial numbers, Jeff identifies one of his most valuable resources on this topic to be firearms examiners. Jeff says one expert told him, “If a serial number is ground down you can always find the original.” The expert said, “It is not rocket science. Stamping reorganizes the molecules, and there’s always some evidence of the original stamping.”
In this case the firearms examiner came with his tools to inspect a 1969 Model Year vehicle. The inspector’s assessment was that the stamping was done the week before.
Jeff notes that Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN#) offer access to a mother lode of vehicle-specific data. Starting with the 1981 Model Year every new car in the world has a 17-digit VIN number.
Jeff says, “If you’re interested in buying a car, Google the four letters N-I-C-B.” It stands for the National Insurance Crime Bureau. There will be a place to enter the VIN number for the NICB VINCheck.” Jeff says, “Double check to make you’re your copied the VIN number correctly.” VINCheck is a free lookup service provided to the public to assist in determining if a vehicle has been reported as stolen, but not recovered, or has been reported as a salvage vehicle by participating NICB member insurance companies. As an additional benefit NICB sells a CDROM showing the location of VIN numbers for every car from 1937 to 2011. Jeff says, “It is $100 and includes a VIN# decoder.”
Another source providing title data may be found on the National Motor Vehicle Titling System www.vehicle history.gov/. This site offers several research services. Jeff uses InstaVIN. Examples of other valuable sources include the Corvette C1 registry (www.c1registry.com) or the XK Jaguar registry (www.xkdata.com) or the Porsche 356 registry (www.porsche356registry.org/). Many marques have similar registries.
Another rich resource for important vehicle information is what Jeff calls “The keeper of the flame. There is always somebody out there who knows a lot about the car you are researching. Almost every marque has one. Check with the specific marque club to find him or her.” That person keeps the interest in the vehicle alive. He keeps records. He will be pleased to answer the phone to satisfy a question about the vehicle that ignites his passion.
According to Jeff, “Don’t screw around with car titles.” A car title is one of the most important documents because it is the legal form that formally makes you the owner of your vehicle. You receive a title whether you buy a new or used vehicle from a dealer or a private citizen. Jeff says, “When you buy a car you want the title. No title, No deal.”
A title will provide information such as identifying information for the vehicle such as the VIN number, make, model, and year. It will also provide technical information, such as the gross weight and the owner’s name and address.
Jeff says, “Clear title and clean title identify two very important descriptors when buying a car. A clean title means a car does not have a salvage title. A clear title means that the car has no liens or outstanding bank loans.
Jeff provided an example of the importance of knowing what title you are getting. Jeff described a call from a French investor. He has just bought a confirmed authentic 427 Cobra. It is crated up and ready to be shipped back to his home in France. The buyer tells Jeff he wants to confirm that the title is both clear and clean. Jeff says, “I checked very quickly by going to www.cscglobal.com/service/cls/ucc-search to check for liens in all 50 states.” For a small fee Jeff found out that the selling owner still owed $500,000 on the car. The buyer froze the deal until the lien was satisfied.
Finding and vetting people represents a challenge that often must be faced in researching a car. Jeff recommends a low cost system called Whitepages premium. They provide the current address, past addresses, land lines, mobile numbers and the person’s age. They can also do a reverse number search. He also recommends ancestry.com and in the UK genealogy.com.
If you suspect that the party you seek has passed away www.stevemorse.or/ssdi/ssdi/html offers, free, the Social Security Death Index. The index does not list a person until three years after their death.
Of equal or even greater value comes with vetting people with whom you may do business. Said another way, how can you prevent doing business with a felon? Jeff suggests www.searchsystems.net/springapp/premium as a source. However Jeff strongly recommends leaving this task to professionals. He says, “A good attorney is the best choice.”
Lastly Jeff finds rare books a priceless resource for which he does not wish to pay the price. He therefore recommends a resource called www.worldcat.com. To use, simply enter the book title in the search bar and up will come addresses of libraries having that book starting with the one closest to you. If the book resides in a far away library Jeff suggests calling the librarian and ask if they could do the research for you. Jeff has found librarians to be extraordinarily willing to assist.
So remember when buying a classic car – Ready, Set, Aim, Fire – and you will be far less likely to shoot yourself in the foot.