“Looks like I’m buying dinner tonight!” Steve Serio grins broadly as his friends slap his back and give him fist bumps.

Across a wide, white tent in dusty Scottsdale, Ariz., a round of applause breaks out in approval. The Boston-based car dealer has just sold his 1958 Mercedes-Benz 220 S Cabriolet for $140,000, beating the estimate that auction house Gooding & Co. had set for the silver droptop to fetch that day.

“It was touch-and-go for a minute there,” Serio says, nodding to a thumbs-up proffered from a buddy across the room. Bidding had stalled momentarily at $100,000, but the irascible British auctioneer up front, Charlie Ross, wouldn’t stand for it. Ross prodded, teased, scolded, and charmed the crowd until bidding regained momentum and sent the price on the screen to $115,000 and then on higher. At that point, Serio knew he had at least broken even. Anything more would be cake.

Behind The Curtain
Welcome to Day Three of the Scottsdale Auctions, an annual event held for the past three decades. It’s the unofficial first stop on the premier car-collecting circuit, a route that runs through the Retromobile show in Paris, the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, Monterey Car Week, and the Villa d’Este Concours d’Elegance on Lake Como, just outside Milan.

And Steve Serio, with an entry-level Jeep rented for the occasion, an understated wristwatch, and a genial but reserved manner, is there to work.

Serio is among the top tier of an elite underground network of consultants and experts who operate behind the scenes to buy and sell most of the world’s blue-chip vehicles. Their black books contain the contact details of African billionaires and Swiss banking scions looking to build entire car collections. Lunchtime table banter with this group can turn surreal: “He wanted to give me $300 million for a five-year play, but I told him that’s crazy—let’s start with $30 million for now. That will build a great collection.” 

Their phones buzz morning, noon, and night with calls from real estate barons searching for a fifth ultra-rare racing Ferrari to buy or media-shy entertainers looking to sell their seven-figure “plastic” Porsches, a nickname for the very lightweight, very low and slim Porsche race cars from the late 1960s. Pop stars tap them to dispense of Alfa Romeos once they have lost the blush of novelty. Collectors too famous to attend public auctions without causing a scene use them as hired guns to secure the sale of a coveted machine. Pharmaceutical industry titans with neither the time nor the patience—nor, says Serio, the self-control—to bid on classics themselves call on them to do it instead.

For the inside hook on prewar American cars, try Mark Hyman in St. Louis. If you prefer coach-built prewar and touring cars—Alfa Romeos from the 1950s to the ‘70s, or, say, unusual Italian cars currently being stored in Japan—ask Serio’s colleague, Peter Brotman.

But if rare European exotics are your thing, the 60-year-old Serio leads the ranks. He’s gone from an automotive dealership owner (Bugatti, Saleen, Lotus, Aston Martin, among others) to independent consultant. Outside Scottsdale, he is most likely found on his back in a dusty barn in Germany inspecting rust on the chassis of an old Porsche or kicking Bizzarrini tires in a climate-controlled collection in Italy on behalf of his exceedingly discrete, even secretive, clients.  

“I’m a chameleon,” says Serio, who at one point or another seems to have worked deeply in even the most obscure makes and marques. “I’ll move as fast as I can into [a potential] market, if I can identify it.”

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