Last month’s Legal Files suggested that there are epidemic proportions of “matching-numbers” Corvettes (and other cars) that really aren’t matching-numbers cars.
That attracted a lot of attention and comments, but what people say is not as important as what they don’t say. No one said the suggestion was sometimes wrong.
First, let’s put “matching numbers” into perspective. Say we have a 1965 Pontiac LeMans with a 4-speed transmission. We source a correct 1965 Pontiac 389-ci GTO motor, a Tri-Power setup, and all the necessary body parts, trim and badges — all of which were readily available from the factory — and “convert” our LeMans into a GTO.
If you park the clone GTO next to an identical real GTO, would anyone be able to tell them apart without tracing numbers? Would the clone drive or perform any differently than the real GTO? Would there be any difference between the two from any physical perspective?
Assuming we did a good job on the conversion, the answers to all of those questions would be no. So, it is fair to say that the value difference has nothing to do with which parts are on the car, but depends entirely on who put them on the car. If it was anyone other than the factory on initial build, appraisers will tell us that the value difference is about 60%.
That creates plenty of financial incentive to make numbers match. That very real possibility makes it imperative for buyers to be very sure that it was the factory that made the numbers match and not the seller. The question is, how do we go about doing that?
A new method of weeding out fakes
Every marque has well-known specialists (e.g., Kevin Marti, Galen Govier) who tell us whether a car is real or a fake. SCMer Jeff Murray contacted Legal Files to point out that his company, Vintage Car Research, LLC (www.vintagecarresearch.com) is a multi-marque alternative that approaches the project in a different way.
Murray is a retired New Hampshire attorney who started researching collector car provenance as a retirement business several years ago.
Murray starts with the current owner and talks to him about the car. He then works backwards through all the previous owners. He talks to each of them directly, gathering up all the documentary evidence he can — until he gets back to the first owner with no gaps in between. In the end, he compiles a comprehensive history of the provenance of the car, with copies of all available documentation.
Murray has developed techniques for spotting fakes. Some of his methods detect things such as improper number-stamping techniques, but there are also much less obvious details that are typical of factory build. Murray’s charges vary with the scope of the project, but the typical project range is $2,500–$3,000.
The elusive real cars
Murray agrees wholeheartedly that authenticity is hard to come by. He has been looking seriously for almost a year for an all-authentic 1963 Split-Window Corvette — to no avail.
He has examined many that were claimed to be “numbers-matching” that weren’t, and some were not even close. He came pretty close to buying a claimed “totally original,” multiple-award-winning car with a high price, but he concluded that the glass was non-original. His discoveries have greatly surprised many owners, who were simply unaware that their cars were not completely original.
Stolen cars and bad titles
Another seeming epidemic involves collector cars that turn out to be stolen. In recent months, our office has dealt with:
A 1962 Corvette that was determined to have been stolen decades ago, well before the current owner spent over $30,000 on restoration costs — not counting his own labor.
A rare 1973 Buick muscle car with similar restoration costs that was determined to have been stolen when it was being checked in for sale at one of the Scottsdale auctions.
A 1965 Chevrolet Impala stolen decades ago that turned up as a highly modified, totally restored Los Angeles lowrider car with full hydraulic suspension.
The “Legal Files” message has always been the same: You don’t get good title from a thief. The rightful owner gets the car, and everyone in between has to go back to his seller and get a refund.
All of these cars had seemingly valid certificates of title, leading readers to wonder just what can they do to protect themselves. Here’s a pretty good idea:
Tracking and finding stolen cars
The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) was started 102 years ago by the insurance industry to help their members recover stolen cars. NICB locates stolen cars and then reports them to their members, so they can recover them. They accomplish this in a variety of ways, including referrals from law-enforcement agencies that run across the cars and inspectors whom NICB places in Customs offices in ports around the country to check VINs on cars being exported. The effort is made possible by their extensive database.
Law-enforcement agencies report stolen cars to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC). The NCIC database is available to law enforcement agencies countrywide, but it is purged every five years or so. NICB imports the NCIC database into its database and then supplements it with reports of stolen and salvage-title claims from its insurance company members, who represent about 73% of the industry. Once entered into the NICB database, the information is permanent.
NICB offers a VINCheck function to the public on its website, www.nicb.org. Anyone can run up to five VINs per day through the program, free of charge.
NICB Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Roger Morris said this is the most complete database offered to the public.
“If it’s ever been in the NCIC, it’s in ours,” Morris said. “Plus, we have the salvage-title reports from our insurance companies, which are not available elsewhere.”
Archived data from the 1920s and 1930s is available on CDs, and NICB publishes a useful VIN manual that will tell you which VINs were assigned to which vehicles in which years.
Morris said VINCheck was started after Hurricane Katrina dumped a lot of waterlogged cars on the market. NICB became the easiest way to find out if an insurance company had totaled your dream used car because of water damage — only for the car to then be resold by an unscrupulous reseller who had washed the title to remove the salvage designation.
Morris was quite proud of their most visible law enforcement accomplishment. After the Oklahoma City bombing, law enforcement picked up pieces of the van used in the bombing, including a partial chassis plate that contained a partial VIN. After having that for a few hours, NICB reported back that the van was owned by Timothy McVeigh, and we all know the rest of the story.
Another Corvette lawsuit or two
Legal Files recently reported about the lawsuit involving the “Real McCoy” Corvette, where Domenico Idoni interrupted an auction by claiming that several of his parts had been unlawfully incorporated into the car (May 2014, “Legal Files,” p. 38). Idoni claimed that his business associate, John Baldwin, had stolen the parts from him and wrongfully used them in the restoration of the Real McCoy. Much of Idoni’s evidence had come from depositions in an unrelated lawsuit.
Legal Files has reviewed filings in that unrelated lawsuit, which turned out to be two separate lawsuits. It seems that Idoni had located the 1956/1957 “Motorama” Corvette and struck a deal with Baldwin that they would buy it, restore it, and resell it for profit. For some reason, the seller refused to perform, and Idoni and Baldwin sued him. The court ruled that they had a binding agreement and that the seller was obligated to sell them the car, which he subsequently did.
Later, Idoni and Baldwin had a falling out. Baldwin claims that he and Idoni did initially buy the car together, but Idoni failed to honor his financial obligations and thereby lost his interest.
Idoni claims that Baldwin was hiding the car from him and, when Idoni finally caught up with him, Baldwin claimed that he was just trying to hide it from his wife because he didn’t want to lose it in their divorce.
Baldwin claims that their deal is governed by a one-page “partnership agreement,” which requires that Idoni pay 50% of everything. Idoni claims that the written agreement is a forgery, pointing to the misspelling of his name in the typed portion.
Idoni claims that their oral agreement was that he would pay part of the acquisition and restoration costs as he was able, Baldwin would pay all the rest, and Baldwin would do all the restoration work. After they sold the Corvette, the money would reimburse them for their costs, and then they would split the rest 50-50.
Okay, my head is spinning, but I do think that is now four Corvette lawsuits involving Idoni. At least, that is all we know about. Someone like Idoni — but with a very big bank account — would be any trial lawyer’s dream client. ♦
John Draneas is an attorney in Oregon. His comments are general in nature and are not intended to substitute for consultation with an attorney. He can be reached through www.draneaslaw.com.