[Prosper Keating was expelled from the Vincent-HRD Owners Club for exposing their connection to a missing £1 million-plus motorcycle collection. Here, he graciously offers his advice to motorcycle collectors on how your family can avoid such a disaster in your estate. This text has been approved by the industry professionals quoted.]
To paraphrase William Defoe and Benjamin Franklin, the only certainties life offers are death and taxes. One is absolute, but you can minimize the other by fair means or foul. However, like Death, the Tax Man wants his due and will have it one way or the other. Even if tax avoidance is your motive, it is a fool’s enterprise not to keep records of your assets (in this case, a vintage motorcycle collection) because your heirs or beneficiaries could end up losing these assets before the final reckoning, as our cases histories here show. It’s surely better to pay some tax on all of your Estate than no tax on a missing Estate.Then again, if you hate your family, leaving an administrative tangle behind is the perfect revenge from beyond the grave. My grandfather ensured years of familial warfare by putting his largest property in his mistress’s name and then losing the title deeds, which are nearly impossible to reconstitute in Ireland. Nevertheless, the authorities had a record of ownership and Grandfather was later obliged to live in his own home as a squatter after his childless mistress’ death. Her two brothers, both confirmed bachelors, had no children either. Result? Years of conflict between his children. Our other grandfather had the decency to run away to England with his mistress, a high class Madame who had her own means. He left a few debts.
Hopefully you hold your relatives in higher esteem, so taking inventory of your possessions – including any Vincents or Brough Superiors parked in the guest bedroom – as part of your Last Will and Testament will spare them all kinds of hassle. You should also ensure that several reputable parties have copies of your Will (and any Letters of Intent) for reasons that will become clear as you read on. These are worst-case scenarios, but sadly, are all too common.
In the world of vintage motorcycles, the ‘Broughs of Bodmin Moor’ was a story worthy of its own book, like ‘The Vincent in the Barn’. The tale as told was: A nonagenarian recluse dies, leaving a treasure trove of unrestored Brough Superior motorcycles (and one of the firm’s extremely rare motorcars) on his tumble-down farm in the wilds of Cornwall, haunted by smugglers, pirates and highwaymen of old. Bonhams intervenes, saving the collection from being stolen by the graverobbers who always materialize at such times. One of the machines even sets a new price record of £330,000 when auctioned in April 2016, on behalf of the old gentleman’s beneficiaries. And Frank Vague’s Brough Superiors end up with new owners with the sufficient skills and enthusiasm to restore them. It is a story to warm the cockles of the heart, a story with a happy ending.However, the true story of the late Frank Vague’s motorcycle collection, and his final years, is not quite so simple. While it had a happier ending than other affairs involving deceased estates and high-end motorcycles, there tale had dark shadings. As Frank Vague’s nephew and co-Executor Alan Vague explained: “Uncle Frank lived alone and although paid to look after him, a certain person abused the trust. We were excluded for a long time until we found him in a hospital and brought him to live with my sister until he passed away at 94. Before his passing, we helped Uncle Frank to deal with Bonhams, who were brilliant in dealing with the transportation, valuation and later the auctioning. We were not aware of what of any parts of motorcycles were stolen from our late uncle. We were made aware later that there had been a police file. Uncle Frank had mentioned about people ‘looking around’.”
The Devon and Cornwall Police neither confirmed nor denied the existence of this file; they made no comment at all. Nor did Frank Vague’s solicitors, Merrick’s of Wadebridge, who published the death- and probate-related notices. However, it is unlikely that Merrick’s ever held a list of Frank Vague’s Brough Superior motorbikes and any related spare parts. As former Sotheby’s US and UK motorcycle consultant and valuer Mike Jackson remarks, people rarely catalogue their collections for eventual probate, or even security and insurance purposes. “I’ve been in this game for over twenty years – since I went to Sotheby’s in 1995 – and it’s a rare occasion that people do,” said Jackson. “Folk are busy. There are various reasons: sloth, nervousness about being too official. Some people don’t want to let the wife know how much they’re worth. They also think ‘Oh, if I do that and the accountant finds out, I might have to pay tax on it’. Or they think ‘Oh Christ! It’ll cost hundreds to get it done. I’ve got to buy a new lawnmower’. You know how people are.”
H and H Classics’ Mark Bryan commented: “In an ideal world, it would be great, but people don’t expect to die. Dealing with deceased estates can be a traumatic event for widows and families. Others handle it fairly well, joking about the mess their husbands have left them to clear up. It’s not unknown for ‘friends’ of the deceased to knock on doors claiming that they were promised a bike. We recently handled a collection of Hondas. The widow had been offered £35,000 for a pre-production CB750 by one of her late husband’s so-called friends. £35,000 is a lot of money but happily for the widow, she refused and we sold it for £140,000.”
Mike Jackson agrees: “When I go to see widows – it’s usually the wives of deceased parties – they are sometimes quite agitated as they tell me how ‘his friend says he was promised the bike’. Or the bikes. That is one of the most common things I hear. All these neighbors and friends behaving rather like those Vincent people, you know? People can be so ruthlessly acquisitive. And it always involves modest prices. Never market prices.”
By ‘those Vincent people’, Mike Jackson is referring to the case of the John Lumley Collection, an affair that rocked the vintage motorcycle world a few years ago. Jackson was called in as a consultant for Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC), after the management of the Vincent-HRD Owners Cub attempted to convince them (and John Lumley’s Executors) that Lumley’s motorcycles, worth an estimated £1 million, were only worth £75,000.
In the weeks following John Lumley’s funeral (April 21st 2009), HMRC received at least two tip-offs from concerned VOC members. They knew John Lumley and were amongst the few people admitted to Mr Lumley’s home in his lifetime. John Lumley was an intensely private man who lived alone; he was also a noted scientist in his field and a highly respected amateur astronomer. The few of us privileged to be invited through his front door can never forget the abundance of exotic motorcycles lined up in the rooms; the rare spare parts arranged on shelves with the care of an army quartermaster, the early scientific instruments everywhere, his watch collection, his telescopes and his library of scientific books dating back to the 16th century.
And then there was the garage with the rare car that was sold to an enthusiast who turned up during the clearance. Joe and Joanna Tupperware might have found the Lumley house a weird place but for educated petrolheads like us––John Lumley was a bit of an intellectual snob––it was Nirvana. Broughs, almost every imaginable kind of prewar and postwar Vincent HRD and all sorts of other mythical machines, including a Coventry Eagle Flying 8, collected over the decades because they had something special about them, such as a race history.John Lumley was certainly eccentric in his way. To make life harder for thieves, he had carefully broken down his rarer machines into large lumps: frames and engines in one room, front ends in another, tinware elsewhere. I asked him why he did not simply install alarms. “Do you really believe the police would bother to turn out?”, he replied. With hindsight, there was a grim prescience to his words: the local police would take no action over the disappearance of his motorcycles––and pretty much everything else––from his home between his death in a local hospice on April 7th 2009 and his funeral a couple of weeks later.The Revenue took the unusual step of ordering the legal firm acting as John Lumley’s Executors to reopen their late client’s Estate, and the search began for the forty or more missing motorcycles. Some suggested that as many as sixty motorcycles were involved although that is probably an exaggeration. “That was the first time, the only time, that I have seen this happen.”, said Mike Jackson, who was engaged by John Lumley’s solicitors and Executors Thackray Williams to assess and value any motorcycles that could be traced. “I probably do twenty valuations in a year, certainly more than one a month. Over twenty years, that’s a lot of valuations but this is the first one in which HMRC were involved.”By March 2010, over twenty ex-John Lumley motorcycles had been found in the possession of senior VOC officers and prominent members, including a leading marque dealer. The identities of these individuals and others involved in the clearance were confirmed by John Lumley’s heir and brother Tom and his wife Betty before they were told to say no more about the case. The traced machines included two Brough Superior SS100s, three Vincent HRD Series A Rapides and other prewar and postwar Vincents, including a Rudge Ulster-engined Model PS. More ex-Lumley machines would surface in the coming years, including a Series C Black Shadow with a Manx TT race history and a Scott found in Australia with one of John Lumley’s laundry bills in the toolbox.The new owners claimed variously that the dying John Lumley had gifted them his motorcycles on his deathbed – a claim that infuriated the hospice management and staff – or gifted them to the Vincent HRD Owners Club for posterity. The beneficiaries of John Lumley’s alleged deathbed largesse also claimed that these motorcycles were all dilapidated, incomplete basket cases. One individual claimed to have no more than 20% of a Series A Vincent HRD Rapide, but has recently been touting this machine as one of the most complete and original examples of the model. However, Driver & Vehicle Licencing Agency records confirmed that several of these machines were taxed and insured for road use at this time, indicating that it had taken just a few weeks to make them roadworthy and that the individuals in possession of them were being economical with the truth.Meanwhile, the Executive Committee members of the VOC were trying to convince the Revenue that the traced motorcycles were worth just £75,000. The John Lumley affair dragged on through 2010 and into 2011. Writing to VOC member – and John Lumley whistleblower – Charlie Cannon on August 30th 2011, VOC Honorary Secretary Andrew Everett stated: “as I published in MPH, the investigating Revenue officer […] has concluded that all the machines were indeed gifted to the recipients in John Lumley’s lifetime.”Mr Everett – running interference for the VOC executives – seems to have chosen his words carefully. The day after John Lumley’s death, his sister-in-law had given the keys of Lumley’s Sevenoaks home to the organizers of the grand clearance that would take place before the funeral – and before John Lumley’s lawyers and future Executors could visit and assess the property and its contents. Keep this fact in mind as you read on. Mr Everett’s next words to Charlie Cannon were not as careful as he wrote that: “the Revenue have found no improper actions were carried out in the dispersal of the estate.” The minutes of the VOC General Committee Meeting (GCM) held a week later on September 5th 2011 state: “…it was clear from documentation copied to [Andrew Everett] that HMRC had decided that the disposal of the assets was irregular and they were therefore investigating if it was a deliberate evasion of tax.”Some VOC members attending the GCM questioned the absurdly low-ball valuation of £75,000 proposed by the VOC management. The GCM minutes state: “The Hon. Chairman replied that it was irrelevant and the meeting agreed with this. In order to move on, the Hon. Secretary stated that HMRC had taken £75,000 as an interim valuation figure on which to issue pro rata tax bills to each recipient of motorcycle-related items.” Meanwhile, Mike Jackson had come up with a more realistic figure based on the photographs of incomplete, dilapidated basketcase bikes supplied by the individuals found in possession of more than twenty of John Lumley’s motorcycles: £430,000. This figure would later be modified, but on September 13th 2011, the Revenue Inspector in charge of the case, Ray K––––––, stated: “We place more weight on the independent valuation although the recipients are free to challenge this figure.”When it became clear that the true value of what had been traced was at least £1 million and that the entire collection was probably worth more than £2 million (including the missing motorcycles and the numerous rare spare parts), some observers felt that Mike Jackson’s valuation was on the low side. Jackson explained: “It was a controversial situation. I didn’t want to plunge myself or the Revenue into any long-drawn-out litigation. In any case, I was doing the valuations in absentia and, as you know, the bikes had been altered by the time I was able to value them. It was the most difficult job I’ve ever undertaken, I must say, and I could but value them on the conservative side. I’m sure I’m a bête noire as far as those Vincent HRD Owners Club members are concerned.”
John Lumley’s Executors – who had engaged Mike Jackson – made no attempt to recover any of the motorcycles that had been traced. Nor did the Executors respond to alerts regarding unexplained motorcycles and rare spare parts sold through eBay, and at autojumbles in south-eastern England, by individuals involved in the clearance of their late client’s home in April 2009. The police said they were powerless to act unless “the primary victim” made a formal complaint. Unfortunately, Tom Lumley was very ill and housebound. In any case, as Tom Lumley would later say, he and his wife Betty had been warned by the solicitors – acting as the Executors – and by “John’s friends in the Vincent club” that Betty Lumley might end up in trouble, as it was she who had given access to the property, and approval for the clearance in preparation for its sale. Betty Lumley seemed very shocked to learn of the true value of her late brother-in-law’s old motorcycles.
In the end, the Executors and the Revenue concluded that the John Lumley Collection had indeed been gifted to the individuals who cleared the place out “in John Lumley’s lifetime”, as VOC Honorary Secretary Andrew Everett had written to Charlie Cannon. That John Lumley (heavily sedated on morphine) had not in fact given away his collection (but his sister-in-law did), was treated as an irrelevance under the Law. Justice of a kind was served, however, when Revenue man Ray K–––––– made sure that the beneficiaries of John Lumley’s alleged deathbed philanthropy were penalized to the fullest extent possible, for failing to declare their ‘gifts’ in line with tax laws. The Revenue got its due and the miscreants got hit in their pocketbooks.
In the end, though, the rightful heir lost half or more of the value of his inheritance. Mr K––––––– would later remark that the Driver & Vehicle Licencing Agency was not obliged to assist him and his team with their enquiries by making vehicle records relating to John Lumley available, which is quite a revelation to anyone who believes the Revenue to be the most powerful force in England.
Those of us who knew John Lumley (as well as anyone could know such a private, reclusive man) have wondered if he left files documenting his collection of motorcycles and the other collections. If so, neither those who emptied John Lumley’s home nor his lawyers and executors – who failed to recover any of the motorcycles ‘irregularly’ removed from the Estate – have ever referred to such documentation. However, several of the ex-Lumley motorcycles touted for sale in the intervening years have been offered with abundant documentation, including original registration papers from the 1930s to the 1980s.
Ex-John Lumley motorcycles emerge from time to time; sometimes it’s hard to prove they were his, but other times the provenance is flagrant. One individual, who ended up with a Series A Rapide, bragged about his good fortune on television and in the national press. A VOC officer who swore on record that he had not received anything has a Vincent HRD Model P whose provenance remains unexplained, and was observed selling all sort of rare Vincent-HRD spares. Another VOC executive posted John Lumley’s ex-Peter Peters Manx TT Black Shadow on the club forum, but deleted the posts when asked how he had acquired the machine.
The smart ones have kept lower profiles. As for Charlie Cannon, he was expelled from the Vincent-HRD Owners Club for bringing the venerable institution into disrepute, by blowing the whistle on the disreputable behavior of the majority of its Executive Committee, most of whom are still in place. I was expelled too; it saved Charlie and myself the bother of resigning in disgust. The VOC was once a great motorcycle club and it’s a shame to see it fallen so low.
Old Frank Vague, after being rescued from the hospital where his nurse had placed him, warned of “people looking around” his property to his nephews and nieces. There were stories of notes left on Mr Vague’s door, some of which reportedly upbraided the old gent for not doing more to preserve his Brough Superiors from the elements, and suggesting they should be taken away from him. Frank Vague is said to have carefully kept these notes in a cardboard box; they were probably distressing, although we shall never know now. One individual who reportedly ‘befriended’ the elderly Frank Vague is believed to have substituted a replica frame for a genuine item in Vague’s collection.
Ben Walker of Bonhams explained: “That predated our involvement. There was a replica frame on the premises as well as an original frame. The original frame had been returned to the property, and was sold as part of the collection. But what it didn’t have was its engine or cycle parts. This is a matter of public record. You can see the frame – it’s in the online catalogue.” Like other fields, the vintage motorcycle world has its peanut gallery where opinions are long and facts are short. Mindful perhaps of the John Lumley scandal, some suggested that Brough Superior Club members might be involved in the harassment of Frank Vague and perhaps even the theft of motorcycles or parts from Frank Vague’s farm during his final years. Club Chairman Terry Hobden was open and clear on this subject, responding that “if any individual approached Mr Frank Vague in an intimidating manner it would certainly not have been under the auspices of this Club. “To […] the Committee’s knowledge, only three of the current Officers of the Club ever visited Mr Vague. One was in 1969 and the two others several years ago when Mr Vague welcomed their visit and offered to keep the two Broughs they had ridden there! That meeting was cordial but the machines he kept in “store” were not shown to them.”
Did Bonhams’ intervention save the ‘Broughs of Bodmin Moor’ from a fate similar to that of the John Lumley Collection? Ben Walker replies: “It wasn’t so much of an intervention. We had been advised that there was this collection of motorcycles, a mythical collection of Brough Superiors. No-one had seen them for years and years and years. It was like an urban myth which turned out to be true. They were exceptional machines and they were probably the last hoard of their kind in existence. So that’s what prompted us to take the initiative. It was extraordinary, it isn’t something we would normally do but we just felt there was no option. We’d had a tip-off that Mr Vague had left the property to live with his relatives and that the property had been effectively abandoned. But we didn’t have an address. We knew the village where it was located. We don’t ordinarily cold-call. I find it very distasteful. In this case, there was no option but to go and find the location, put something through the door and try and make contact that way. We did so by looking at Google Streetview. We went up and down the roads of this little village and found the most likely-looking property. You could see bits of car and motorcycle in the driveway.”
“My colleague in the West Country went the next day to see if there was anybody there. The neighbour was looking after the property and asked him if they could help. He gave her his card, said who he was, what we do and asked if his details could be passed on to the family. She did and [the Vague family] contacted us a few days later and invited us to see the collection.”
Would Bonhams agree that enthusiasts and collectors should catalogue their collections, big or small, to avoid confusion in the eventuality of death and the disposal of their estates? “It should be standard practice”, replies Walker. “I do not understand why more people don’t do it. Having said that [laughs], I should do it myself. My wife would probably know what my bikes are but even so, I need to write a Letter of Wishes as to what I would like to happen with my own collection of motorcycles. It’s something I encourage all of my clients and friends to do. We should all do it because, on too many occasions, you go into a collection after somebody has passed away and there is no information. The owner may still be alive; I had a situation recently where a chap had lost his memory and couldn’t tell us anything about the bikes. There would have been great stories behind them but he couldn’t tell us anything. Even in his moments of lucidity, his memory was much-reduced.”
Ben Walker is keen to pay tribute to the clubs and individuals who do go to great efforts and lengths to document historic motorcycles: “The Vintage Motor Cycle Club have an awful lot of information. Likewise with the Brough Superior Club – coming back to the Frank Vague motorcycles – who are extremely helpful and generous with their time. The Vincent HRD Owners Club have an excellent archivist although not all records are complete. The Matchless and AJS Owners Club, the Velocette club and so many others. It’s in their interest to make sure that machines are described correctly and that they are not sold purporting to be anything else.”
In the wake of rising values for certain vintage motorcycles (between 5% and 20% per year over the past decade), there’s a temptation to con bereaved families out of an old motorcycle or collection. The family might find the true values surprising, especially when dealing with machines worth six-figure sums like Frank Vague’s Broughs, John Lumley’s Series A Vincents and even pre-production Honda CB750s. Any lessons to be learned from these tales underline our duty to maintain records of the old machines in our keeping – along with anything else valuable and collectible we own – and to ensure that reliable people have copies of our records. Your lawyers and accountants should have up-to-date lists as appendices to your Last Will and Testament. They might not be as reliable as you presume so make copies and give them to people you can trust.
Above all, write it down for the sake of your passion for these machines, and the importance of recording their histories, whether they were gunned around Brooklands in 1938 or around London’s North Circular Road in 1958; or along Daytona Beach; or parked for an hour in Big Sur on the way to someplace else; or outran an angry buffalo in Kenya or some far-flung corner of an old empire; or took your parents on their honeymoon. It is all important. And if you can’t write it down for any reason, dictate it to someone.