Young buyers increase demand for vintage wooden boats – Robb Report
The classic boat market has seen a shift in recent years, with many seasoned owners selling prized mahogany vessels as an influx of first-time buyers enters the market. “It’s not so much about getting older as it is about changing age,” says Herb Hall, president of Sierra Boat Company, a second-generation sales and restoration center on Lake Tahoe. “What we’re seeing is a younger, more affluent buyer who wants really premium products.”
Like classic car connoisseurs, vintage boat collectors tend to focus on specific time periods, seeking out the most iconic models from favorite decades. “We’ve found that the ‘age window’ is around 30 years,” says Dave Bortner, owner of Freedom Boat Service in Mayer, Minnesota, the Midwest’s largest classic boat dealer and restorer. “If someone in their twenties wanted a wooden boat like their father or grandfather, it took them about 30 years before they could afford it.”
The market was flat, then changed drastically around 2009. “After the recession, owners were selling off their collections, and these fabulous big boats were becoming things that people weren’t interested in anymore,” says Bortner. Desire evolved from the triple cockpit boats of the 1920s and 1930s from Chris-Craft, Gar Wood and Hacker-Craft – all in high demand in the 1990s and early 2000s – to the runabouts of the 1940s to 1960s.
But interest has skyrocketed again during the pandemic as people have started working remotely, often from second homes. “This created an unprecedented demand for vintage boats as a corollary to the lake house,” says Bortner. “People from [age] 40 to 60 who had always wanted one started buying them.
The Antique and Classic Boat Society (ACBS), the organization of 6,000 owners with 53 chapters in North America and France, saw 500 new members join its ranks last year. And yet, with the exception of the highest echelons of products such as historical one-offs or out-of-stock iconic models including the Riva Aquarama, prices for classic boats have generally remained stable and many models remain available.
That’s the good news, in a way. Any upfront price can be misleading, as owners can expect to pay an average of 10% of the cost of the boat per year for maintenance, varnishing and storage. And if a restoration is necessary, expect to spend a lot of money. “I warn buyers that it may require an investment that is approximately double the market value after restoration,” says Bortner. “It’s better to be the first in line after the one who restored it.”
And according to Alan Weinstein, owner of Riva Guru in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, those restoration prices are skyrocketing, especially for prized collectibles. “In 2006, refurbishing an Aquarama cost around $50,000,” he says. “Now with the cost of labor, we’re looking at almost $40,000 just to take the material off and sand it down.”
Amidst these rising secondary costs, there is another shift afoot, with prolific collectors giving way to owners with perhaps a single prized wooden boat but spending huge sums to keep it in pristine condition. “Twenty years ago you saw people buying them like they were out of fashion,” says Rob Lyons, president of ACBS. “Now most people want one that’s cool.” Also, there is now less of an emotional connection to the wood. “It moves away from the generational bond and has more to do with nostalgia,” according to Lyons. “People see them as works of art.”
And, as with art, historic preservation is key for some owners. “When we bought the boats, we thought we were restoring great craftsmanship,” says Steve Luczo, owner of two Aquarama models on Lake Iseo in Italy. “It was always part of the plan for the children to inherit the boats. We taught them, “You don’t collect to accumulate things, but because it’s a preservation business. ”
Or maybe there’s just something about woodies. Bruce Paddock, who bought his first Riva Aquarama in 2009, recalls going to a waterfront restaurant near his home on Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota, and seeing diners flocking outside to remain speechless. “You don’t often see such distinctive mahogany vessels,” he says. “Even people who don’t know boats have said, ‘This is the most beautiful boat I’ve ever seen.’ There’s something they instinctively love about design.