Tanks for the memories: Historic collection of military might auctioned for more than $10 million

By BRUCE NEWMAN | San Jose Mercury News | Published: July 13, 2014

PORTOLA VALLEY -- The blistering barrage began shortly before midday, and didn't let up for more than five hours. One by one, a 73-ton British Conqueror tank, a 41-foot Scud missile launcher and a by-God American Patton tank were picked off by bidders with itchy trigger fingers, firing wads of cash like mortar rounds during the weekend auction of the world's largest collection of military vehicles.

When the smoke and personal checks cleared, the collection that Jacques Littlefield spent nearly half his life assembling at his 450-acre Pony Tracks Ranch was sold for $10.24 million, a little more than enough to pay for a 66,000 square foot museum that will house nearly 80 of Littlefield's finest olive drab toys in Stow, Mass. Bids came from 37 states, 10 countries and no terrorist groups, as far as anyone could tell.

The auction's big prize was an 8-ton half-track personnel carrier, which sold for $1.2 million to someone bidding anonymously by phone. So if the Google bus rumbles through San Francisco this week with a distinctly Battle of the Bulge vibe, don't be surprised.

There were several spirited skirmishes over rare pieces, and the collection's curator since Littlefield's death in 2009 pronounced himself "quite pleased" with the outcome. "The results did fall short of the auction house estimates," said Bill Boller, CEO of the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation, which was donating both equipment and money to the Collings Foundation's planned museum, "but exceeded our private plan quite nicely.

An M3A1 Stuart tank was bid up to $155,000 by John Rich, who came from Pennsylvania for the auction, and Julianne Fox of Los Altos Hills. "So, now we own a tank," Rich said, turning to her. Fox gave a little laugh, then said they were most interested in American-made armored rolling stock, and might someday add military aircraft to their collection. "John and I both fly," she said, then went back to her shopping list. Later, she and Rich also bought a 105 mm Howitzer Motor Carriage for $170,000, a steal at that price.

Little land

A number of items sold for significantly less than the estimated value assigned by the auction house, including an AMX 13 Light Tank with an estimated value ranging from $75,000 to $125,000 that sold for just $23,000. The bargain bid was made by Jim Gagliardi of Fresno, who owns a used Caterpillar equipment company. "I just want to drive 'em around the ranch and mess around," Gagliardi said. "Then we'll park 'em on the highway in front of my business to attract attention."

For two days, an auctioneer's tongue fluttered over the bid prices like a rough idling Humvee engine, calling out dollar amounts bid and asked in a rapid fire sing-song. During the sale of a self-propelled 105 mm Howitzer, the auctioneer turned to one bidder who seemed unsure of himself. "You know, sir, if you're having problems with your neighbor, you park this in your driveway, he won't bother you anymore."

Squadrons of black flies buzzed around bidders' heads in the tent. If you weren't careful how you swatted them, you might find yourself accidentally buying an M16 Multiple Gun Motor Carriage Anti-Aircraft Half-Track. That bad boy sold for well over its suggested price at $175,000.

A Sherman tank used by the Israeli army sold for $255,000 to Damon Becnel of Destin, Fla. Not previously a collector of military hardware, Becnel seemed surprised when he was asked where would put his new 38-ton prize. "I haven't thought about that yet," he said. "We've got some land outside of town." A thousand acres to be precise, where he said he planned to learn to drive it. Asked if he would be allowed under state law to fire the tank's cannon in Florida, he deadpanned, "No comment. But I'm friends with the local law enforcement around there, so it's not a problem."

"Silly money"

A 203-millimeter Soviet-built Pion cannon, one of the largest mobile guns in the world, went to a buyer representing the Australian Armored and Artillery Museum. "Size doesn't matter, mate!" roared Rod Bellars, after paying just $1,000 for every 2.54 millimeters of muzzle. "That's going to be a real hoot at Australian border security going to, isn't it? I was actually wishing I didn't win it because it's going to be a nightmare to ship."

Over the auctioneer's Gatling growl, Bellars affirmed that some people shouldn't bring a knife -- or a cashier's check -- to a gunfight. He mentioned a certain half-track. "That went for double what you could buy it from a collector for," he said. "Every auction has silly money." This weekend, in the bidding war to end all wars, some of it was aimed at Littlefield's living legacy.


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