The auctioneer in the bespoke blue suit and bright green tie peered over his horn-rimmed eyeglasses and stared at a man in the front row.
"Are you waving at me, sir, or bidding on a Jaguar?"
Returning to his audience, at one of the most highly anticipated automobile auctions at this year's Monterey Car Week, he chastised a reluctant bidder: "Are you asking your wife, sir? Not a good idea." To a third player, who'd just been outbid and was pained to go higher, he admonished: "If it was easy, we'd all be driving Ferraris, wouldn't we?"
The jest drove up the bidding. Seconds later, certain he could do no better, he rapped his gavel on the lectern and, smiling broadly and clapping, said to the winner,at $462,000, "Sold! Congratulations! Well done! Your car!"
Meet Max Girardo, lead auctioneer for RM Sotheby's, whose reputation at Car Week has grown along with the increasing importance of its automotive auctions.
Once looked down upon as the slightly tacky mercantile counterpart to the stately Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, where classic and historic vehicles compete for prizes and honorable mentions, they now draw big crowds and produce big revenue.
The three auction houses that moved just $50 million worth of collectible cars in 2000 have blossomed into eight, selling more than $430 million worth in 2014, according to the classic vehicle insurance company Hagerty. They are expected to sell almost that much again this year.
"This is the mecca," said Dana Mecum, owner of the car and motorcycle auction company that bears his name. "It's a wealthier weekend than anyone in our industry sees all year long."
Of the men and women auctioning off vehicles on the Monterey Peninsula, none is more colorful or effective than Girardo. By turns worldly, winsome, cheeky and coy, he is multilingual with a dry wit and a clipped British syntax, moving cars more entertainingly than his competitors.
The RM auction in Monterey was listed as the most popular event of the entire car week in a 2014 poll by the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau — even more popular with more people than the famed Concours.
"He's a very unique auctioneer, and he has a huge impact on the bottom line," said Hagerty's Jonathan Klinger.
"He has an amazing rapport with the audience," said Larry Edsell, editorial director of the online publication ClassicCars.com. "He can say things to these very wealthy people who you'd think would storm right out of the room. But they don't."
Girardo was born in Austria to an Italian family that moved frequently, the son of a man who loved racing. Growing up in Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Hong Kong, he settled finally in Switzerland, where he studied at the International School of Geneva and the University of Geneva.
Speaking Italian at home, but educated at English-speaking schools, Girardo picked up French in Switzerland and studied Spanish at school.
Though he eschews the "homina-homina-homina" patter known in auctioneering as "the chant," the puckish Girardo entertains bids in all four languages from the auction floor, over the telephone and via the Internet.
He also knows cars. The British resident keeps a collection of Italian rally cars in partnership with his father at the family home in Turin, Italy, and considers himself a capable driver and racer — a passion that may be genetic.
Girardo notes that his toddler son already seems obsessed with cars. His auctioneering, he insists, is just his weekend job. When he's not waving a gavel, he's visiting car collectors, searching out undiscovered "barn finds," consigning vehicles and readying them for auction.
"I'm also a car specialist, which is an advantage for me when I'm making a sale," said Girardo, who lives in a Putney, London, home he shares with his photographer wife Veronica Lane and their two children."I know the cars. I know the market. I know the clients, so I can tell who in the crowd can take a joke — or who wouldn't appreciate it."
At the auction, the cars come and go quickly and the patter gets personal.
"Don't be so sad!" he chided a bidder at one of last year's events. "You're spending half a million dollars!" To another he called, "Cheer up! You're buying a Ferrari!"
As Girardo explains it, the approach reflects his philosophy on wealth.
"I think if you're going to spend a lot of money, you ought to have fun," he said. "Of course it's a business, and it's a lot of money. But it shouldn't be a drag to spend your hard-earned cash buying a new toy, should it?"
Girardo confessed to "a lot of sleepless nights" and "an awful case of butterflies" before each auction.
"You have this team of 50 people who have spent the last six months working very, very hard, and the outcome revolves around the four or five hours that I'm up there," he said. "I have a responsibility to the team, and to the people who've consigned their cars."
RM Sotheby's will auction 150 vehicles this year, over the course of three evenings, in a ballroom at downtown Monterey's Portola Hotel and Spa. For each successful sale, the company will collect 10% of the "hammer price" from the buyer and typically an additional 10% from the seller. In 2014, the company beat the competition and set a record for car collector auctions with a weeklong total of $143.4 million — topping its own record from the previous year.
Last year's top RM Sotheby's car was a 1964 Ferrari 275 GTB/C Speciale, which sold for $26.4 million. (Competing house Bonhams sold a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO for just over $38 million — a world record for a car sold at auction.)
Girardo's pace didn't slow this year. The first night of this Car Week's bidding, he passed the gavel over a total of $67 million worth of cars — a record for a single-day private collection sale — including $17.6 million for a 1964 Ferrari 250 LM racing car and $6 million for a 2005 Ferrari Enzo once owned by Pope John Paul II.
At any given time, Girardo said, he will be first-name familiar with a third to a half of the 1,000 or more people crowding into the auction room, about 80% of whom will have paid $300 for a bidder's pass.
"When it comes to the really valuable cars, I have a pretty good idea who the bidders will be," he said.
The auctioneer understands not everyone will be happy when the bidding is done. After the gavel falls, he said, he might hear complaints from both sides.
"They'll say I was too quick, or I wasn't quick enough, or the increments were too big or too small, or I started too low, or I started too high," Girardo said. "I usually don't think I made a mistake, but it's not a science."
A short time before this year's first auction began, rubbing a hand over what he called his "carefully cultivated stubble," Girardo said his preparation for the bidding includes an hour of "quiet time" and ample hydration — but in the right amount, and at the right time: "The last thing you want is to get 30 minutes into an auction and have to go to the loo."
An hour later, he had warmed up the 1,200 bidders and spectators crowded into the Portola ballroom, and he seemed to be enjoying himself.
"Have a think and take your time!" he said to a bidder in the front of the room. "But I am selling the car, make absolutely no mistake about it! It is going for the first time! It is going for the second time! You will look so sad without a Ferrari in your garage, sir."
The ploy worked. The gentleman raised his hand. The price shot up and drew more bids. Two minutes and $2 million later, Girardo brought the gavel down.
"Sold!" he called out as the audience began to applaud. "Well done, sir! Congratulations! Your car!"