Rare sale of 200 WWII-era military vehicles offers tanks for the memories

Rare sale of 200 WWII-era military vehicles offers tanks for the memories

Jacques Mequet Littlefied did not live an exceptionally long life, dying of cancer in 2009 at age 59. But the independently wealthy San Francisco Bay Area collector did live a wonderfully eclectic life, amassing over some four decades one of the world’s biggest collections of rolling armor. Yup, tanks. And a few other related things, including SCUD missiles, amphibious personnel carriers and anti-tank guns.

It is safe to say that not outside of an actual war is one likely to find anything quite like The Littlefield Collection, 280 largely restored relics from a range of armed conflicts. While 80 of Littlefield’s prized items are destined for The Collings Foundation in Stow, Mass., a museum dedicated to the preservation of such fare, 200 lots go under Auctions America’s hammer July 11-12 at Littlefield’s former home-cum-museum in Portola Valley, Calif., just south of San Francisco.

After all, moving an M1 tank anywhere was out of the question.

“I specialize in cars and have seen my share of amazing collections, but when I saw what Mr. Littlefield had amassed at his home I was blown away,” says Ian Kelleher, whose specialist role sees him toggling between Auctions America and its renowned collector-car sister company RM Auctions. “The sheer size alone of these things is just amazing, really humbling. You just can’t ignore the presence of a SCUD or Russian ICBM missile. They’re intimidating weapons of mass destruction, but they’re also a piece of history.”

Kelleher says the auction will unfold on Littlefield’s sprawling hilltop estate, where nearly a dozen purpose-built buildings house 114 vehicles — tanks and anything else that moves — and dozens of super-sized weapons. He says the only reason the entire collection didn’t go to The Collings Foundation was that the sale was necessary for the museum to pay the transfer costs associated with the massive gift.

One lot in particular stopped Kelleher in his tracks: a 1942 Sherman M4 tank, much like the one his tank commander father drove in World War II. “It gave me chills,” he says. The tank was built by Ford, and features a 450-hp V8, not to mention a 76mm main gun and smaller machine guns. It is expected to sell for between $275,00 and $325,000.

Also up for sale is a so-called Jumbo Sherman, thought to be only one of seven or eight in existence, and is expected to fetch between $1.4 million and $1.6 million. The Jumbo appellation comes from the oversized protective plates welded onto the tank, allowing these armed vehicles to take the lead in assaults whose barrages would have knocked out standard M4s.

That unique Sherman is, however, matched by an equally rare Littlefield bird, a German Panzerkampfwagen tank that would have been a target for its American counterpart. A combination of sheer scarcity and its history — after duty in the Second World War, it made its way to Syria and was then captured by the Israelis during the famous Six Day War in 1967 — have set the Panzer’s estimated price at between $2.4 million and $2.6 million.

“Think about it, when it comes to World War II (the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion is this June) all we increasingly have left are soldiers’ letters and physical artifacts like this,” says Kelleher, noting that the Panzer is one of five select Littlefield lots being sold with a reserve. “It’s important that this survives for history’s sake.”

Among other highlights are a Soviet-made Surface to Surface Missile (SCUD-A), which came to represent that tense Cold War era ($300,000 to $350,000); a DUKW Amphibious Truck also synonymous with European and Pacific battles ($50,000 to $75,000); and a massive Combat Engineer Tractor ($20,000 to $30,000), perhaps for when your John Deere won’t cut it.

Although the Littlefield Collection will clearly generate deep fascination among historians, those usually aren’t folks rolling in cash. So who might step up to the plate come auction time? One guess would be the likes of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, whose similar historical passion led to the creation of the Flying Heritage Collection in Everett, Wash.

Kelleher confirms that interested parties include “existing collectors of military pieces from the United States Australia, Germany, France and the United Kingdom.” While Kelleher says at first he thought generating interest in the auction would be a challenge, he’s been surprised at the number of inquiries from his connections in the collector car world.

“Many of the top (car) collectors have big estates, and it’s clear there’s a novelty in having a tank on their property,” he says. “Since most of these machines run, they could even drive around in them.”

Even if you had pockets deep enough to spring for a tank, there’s the small matter of getting a multi-ton machine from Jacques Littlefield’s California house to yours.