A rare, century-old Shell motor oil sign has sold for a whopping $88,000 – an Australian record – after an eagle-eyed auctioneer spotted the valuable treasure in a photo on an elderly farmer's mobile.
The yellow enamel ‘stick man’ sign, which was produced around 1925, was deemed highly collectable because it was in “perfect condition”, even after being stored in an old barn on a small acreage in rural Shepparton, Victoria, for almost half a century.
Victorian auctioneer Ashley Burns, from Burns and Co Auctions, sold the prized 12-foot by 6-foot (6m x 3m) sign on January 13 for $88,000, with a 16.5 per cent premium, bringing the total price to $103,000, after spotting it propped up in a photo. Its owner was completely oblivious to the value.
“George came into our auction room in Bayswater inquiring about selling a Holden motor vehicle that belonged to his brother," Burns told Yahoo Finance. “I said, ‘Do you have a picture?’”
As George - in his 70s - was flicking through his mobile to find the Holden, Burns spotted the Shell sign and said, “You know that’s worth between $50,000-$70,000?”
A stunned George replied: “Well, if it’s worth that much, you’d better come and pick it up.”
Burns said the Shell signs came in three parts and had often been subjected to “wear and tear”, including colour deterioration or missing sections, meaning collectors would have to “marry” the pieces together as they found them, usually through eBay, Gumtree, Facebook Marketplace, meet swaps or auctions.
“George’s three pieces were identical, they’d been kept together from the start,” Burns told Yahoo Finance. “The condition was great. It’s a gorgeous sign. We mounted it on timber. Behind the sign there was already a frame. It looked bloody awesome.”
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Burns said George had a second similar Shell sign but it had been displayed on the outside of the barn and had water damage, which devalued the collectable.
“George wasn’t there when I picked this up," Burns said. "So, I asked his wife, ‘How come no one’s come knocking on the door wanting to buy this?’ She said, ‘We’ve been here 50 years and we’ve never had anyone knock on the door’.”
Burns said the Shell stick man signs were also produced in a striking blue during the 1920s, but fewer were made in yellow, making them scarce and more valuable.
“There probably are others around in older people’s possession, like George’s sign,” he told Yahoo Finance. “They don’t know the value, particularly if they don't have access to the internet or social media like younger people. You almost need to trip over them to get them back into circulation.”
Burns, who has been an auctioneer for a decade, said the value of 'garagenalia' – memorabilia and relics related to the motor industry – had tripled in price in the past five to seven years, with the rise of the 'man cave' and during COVID lockdowns, when online auctions took off.
One such enthusiast is Tom Dalakidis, who collects memorabilia related to Golden Fleece, an Australian brand of petroleum products and servos that boomed over the post-war era as car ownership soared.
In the 1960s and ’70s, many Golden Fleece service stations were also turned into roadhouse-style outlets with restaurants and bold signage, the precursor to fast-food joints we know and love today.
When Golden Fleece was bought out by Caltex in the '80s, much of its paraphernalia – embossed with the golden merino emblem – was destroyed, meaning branded signs, oil bottles, canisters and petrol pumps fetch much higher prices at auction.
“It’s very hard to get these in decent quality,” Dalakidis told Yahoo Finance. “They used to throw them out the back, smash them up and throw them in the dumpster.
“That’s why it’s so expensive and pricey – the popularity and scarcity.”
While he has always loved cars, the Melbourne man said his interest in garagenalia started after an old school friend showed him his own collection, kept in his bedroom.
“I walked in there and I think I heard angels sing,” Dalakidis said with a laugh. “He had wall-to-wall collectibles. I thought, ‘This is what I want to do’.
“I went to my first swap meet in Bendigo and started buying a few items. It got a bit ridiculous,” he added, saying his collection now stood at around 400 pieces.
While garagenalia is sought after among enthusiasts, not every piece will be worth a fortune. Often the value comes down to its rarity and how well it's been preserved. Signs fetch the highest prices.
Dalakidis said Golden Fleece was a brand to look out for, particularly if in good condition. A single oil bottle and top sold for more than $3,000 at auction this month, while American brands such as Esso and Texaco, Britain's Shell and BP, and Australia's Ampol were also highly collectible.